Badger Herald: What was your come up like as a Mexican immigrant where there are so many institutionalized barriers working against you, and then how did take that struggle and implement it into your success story?
Jorge Peniche: I’m from Mexico City. I came here at a young age. I mean, so if you look at my upbringing, it’s very traditionally Mexican. In other words, I speak fluent Spanish, and a lot of the cultural practices are embedded in my DNA through and through, but I guess I do have certain remnants or certain pieces of American culture apparent in the things that I believe in, you know, philosophically, naturally because I grew up here in the U.S. in LA. Really my formative years and a lot of my entire life have taken place here in LA, but I think my situation is unique. In my situation I came here with my family on a visa for a trip — you know just a travel visa, and we overstayed our visa and just stayed here. That was due to circumstances. You know our country not being very stable — things just weren’t necessarily working out. We had family here, their situation was better, so my parents made the executive decision to move here, which is a drastic decision despite people thinking it’s very easy. Imagine an American deciding to move to China. You know their situation isn’t working out, and they don’t speak the language, and not only moving to China, but moving to China without education and moving to China without proper documentation — good luck with that. It always perplexes me how some people think that it’s like a personal vision or dream of someone from a foreign country to move to the U.S. If your situation wherever you come from isn’t working out, and you want that middle class lifestyle, I think as far as the world is concerned, a majority of the people feel and understand that the U.S. can provide and has those opportunities. That’s why people take those risks. In my case it was a fairly easy move, so it was pretty safe, but a lot of other people take huge risks. Not to get too sidetracked, but I think for me growing up undocumented so to speak, I didn’t really know until I was about 17 or 18 when I tried to get a job. Fortunately for me I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit that allowed me to find loopholes and to make money legally, but I couldn’t get a job, so I started doing e-commerce on eBay. Fortunately for me, it worked out. I believe things happen for a reason, and I think that is one thing that happened for a reason. Another thing is, 10 years prior to me starting college, undocumented students would be treated as out-of-state students — they would have to pay out-of-state tuition. I mean, can you imagine? It’s hard for middle class people to afford, but can you imagine if you can’t get a job, and your parents don’t get paid very well, and you don’t have access to the grants and scholarships that U.S. citizens get? So fortunately for me, I started college when I was able to receive in-state tuition. I got a scholarship my first three years, and after, me and my parents paid it off. So I came out of college with no debt. My experience was very blessed, so I think it helped me develop the type of mentality where I can accomplish anything. The immigrant experience is where I learned how to hustle.
BH: How did you go from e-commerce on eBay, to then working with DJ Skee and Game? What was that transition like and how did it change your life?
Peniche: I dare to say that I am a byproduct of the social media world. A lot of my relationships came from the social media world. That’s why I am such an advocate for things that pertain to it — technology and the co-creativity that comes with it. Anyways I used to frequent this website called NikeTalk.com, because it would keep me hip to all of the new shoe releases that were coming out, and that was my first hustle. I used to sell sneakers on eBay. That led me to another site that would showcase cars, shoes, jewelry, women and pretty much anything that a man age 13-30 would be interested in. One of the people that would post a lot was Ben Baller. He would post pictures of his cars and jewelry, pictures with celebrities, and as a very impressionable 17 or 18 year old, I wanted to know what it was he did. So we got in contact over time — you know he brushed me off initially, but eventually I did some stuff for him on Myspace, we built a relationship, he brought me into this situation where he was working with DJ Skee to produce an event showcasing exotic cars and boats. That’s how I met Skee. At the time Skee had a company called “Hype Public Relations,” and they used to do a bunch of co-branding — for instance, they did the Sidekick with Mr. Cartoon, the Sidekick 2 with Mr. Cartoon and Juicy Couture and they were really influential on the Chrysler 300 project. So I’d always be lurking around at “Hype Public Relations” and Skee noticed that I always had my camera with me. This was the same camera I’d use for my eBay products. It wasn’t anything too crazy — I think it was a Cannon Powershot. So that relationship developed with me taking a couple of publicity photos for Skee. A few weeks later Skee called me up saying that he had Game in the studio working on a project called The Black Wall Street Journal Vol. 1. I showed [Game] some of the photos, he liked them, and he wanted to come through. I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity like that. I shot a few and we built a relationship little by little. I’d just be dropping in on studio sessions he was working on for his sophomore album The Doctor’s Advocate. From there, I started posting a lot of my images online, and as soon as I thought I had a pretty respectable amount of work I created my own website and put stuff on there. Things just kind of snowballed from there. That’s how I got my start. My start in design with album artwork and mixtape artwork came a little bit later on.
