FeaturesSeptember 16, 2021
Step Behind the Lens with Emily Ceja
The Long Beach-based photographer is inspired by the vibrant Mexican culture in her hometown of Watsonville, California.
You may have stumbled upon her work on Tik Tok, but Emily Ceja isn’t your average Gen Z content creator. The photographer, writer, and student picked up a 35 mm camera a few years ago and fell in love with the unpredictable but rewarding process of shooting film. Inspired by the Mexican culture in her hometown of Watsonville, California, Ceja has built a portfolio that shows the unexpected beauty of the community which she grew up in. Here’s some insight into her process and influences.
Do you only shoot film?
No, but I do prefer film. I think it's super raw and it's kind of a test of talent, because you can't preview the photo.
You have to really be confident in your vision. It takes a little more thought process behind it, because you really have to envision each shot before you take it whereas with digital you can just take it so many times and pick the best one. You just have to be really confident in yourself and know that you're talented enough to capture your vision. Sometimes it doesn't play out that way and you fail yourself, but other times, like, I surprised myself and I think it's really a test to your vision, and to your talent, and it's also like it kind of tests your patience also because it takes a while for it to develop.
How did you get into film photography?
I think it was in 2016 when I first picked up a camera, and I was just gifted one from one of my friends that he had gotten at a thrift store for like $1.
That's when I got interested in it. He gifted it to me, and then I just started taking pictures of my sisters and my best friends, and it was just something I did for fun. In 2018 or 2019 I started taking it a little more seriously. I have a friend who I took photos of for her pregnancy, and I took photos of weddings, just for immediate family and friends. I started taking it a little more seriously. As of recently, because of the growth of my Tik Tok, I've had a lot of brands reach out to me and ask me to take photos for them.
What inspires your work?
After updating my creative portfolio, I could see a big repetition of photos of people who are from Watsonville. I think that’s where my biggest inspiration comes from, just because Watsonville is so full of culture. It's 80 percent Hispanic, so I grew up very deep in my Mexican culture. I try to capture that as much as I can. I think going back to Mexico and taking pictures there also helped me realize that I gravitate towards very colorful shots. Right now, it's kind of a trend and a style to take photos of neutrals and things that are kind of flat and beige, but I gravitate more towards colorful things.
How has that culture shaped the way you approach photography?
I'm first gen, and the majority of the people that I grew up with are all first gen, or they're migrants themselves. So, in school we always spoke Spanglish, and people would take snacks that were from Mexico. It's just a lot of culture, like farmers markets, and swap meets, and all of that. I just grew up around that–people call it mini Mexico, because it’s kind of the same. Even though I saw all that beauty in my home, because we're in the middle of two predominantly white, richer areas, Watsonville was kind of seen as quote-unquote the ghetto. It was always looked down upon, and no one really saw it the way I did.
The news would put us in a negative light, but what I saw was so many creative and talented people in Watsonville. People and stories that were worth capturing. I think the way that my photography ties into that is I try to capture the cultural beauty embedded in special places like Watsonville. I think the way that my photography ties into that is I try to capture the unconventional beauty, because Watson wasn’t seen as a beautiful place with really talented and professional people or whatever.
We just weren't given many resources, so in doing my magazine and taking photos there, including them in the photo shoots and writing about them, that gives them exposure and paints them in the light that I see them in.
Can you tell us more about your magazine, Poderosx?
I was really into writing and I wrote for this nonprofit I would get, like, millions of reads and I learned a lot from it, but as the time went by, that magazine didn't really want to publish anything other than mainstream things. I remember pitching to them an article on this artist from Watsonville, and they denied it because they said that it wasn't worthy of being published on there, because they didn't think it was gonna get enough reads because he wasn't like a mainstream artist. I thought that his story was really inspiring, which was what I wanted to write, not that he was some super popular guy.
Once they denied me, I really wanted to publish it because I knew I would get a lot of reads. Watsonville has a lot more power than people give it credit for. That's when I decided that I wanted to do my own thing and kind of post whatever I wanted and have it open for any creatives from Watsonville, because we don't really have as many resources as the town next door. That was why I made Poderosx. And I actually ended up publishing the article about the original person and I got thousands of reads. I guess that proved my original idea that it doesn't really matter whether you're mainstream, it's that people want to feel represented and feel included in the stories out there.
What are your next big goals?
I think the biggest thing for me is that I want to be able to delve into all multiple things. I don't want to close myself off to only being a photographer, or a writer. For example, I'm an English major, but I don't want to be boxed into just writing, and I am also a journalism minor, but I don't only want to do journalism.
I think my end goal is to be able to work in various fields, and one big inspiration behind that is Selena. She was into fashion, and she was into music, and she was also into film, and she was also into like design, and movies, so it's an inspiration to me to not just limit myself to one area.