Nicole Alexandra Navarro Espina - Photographer
Nicole Espina is a photographer based in New York City. She is a freelancer working primarily in commercial still life and documentary event photography, and currently developing projects around post-colonial narratives and analog psychedelia. A daughter to immigrant parents, Nicole followed a traditional path, then followed her heart to photography. Previous works include Plastic Bags of New York, a satirical look at the environmental hazards of plastic waste, and Mobile Chiaroscuro, a series exploring light and shadow interplay on phone cameras.
How did you create your career path?
After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in Communications, I worked in publishing for a few years before the economy tanked. Unsure about what to do next I began the process of applying for law school. My mother is a litigator in LA and I was drinking the Kool-Aid. As a first generation child of immigrants, traditional career paths were viewed most favorably.
But as the months went on and I got deeper into the process, doubt started to creep in and I began asking myself: Is this something I really want? Is this something that will make me happy when I’m 40, 50, 60 years old? What is my true motivation? It was scary because at this point the whole family knew my plan and I didn’t want to disappoint. My mother and her siblings are high-achieving doctors and lawyers and as the eldest grandchild I felt pressure to set the bar equally high for my generation. But after some serious reflection and soul-searching, I decided to cancel those plans and pursue a career in photography. It felt like the first decision I had truly made for myself.
It wasn’t easy, especially telling my mom, and it’s still something my Lola talks about to this day. She even brought it up in her speech at my wedding! But ultimately I feel like it was the right choice for me at the time and I have no regrets. Even on the tough days I feel lucky to be able to do what I love.
What inspires you?
Light! Specifically the sun and anything shiny/sparkly including water and puddles. The growing movement of Fil-Am visibility and the people who are cultivating it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and similar activists who work to better their communities. Finding new art on Instagram and elsewhere that isn’t tourist neocolonialism, white nonsense, or sponsored content.
How do you convey personal style in your work?
We are saturated with imagery and it’s difficult to stand out but I believe if you create enough work you begin to find your own unique voice. I like to look for hidden dimensions in glass, water, and other reflective or light-scattering surfaces. Recently I have been playing with prism filters to create other distortions in-camera. I learned photography on 35mm cameras and still prefer the feel of film so I shoot analog when I can and create film-like effects in my digital work.
What do you love about the work you do?
I love the ability of photography to make things beautiful; to capture both tenderness and brutality; to change how people see. I pride myself on going above and beyond for my clients because ultimately what I do as a freelancer is a customer service and the greatest compliment from a satisfied client is a referral.
What are you most passionate about?
Human rights, criminal justice reform, decolonizing creative industries, and food.
How do you get into the creative flow?
Before any job I always feel anxious and afraid that I don’t know what I’m doing. Impostor syndrome for me is real, even if intellectually and technically I know what I’m doing. But once I get on set I get into my groove and it flows easily. But more often than not, it’s difficult for me because I’m a chronic over-thinker.
What's on your current playlist?
I’m an old lady and mostly listen to Motown and 90s pop/R&B/hip hop, so those are on constant rotation. I love some new music — Janelle Monae, Courtney Barnett, and Kendrick Lamar come to mind — but looking through my recent Spotify history it’s all older music! I made a playlist called Mellow Cello that keeps me focused and relaxed while reading on the train.
Describe your biggest driving force.
Fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting people down, fear of the worst parts of myself taking over, fear of inaction. On the flip side- fear of success. You know, I’ve never said that out loud and seeing it in black and white makes me uncomfortable but here we are.
How does your community uplift you?
I’m lucky that my friends and family are incredibly supportive of me and the work that I do. I’ve gotten to where I am by the scaffolding of my parents and a giant extended family and I’m cognizant of and grateful for that every day.
In New York I’m sometimes the only woman on set, very often the only woman of color, so I can’t put into words how powerful the impact of increased visibility of Fil-Am creatives is for me. It validates my choices and inspires me —to paraphrase artist and educator Rizzhel Javier— to be the role model I needed growing up.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are excited about?
The one I’m most excited about currently is an instant photography portrait series using an old Polaroid camera and some special filters.
What is your earliest memory of being creative?
Not sure if this is my earliest memory of being creative but it’s certainly my most vivid: In elementary school I remember having a big spiral-bound book about typography and how to draw letters. I don’t think my family had a computer yet at that point, or if we did it was very basic. But I remember being inspired by that to create a line of stationery with holiday-themed borders. I think that book spurred my love of design and paper ephemera. I wish I could remember what it was called.
What has been instrumental in your personal and creative growth? How?
The Photo Department at San Diego City College, where I went after abandoning law, was instrumental for not only honing my technical skills but for providing a supportive community of likeminded artists. I crave a space like that here in New York but SDCC is truly singular.
In terms of personal growth, therapy has been transformative for me. It’s given me tools for managing life as a freelance creative / entrepreneur and being a functioning, communicative human being. I live in my head a lot so it’s been really freeing (and scary) to speak candidly with an objective professional. It’s made me a more vocal proponent for mental health.
What is your dream job?
I would love to incorporate more humanitarian work with photography. Most of the work I currently get hired for exists only to sell something and that’s caused a sort of existential crisis for me- I need to pay bills but I’d also like to do work that is more meaningful. I’ve come to accept that I’ll have to create my dream job because I won’t find it by waiting for it to fall into my lap.
All photos via Nicole Espina