BH: How important is it in your line of work to build lasting relationships with the people you shoot? I feel like so much of what you do is capturing the images of a life overtime.
Peniche: I like to consider myself as someone who is sincere and genuine. In my industry everything is so microwavable, especially with the internet. As much as I owe my career to the Internet, it also made everything very disposable. In my industry a lot of the relationships are fabricated, or fake, for lack of a better term. I really don’t hold back too much from people. I’m very amicable as a person. I only like to work with people when I have an interest in what they do, and they have an interest what I do. Fortunately for me, at 26, a lot of the people I work with are about the same age as me, so we speak the same language. I’m really capitalizing on the fact that I am the same age as the people I work with, especially the ones that are relevant, so we are able to have the type of relationships we have. It doesn’t feel like a foreign party is trying to take something on either side. It’s more like documenting a culture where I can say, “This is my homeboy. This is somebody I respect. This is somebody whose work I admire,” and then it’s reciprocal for me. Once you build that type of relationship it’s pretty much an all-access pass into a person’s life. All of the production that comes out of a relationship like that is genuine. Especially in the genre that I work with you can see the authenticity at work.
BH: You’re a big reader, and if I had to guess I’d say that you draw a lot of your inspirations from things you’ve read and things you’ve you seen. Who is George Lois, and why is he important to you?
Peniche: George Lois is the master communicator. He has been super influential in American culture and just in pop culture worldwide. I mean he spearheaded some of the largest campaigns and came up with some of the biggest ideas in branding in like the last century. I can’t remember when I first discovered George Lois, but when I did I went head first. To see what he had done with documentaries and all types of interviews — I mean I’m a really big fan of the Tommy Hilfiger campaign he did, the classic Esquire magazine covers that he did and all of the commercials that he did — they all had a message, which is something that I like to stress in my work. He invented the concept of Lean Cuisine. It was an interesting story. He was working with Stouffer’s at the time. He was never one to bite his tongue on the ideas that he had. It was like the 70s or 80s, and he saw that a lot of women were entering the workforce and he said that a lot of women weren’t able to cook meals for their kids or for themselves. So he asked if they had ever thought about having a healthy choice for frozen food, and they said that they had, but they were not going to pursue it. So he went home to reflect on it with his wife. They started spitting out a couple of different brand names that they could come up with and after a few sessions of reflecting they came up with “Lean Cuisine.” George Lois was like ‘That’s exactly it.” Lois made the logo and mailed it off to Stouffer’s, and he got a call back from one of the executives who told him, “You’re a genius.” Those are the types of things I admire. Yeah, he was hired to do design and branding, but he essentially designed a new product. These are the type of people I like to pattern my own career after and learn from their successes.
BH: Speaking of branding, what was the process like working in coordination with Nipsey Hussle, taking Crenshaw Boulevard, a street in South Central LA, and turning it into a consumable brand that is as recognizable as any other in hip-hop culture?
