My name is Cami Thomas. I am 26 years old. I am a director and founder of FTC TV.
Let’s take it back to the beginning, as you were born and raised in St. Louis. When did you first start getting into making documentary content?
I didn’t start making documentary content until 2015. I was living in Nicaragua in 2014 but came back to St. Louis in August of 2015, and two days later, a nearby resident Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. I really break up my life creatively and otherwise from that day. Pre-August 9th 2014 and post-August 9th 2014.
A lot of people reacted in a lot of different ways and it was a very intense time for the community and my neighborhood. For me, it was a time where I felt like people from North County had to constantly explain themselves. We had to defend our image to people who didn’t quite understand why things went down the way they did. It felt like I was constantly having conversations with people, trying to explain things from my perspective, but the more and I more I told these stories it felt like I didn’t have a voice anymore. I was traumatized, however, these stories still needed to get told.
Since I couldn’t continue to write or talk about these stories, I wanted to get a camera, interview people, and tell stories that way. I wanted things to be visual. I started taking it really seriously and it was almost out of necessity. I needed a way to speak again and learn how to trust my own voice.
What caused you to make your way to landing in Chicago?
I was working for Red Bull at the time and ended up getting a promotion and moved to Chicago a year ago. I had already planned on making my way to Chicago, as it’s seriously so close to St. Louis. Chicago is such a great city and a city where you can really get connected with people. It was a great place for me to uplevel myself professionally and creatively. Even though I don’t work for the company anymore, I’ve still fallen in love with the creative community here.
For me, whenever I move to a new city, my job, especially as an artist is to listen before I speak. When I first got here, while I wanted to make content and identify myself, I wanted to hold tight for a year and truly just listen. I wanted to listen to people’s conversations, I didn’t want to assume what another person’s story was.
Now being in Chicago for the last 14 months, you were able to create a documentary called, Saint Scrimmage, documenting the underground futbol scene and how the game impacts the Pilsen community. How did you first meet Pilsen FC?
I was driving through Pilsen one day and passed by Harrison Park and saw this soccer field that was made out of concrete. It reminded me of the basketball courts in Queens and Brooklyn. I saw some guys playing Soccer and they really intrigued me. I didn’t want to stop them from what they were doing since they were focused, but I went home and googled ‘Pilsen Soccer teams’. I came across their FB page and messaged them as I wanted to find out more about them. George, who is the captain of the team hopped on the phone with me for hours about soccer, living here, immigration, and more. We then ended up meeting up for Coffee and exchanged life stories.
While our stories cannot be more different on a technical level, the cool thing about the human experience is that once you identify a couple of emotions, both people can name a situation where they felt that and now become connected. George and I got really emotional about where we’re from, our community, defending it, and making sure to constantly put out a good image.
After meeting George, how did this project come about?
After meeting George, he invited me to one of their practices to meet the rest of the team. My previous documentary projects had been video, but this was the first time I was doing just a photo project. The reason why I wanted to do that was because when I drove past them for the first time, I had all of these thoughts about wanting to know more about them. I wanted to capture them in these little moments. We’re not always able to have full-length conversations with people over coffee, sometimes we only get a second to truly interact with them. It was a challenge because it was like how much of their passion and their story can be captured in a frame? Being at their practice, I saw how much love there was amongst them. It was cool to see how much I was able to capture in stills.
Access is such a critical element to documentary work. Do you have any tips for other documentary filmmakers on how exactly to gain the trust of your subjects and get that access you need?
I think you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself what your intentions are and what you’re seeking out to do. Do you already have a story that you want to tell and now you’re trying to make that person fit into your story? Or, are you going to go in with a blank slate and let your subject be the artist and make the project a true collaboration. For example, when you reach out and there isn’t a story there, are you okay with that? Are you okay with walking away, or do you keep pushing it? I think you have to trust yourself and your intentions, to gain trust from other people. If you can confirm that your intentions are good, you’re righteous and you’ll tell their story by any means, from there, the energy will radiate off of you.
JFK once said, ‘We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth’. How important is it for you to reveal the truth while documenting these social issues that many are not even made aware of?
It is the most important thing to me. There are very little things that are more important to me than telling the truth about an injustice that is happening to my people. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood and feel like history is writing itself with the wrong story. It’s hurtful and makes you feel like you don’t matter. If the truth is something that is polarizing, then so be it. I would be doing a disservice if I was softening the blow of the truth, if the truth hurts certain people. The truth doesn’t need anyone’s permission to be the truth, it just is.
What was your favorite thing you learned working on this project?
With this being my first photo project, it taught me that you don’t always have a lot of time to communicate a story. This taught me that there’s beauty in brevity and you can get the entire story told and be efficient still.
After putting out this photo project to the world, what do you want viewers to be able to take away from it?
I want people specifically to take into account more than they are and understand what it means to move into a community that is not there own. I know that’s very delicate. I’m not from Chicago either. I want people to know that you have to be purposeful with your intent. Sometimes, even the word gentrification sounds kind of vague and it comes with progress, but I think I would really urge to have conversations with people that have lived in your community before you.
What was it like being able to create your first documentary project in a brand new city?
It was a little scary. Again, I know what it feels like to belong to a city and feel like people are coming in and telling the story that they want to tell without consulting you and making sure it’s the truth. While it was scary, what made it fine was that everything I did was hand in hand with this team. They were incredibly passionate about telling their story and when the person you’re working with is just as passionate, it becomes a perfect combination. While I’m part of this community now, I wanted to make sure that I’m doing everything purposely and with respect.
Over the years as you’ve grown as a human being and as an artist, what’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned that really helped make this project come together?
Over the years I learned how to step back and listen. Not just listen in a way that I can regurgitate what somebody just told me, but listen well enough that I can translate it into my art form and still have 100% of the truth in it.
Written by: Nico Rud
Photos by: Cami Thomas. Check out the rest of the series here