Photographer, videographer and graphic designer, Monica Rubalcava said her journey to find herself and her style of shooting took her from Hawaii to New York City and then back to Laie to finish her degree. Now a senior majoring in graphic design, Rubalcava said she has learned who she is, how to better treat people, and is committed to her goals.
“In January 2015, I decided it was gonna be my last Winter Semester, and after that I kind of left and was like, ‘Okay I’m never coming back. I don’t care about school. I don’t care about Hawaii anymore. It’s not my scene,’” said Rubalcava, who is from California.
Rubalcava shared her journey of leaving BYU-Hawaii to discover herself, be comfortable, and develop her style of film photography.
She explained, “I was here for two years and I felt like I didn’t really know who I was. Here wasn’t the place for me to find out, because I didn’t feel like I could be myself. The school is so small. I had the feeling I didn’t have room to grow.”
Leaving BYUH for New York
Wanting to move to New York from California but without a solid plan, Rubalcava said she knew she needed to start working so she could leave home. She said she worked as a photographer with Soulection. “I ended up shooting for them every single month, and I got to meet a lot of cool people in a concert setting. It was mostly deejays, and they would also have people come in and sing like Jaden Smith, The Internet, SUR, and GoldLink.”
After saving, Rubalcava said she moved to New York and told herself she would figure it out. She started in New York at a photo job but knew it wouldn’t last.
“Then I was babysitting for almost a year until I found my job at this production company called Mass Appeal. Through Mass Appeal is where I felt like I grew,” Rubalcava said. She said she was able to work in the video and photo industry, to shoot interviews and special series. Rubalcava explained that at Mass Appeal, she was working with artists, talking to them, shooting them in a studio, and documenting how they make their music.
With Mass Appeal she said she got to work with DJ Jazzy Jeff, a producer known for working with Will Smith. “We drove to Delaware from New York to his house, and he has this huge home studio in his garage. I got to work with him and his small group of people that he works with.
“We were doing this series called Rhythm Roulette, which is where we would take a producer to a record shop, they would be blindfolded, and pick three records to make a beat from. It was so crazy to watch him make this beat like it was nothing, because he’s done it for so many years.”
Being in New York was where Rubalcava said she finally felt she belonged. “I just felt like that was my spot. I felt comfortable, and I’d never felt comfortable anywhere before. New York was the one place that I was like, ‘I feel like I can 100 percent be myself.’
“I made friends who were like me, which was really hard to find in other places I’d lived. They shared interests and had the same way of thinking. New York taught me to kind of know who I am, to be myself, know what I like and don’t like. It kind of gave me direction of who I wanna be and where I wanna go.”
Exploring film photography and developing her style
It was also in New York where Rubalcava said she was able to develop her style of photography. “I definitely love shooting street. Street is what got me into photos. I never grew up in the city because I always lived in the suburbs of Orange County.
“Being in the city, finding all these cool things, there’s always something to shoot. I was like, ‘I wanna be doing this more. I wanna be photographing the streets because everyday is a different day.’ I could go to the same exact place and photograph something new, and I really like that.”
Rubalcava described her style as dark, sad, and moody. “Some of my favorite photos are super dark. I have a photo from the Manhattan Bridge, and I kind of had this idea that within the photo there’d be a lot of light dragging. It was so dark and sad and I was like, ‘Yes! This is what I like’.
“I also love neon signs, the look of dark with bright, kind of like Blade Runner. I love cyberpunk movies. I think they’re so cool. Every time I see stuff like that I think how I wanna do that. I’ve shot some stuff where I’m like, ‘This looks like it’s from Blade Runner’ and I’m stoked. I feel like a lot of that I really have to study to make it look just the way I want it to look.”
Rubalcava said she starting to shoot film before she came to BYUH. “I was living in Utah for a couple months going to school at the BYU extension in 2013. I met this girl and she and I got talking one day about photos. She said digital was so much easier and less of a hassle. I loved film because my dad is a photographer and a lot of his work before digital was all on film.
“I was telling her about how I loved film but didn’t have a film camera, and she was like, ‘Well, I have a film camera. I never use it. You can just have it.’ I was kind of like, ‘Are you sure?’ And she was like, ‘It was my grandpa’s. You can have it.’
“I told her she didn’t have to give me a family heirloom, but she was like, ‘No seriously, I’d rather have someone who wants to use it than have it just sit in my house and not be used.’”
