How We Got Here — Santiago Arbelaez

Interview by Charis Poon
Photos by Juan Ortiz

Interview by Charis Poon
Photos by Juan Ortiz

Everyone’s journey is a unique inscription through time and isn’t a path that can be retraced or duplicated. How We Got Here is a series of concise recollections of personal journeys as told by talented creative individuals with different backgrounds, careers, and interests who share their struggles and motivations to explain how they reached this point in their lives.

For this edition of HWGH, we head over to London to catch up with Santiago “Santi” Abelaez, founder of creative studio and production house La Familia, which is based in London and Colombia.

Santiago Arbelaez

— 41, London —

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Mark Renton, played by 24-year-old Ewan McGregor, leans over the toilet that he just emptied his bowels in, to fish out two heroin suppositories meant to be his last hit before going clean. He swirls one hand and then the other in the muck before taking a deep breath and diving in. Renton’s head, torso, legs and, finally, feet disappear into the toilet. Cut to Renton swimming in a dark blue body of water. He spots the drug capsules glowing on the rocky waterbed and grabs them triumphantly before emerging from the Worst Toilet in Scotland.

As a teenager, Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting floored me. I was in awe of this work of masterful visual communication and, at that moment of time, I knew with perfect clarity that I wanted to study film.

At this time, my family was broke and we were living in conservative Colombia. I was bad at school, into punk, metal and skating, and hung out with a crowd of misfits. No one nurtured my creative abilities and everyone said that in order to get a job, I had to dress and behave a certain way. That moment I had of clear self-understanding and an articulated desire for self-expression became buried in the ensuing years as I had to do what I could to survive.

Fast forward five years, I’m in a toilet myself. Except this one is a pristine department store restroom before dawn—and it’s pristine because I’ve just finished cleaning it. I’m asleep sitting on the closed lid of a toilet.

I was bad at school, into punk, metal and skating, and hung out with a crowd of misfits. No one nurtured my creative abilities and everyone said that in order to get a job, I had to dress and behave a certain way. That moment I had of clear self-understanding and an articulated desire for self-expression became buried in the ensuing years as I had to do what I could to survive.

My family moved to England and I worked a series of mundane repetitive jobs to support myself. For eight years I was a postman in a small town where it didn’t make a difference how much effort I put into my job. My coworkers had no ambitions and I was starting to get too comfortable. I had to find a way forward so as to not lose my sense of self.

I enrolled in an arts and design college, only to be kicked out because they weren’t happy with me working night shifts. By lucky accident, I wound up in a part-time film studies course that lead to me completing a degree in film studies. I got work in television immediately and also started doing jobs on the side. I’d do shoots early in the morning, go to my day job, return home and edit my side projects, then sleep two or three hours before doing it again.

Even though working in television meant I was better paid, like my previous jobs, I was still just sitting around, abiding by a dress code, and whiling away each day just getting through it. I quit when my contract was up to start my own creative agency, La Familia.

There are so many routes to get somewhere. All along I have had this vision of my younger self—this version of me that loved cult classic films, punk music, skating, and knew intuitively how to be myself—and I’ve gotten myself to a stage where I can embrace the things I love and support myself.

I can just be myself now. I can get neck tattoos and dye my hair and wear what I like. I express myself without worrying about fitting into some top-down enforced mold of respectability. The industry I work in and have made a name for myself in doesn’t care and that feels so liberating.

 

All along I have had this vision of my younger self—this version of me that loved cult classic films, punk music, skating, and knew intuitively how to be myself—and I’ve gotten myself to a stage where I can embrace the things I love and support myself.

— How We Got Here —

Anna Sian
Gavin Guidry
Jasper Wong
Sam Zhang
Josephine Cruz
Santiago Arbelaez

 

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