Peniche: I can’t take full credit. I came into that situation probably three or four years after it had developed. The person you can give a lot of the credit to is Nipsey’s older brother Black Sam. Besides from being a great person he is a very talented business man. As soon as he sees something that’s going to work and that’s going to win, he pours gasoline on it to make sure that it lights on fire. It started off as a t-shirt shop, and it evolved to using the ‘Crenshaw’ logo from Crenshaw High School from the year that Darryl Strawberry’s championship team was playing, then to selling those tees and working up that brand in music videos with product placement. The one thing that our brand has is that we have a representative who is an artist, and is a very influential artist. Individually, I think Nipsey has helped that a lot, but collectively, I think the production of the brand really helped make it a significant symbol in Americana. I think Crenshaw is something that reverberated in people’s minds as something that was already very urban and very ‘LA.’ In the movie Boyz N the Hood they really introduced that name. We bring to it our own style. With Boyz N the Hood it represented like low riders and gangbanging and that kind of stuff. With the stuff we’re doing I think it was more so based on fashion, success and positivity. So I can’t take full credit. As far as taking the brand going full steam ahead, I would say that credit goes to Nipsey’s brother Black Sam.
BH: You and Nipsey’s work alike have been receiving praise from the likes of some of the most influential names in pop culture, for example Jay Z and Diddy. In what ways do you think Nipsey and yourself are revolutionizing music and business as a whole?
Peniche: We started our relationship in 2008. It wasn’t customary — it still isn’t customary for a photographer to work hand-in-hand with an artist, especially in the capacity that we work together. I like to say that I can walk and chew gum at the same time. What I mean by that is that I have multiple talents that I can exercise and I’m not afraid to do that. A lot of people might think it’s pretentious that I’m a photographer, and I’m also a journalist, and you’re also this, and you’re also that — Nipsey is the same way. I think it’s a disservice to not exercise those talents and not to honor those talents. In my case I got an early start in design because my sister who is nine years my elder was a graphic design major in college. I would just go sit in the back of class and soak up game. So I’ve been proficient in design programs for a very long time. I think what we’re revolutionizing is our relationship. There’s no disconnect on the message that we want to send out sonically or visually. That’s why we’re so cohesive and so impactful. Another one I’d say that people recognize the most is “Proud2Pay.” ‘Proud2Pay’ is a pretty revolutionary business model. We were giving music away for free. That’s just what people do. Our generation grew up with Napster. Our generation grew up with Limewire. And then the younger generation grew up with Torrents. It went from downloading single songs, to downloading entire albums, to downloading entire discographies. To charge those generations who have been downloading music for free, forcefully? Why not give them a choice? That’s why we gave them a choice. If you give them music that motivates them or moves them in some way, usually people are going to want to reciprocate that love because it moves them and it impacts them. Can every artist do that? Probably not. Let’s be honest. For the artists that can use the “Proud2Pay” model, it’s because their music has substance and it drives people. It’s a real brand — it’s a real connection with people. It’s not short-lived. That’s one of the things that we celebrate for our brand is authenticity. It’s truth. That’s why the music sounds the way it sounds. You don’t have to fabricate things. So that’s one of the things that has been very successful. You see people like Eminem take a page out of our book with The Marshall Mathers LP 2 or Daft Punk take a page out of our book. I hadn’t seen any photographers giving away signed prints of the album covers by both the photographer and the artist like we had — I mean none. Then to see that Eminem had that as part of his “Proud2Pay” package, where you could buy a signed print of the album artwork as part of the package — that’s when I knew. I mean we’re influenced too. You see the successes of a guy like Jay Z, of a guy like Birdman and even people outside of our genre. I know we got a few things up our sleeve for the new album. Not only should it be a really prominent album, but just to roll out the branding — you know we’re working on a book together. It should be good stuff.
BH: Wrapping up here, what advice can you give to young people chasing their dreams and how important is persistence in that journey?
Peniche: To me the most important part is to be decisive. That’s the first step. Be proactive and be decisive. I’ve noticed with a lot of young people, and even into their 20s and 30s, it’s a lack of being decisive. It’s a lack of decisiveness that hinders them. They get paralyzed by life because they compare themselves to their peers. In our culture we always want to be number one, and so if we can’t be number one we don’t want to be number two or number three. The only person you’re in a race with is yourself. The success of other people or the lack of success of other people doesn’t necessarily impact your end-game. It doesn’t pay your bills. It shouldn’t make you feel any better or any worse. Be proactive about finding your passions. Once you have a general idea, you can’t be afraid to try it out. It’s really that simple.
[All photos courtesy of Jorge Peniche]