Rubalcava said the next day she saw her classmate and she received a Pentax SP1000, “I was so excited. It had her grandpa’s name engraved on the bottom. I had shot a couple rolls of film, but it was on a camera that looks like a digital body and winds automatically.
“I started shooting on the camera she gave me, and there was a girl back home that I kept texting, ‘What am I supposed to do with this? I don’t know if I should be doing this’.”
As Rubalcava learned to shoot photos on film, she said she would go to film stores in Salt Lake and ask what she should shoot. She said they suggested she shoot on classic film such as Ektar, T-MAX, and Portra. “I would just kind of shoot what people suggested. As I got more comfortable, I realized I really liked Ektar, the colors and how it looks.
“Then I really got into black and white, and I feel that’s my thing. I felt a connection with it. This is how I can express myself. I love super harsh blacks and super bright whites, so I found a film I can work with that allows me to do that. It’s called [Ilford] Pan F 50, and the more I shot with that, the more I thought, ‘This is perfect. This is what I like’.”
Pono Cummings, a freshman undeclared major from Hawaii, said he has shot with Rubalcava in the past and liked her simplistic and natural approach to photography. “She doesn’t go out of her way or run at something to get the shot.
“She always just sees what she likes and takes a quick photo. And she has the coolest perspective seeing things I would never think to see at first.”
Cummings explained how despite Rubalcava’s mysteriousness in all black attire, there is a contrast between her as a person and her photographs. “When you get to know her, she’s just the sweetest person and so funny.”
Rubalcava said she has gone on and collected more cameras, shot different subjects, studied different types of film, and learned what she likes. “Without that girl giving me that camera, I probably wouldn’t have cared as much as I do now.”
Moving back to Hawaii
After a while, Rubalcava said she felt she needed to come back to BYUH. However, she said coming back to Hawaii was difficult. “I don’t shoot as much because we’re not surrounded by city. I love Hawaii. It’s beautiful, but I don’t really feel a connection when it comes to photo.”
Rubalcava said her friend, Adam, was able to keep her photos alive. “He and I would shoot together all the time before I left Hawaii the first time. We were both in the stage of learning how to take photos. When I came back two and a half years later, he was still here so we would shoot a lot. It’s fun to have people who have similar interests and want to shoot film too.”
Despite her frustrations, she said taking a break allowed her to come back and appreciate Hawaii the way she felt she should have the first time. “I changed a lot. I matured. So coming back I have a different outlook. I can treat people better. I can stick with what I want to do.”
Mandy Matthews, a senior from Arizona studying graphic design, said Rubalcava is one of the most genuine people she knows. “She’s not doing it to impress anyone. She does it because she feels it, and you can totally see that in her work.”
Matthews explained she gained a lot of respect when she learned Rubalcava returned to BYUH despite the fact that she loved what she was doing in New York. “Everything she does is 100 percent herself. You never feel she’s compensating or trying to outdo anyone, but she’s able to.”
Rubalcava said, “Being in a new area, experiencing new things, figuring out what I want kind of allowed me to come back and be like, ‘I can do this.’”
Inspiration found in Japan
“I went to Japan in April and I shot about nine rolls of film. I had never been so inspired.” Rubalcava recounted the rejuvenating feeling of being back in a place that sparked her passion.
“While I was there, I felt I had to take pictures of everything. It was weird because I was in a city, and the city was very familiar. I felt I had done this before.
“It was maximum inspiration load. I was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.’ Shooting that was a dream come true. Then I got the photos, and I was like, ‘I took these photos. These are my photos.’
“I usually get stoked when I get film back, but this time I couldn’t believe it. Everything I wanted was right there. Being in my comfort zone again, shooting what I wanted to shoot, and being better at it, felt really good because I was so inspired.”
To people who want to try film photography, Rubalcava said to just do it. She clarified on how people can start to learn film by buying an inexpensive camera on a website like eBay.
“But it’s not about the camera. If you can learn how to set something, you can take the photos. Trial and error is a huge part of film photography.
“You’re gonna get a lot of bad photos, but you’re also gonna get a lot of great photos. When it comes to film, you can try so many different things. You can try black and white or different types of colors. They have film that’s purple, so everything that’s green is purple. Just try everything.”
For those who may be on a similar journey as Rubalcava, she advised, “It’s hard because everyone’s different. But it’s kind of like, if you’re unhappy here, you don’t have to be here. If you’re unhappy anywhere else, change your situation.”