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Only RX0: Rebirth Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. In the months since the storm the small island has struggled to rebuild, but the determination and resolve of the people endures. When filmmaker Andy To saw what was happening in the aftermath of Maria, he didn’t just see an opportunity to make a film, he felt a responsibility to show the resilience of the people.

Andy To wasn't raised in a fairy-tale environment. He grew up in a rough part of Oakland, California where robberies and violence were common occurrences. That experience created the foundation for everything he does and it was particularly important when he went to Puerto Rico. “For me to be able to experience and witness the power of resiliency, the power of the unwillingness to give up, especially under these really harsh circumstances, it really opened my eyes to hope,” he explains. “On a personal level, I was able to connect with that, because as a kid growing up in Oakland, I had gone through times when I lost everything. So there was a personal connection for me to just want to document that struggle. To want to document the rebuilding process, because I personally had to go through that, myself.”

He continues, “What I learned about myself through filmmaking is that, I want to be able to use my skills and the things that I've learned in these past few years in the film and photo industries, to be able to help people. If I'm able to utilize my skills to help a family, or to be able to help people who have been affected by a country-wide crisis, then at the end of the day, that's what helps me go to sleep at night; knowing that the things that I've learned from the mentors that I've had, and the hours I've put into my craft have been toward a meaningful cause.”

For the film itself, To used the Sony RX0. It’s an unconventional choice for this kind of documentary. Characterized primarily as an action camera with its robust body, To saw the RX0 as a tool that wouldn’t create a barrier between himself and the people in the film. “Having the RX0 gave me an incognito way of documenting the people and the rebuilding during a time when it's pretty sensitive,” he says. “After a tragedy like this, the last thing people need is someone from the media coming in and filming with a big camera in front of their face and asking 'how you actually feel.' A big camera being shoved in your face makes anyone feel nervous and suspicious. I wanted to break through that kind of barrier and enable people to feel comfortable with me. If they don’t notice me, it allows me to document in a more authentic way. The RX0 gave me a unique approach because it’s so small. I could discreetly go about filming without being a distraction.”

The form factor was certainly an advantage for To as he approached people in Puerto Rico, but it wasn’t the only advantage the camera gave him. “It's a tiny camera, but it’s also incredibly powerful. You wouldn't expect a camera that size to be able to perform the way it did. I had a couple low light situations where it did exceptionally well. And then there were a few times when we were driving and along the side of the road a couple construction workers were working on something. I’d have maybe 20 or 30 seconds to pull out a camera and shoot. I’d never get that with a big camera, but I was able to quickly pull the RX0 out of a pocket and get the shot. The camera also allowed me to shoot in S-log which gave me the ability to color grade in post production. I was really impressed by the color profiles that the RX0 offers because it matches pretty much everything I shoot with an α7R III or α7S II color-wise. That's a huge technical thing for me when choosing a camera. The more control I have over the camera, the more comfortable I feel, and I definitely felt comfortable using the RX0 knowing that if I had to mix it with footage from my α7S II, that footage would match.”

Ultimately, this project was about much more than just showing imagery of a storm-ravaged island. Working with fellow Alpha Collective member Paola Franqui (@monaris_) Andy To is drawing attention to a problem that still persists on the island. He explains, “Something that I learned in Puerto Rico was that all the outside resources that people thought were getting to the people, weren't actually getting to them. All the work that was getting done, was getting done by the community on the inside. I wanted to document what was really happening behind the scenes and what mainstream media usually doesn't catch. I wanted to cast light on that. Over the months since Hurricane Maria hit the island, the news coverage has faded away. There hasn’t been coverage about what the people are doing to rebuild. I had all these questions about what was happening, and the reason why I wanted to go out there was to answer them. To really, truly find out and to step into that world and live it.”

When speaking with Andy To, you really get the sense that making the Puerto Rico film was intensely personal for him. “When it came to the Puerto Rico project, I have three content pillars that I try to stick to. The first one is definitely 'giving back,' the second one is 'community,' and the third pillar is 'destination.' So when Hurricane Maria hit, I saw a way to create content that gives back and has a meaningful purpose.”

Those three pillars are at the core of everything Andy To does. “I developed the three content pillars because I've come to a place in my career where I don't have to worry about just being able to put food on the table and put a roof over my head. Once those monetary problems started to go away, I wanted to figure out what I could do to give back to the world through the content that I create.”

“Originally, it’s all rooted in my upbringing,” To explains. “The community means a whole lot to me because it helped me get out of a lot of ruts. I had a very small community growing up in Oakland where there was pretty much me and my neighbors. And together we would create content with a small camera. They were the ones who helped me during rough times. Having that community, even though it wasn’t big, it made me feel like I belonged to something. The community enabled me to feel comfortable in my own skin. And then once I had that, I started feeling more comfortable in myself, which eventually led to me speaking out more and being less introverted and being more involved and trying to help people who were going through the same challenges I had gone through. The destination pillar comes from wanting to see the world outside of Oakland.”

“When I was developing these three pillars, I found myself creating one more than the other. I found myself creating the really cool, flashy edits that were beautiful landscapes and location, but didn't really have an impactful meaning or a message. I think once I started to narrow down what exactly I wanted to shoot, developing the 'community' and 'giving back' pillars definitely allowed me to have a much clearer vision as to the content that I wanted to create. That carries over to the Puerto Rico project, which hit on all three pillars.”

Andy To is a member of the Alpha Imaging Collective. Follow him on Instagram @andyto and subscribe to his YouTube channel here


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