Cam Robert: Force and finesse
“What I’m doing right now is what I thought I’d be doing when I was 50 and about to retire and I was at the end of the line.”
Cam Robert is a video producer at National Public Radio in New York City. His primary responsibility is creating music documentaries. Cam also does freelance work on the side — he shot and edited The Curatours’ promotional video.
“Everyone associates [NPR] just with radio. That takes a lot of pressure off. It’s more quality over quantity,” he said. “It allows us to try new things.”
Over the last year, NPR’s atmosphere has aided his development as a videographer. Now he’s more willing to take creative chances in his productions. “Yeah, there’s standards and rules to abide by,” he said, “but creatively, you can break those rules if it makes sense for the whole piece.”
Prior to starting at NPR, Cam was an intern at the San Francisco Chronicle where he did daily news photography. “Even though I learned a lot there, I learned that’s not what I want to do,” he said. “Different strokes for different folks.”
Luckily, when it came time to seek video production opportunities, certain individuals at the Chronicle were connected at NPR. Cam credits those relationships with helping him land his current position.
From hobby to career aspirations
“When I was younger, I was always interested in movies and video and photography,” he said. “Whenever I’d seen something on tv, a really cool shot, I’d take mental notes.”
Although he always had an affinity for digital images, Cam’s first experience with video and photography work didn’t come until his junior year of high school when he took his first class on the subjects. Soon after, he bought his first camera.
“That’s when I first started considering it as a serious career,” he said. “From there I started shooting music videos for a bunch of friends, and people kept on saying, ‘yo you’re actually really good at this.’”
Encouragement from his friends gave Cam confidence in his potential. His camera gave him the perfect outlet for self-expression, allowing him to be “crazy artistic” yet grounded by the principles of journalism.
Unfortunately, Cam wasn’t focused in the classroom throughout high school. “I was just a slacker,” he said. “I didn’t fail any classes or anything, but compared to my peers, I clearly wasn’t putting any effort forth.” Thus, he knew the odds of being accepted to top-notch journalism schools were slim.
Cam applied to 13 undergraduate programs — he was only accepted to three, his safety choices. If he attended one of those schools, he knew his desire would be to transfer to a more renowned program as soon as possible.
Was it better to stay at home than go off to college? Cam questioned if attending a school he was never mentally invested in was logical or financially responsible.
Cam decided to take classes at nearby Montgomery Community College. He studied mostly fine art photography, but continued his side hustle producing content for friends and local music artists, and gained internship experiences.
He didn’t enjoy his time in community college. “I was miserable. It just made me grind harder and actually put my head down,” he recalled.
Attending journalism school remained the goal, and Cam set his sights high. The likes of NYU, Syracuse and UNC Chapel Hill floated to the top of his college list. He excelled in his classes at MCC, determined to join one of the nation’s top programs — and he secured the opportunity. Ultimately, Cam had to choose between Syracuse and UNC.
Syracuse was the more traditional school with less of an emphasis on digital journalism. With UNC, Cam saw a program that nicely implemented both video and photography, so he headed south. Factors like lower costs, a school spirit he connected with and friends already attending the school swayed him, too.
Two years of discipline in community college paid off — he was accepted to UNC after two previous rejections: “I learned you just gotta stick to it and persevere.”
Finally enrolled, Cam had only two years to make his presence felt on campus, and he welcomed that challenge. He became both a video and photo editor for the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel – a flagship college publication.
“I just figured it out. I don’t know how I figured it out because I don’t know what I’m doing all the time,” he said. “You just make it work.”
The complexity of advancement
Cam has worked hard, but he says it pales in comparison to the efforts of his family members who’ve ensured him a privileged life. He highlighted the willpower of his mother, aunt, and grandmother in particular.
“Being a black woman, you have to work quadruple as hard,” he said. “You have to really be on top of it to make sure your voice is heard.” Cam says his grandmother completed school during the Civil Rights Movement while raising six kids, eventually earning a master’s degree. His mom and aunt have both sustained long careers in corporate America. Their stories and examples push him to be an overachiever, too.
Motivation from strong black women in his life has shaped his ambition as a black man — something he thinks is key to success in a society where people of color are viewed differently than white people.
“I definitely feel like we have to do more just to leave our mark,” he said. “White mediocrity is definitely a real thing. Our counterparts are able to thrive a lot easier than us.”
Though these inconsistencies are often on a more personal scale, Cam also voiced his frustration with institutional injustices: “some aspects are getting better but at the end of the day, there are still things that make us less than.” He struggles with possible solutions to inequality and cited the fact that the country was established on the principle that black people were less human than white people.
And as the country becomes more diverse, the dynamic gets more complex: “I feel like other communities are able to thrive because they’re outsiders coming in, so they have a different perspective,” he said. “American culture is European and African culture. They try to make it seem like it’s just European culture and we’re just a subculture, but that’s not true. That doesn’t make any sense. Since the beginning of this country we’ve been here.”
When asked what he can do to bring more equity to America, Cam was unsure; he had more questions than answers. “You have to give up something to be able to put on for people,” he said. “Should every person do that? Yes, in an ideal world I feel like every person should do that. But to what extent?” He continued, “just making the right decisions, am I becoming a role model to certain people? Is that not enough? Or should I be doing more?”
Cam was bluntly honest, “where I am in my life, I’m very selfish. I want to do me, but of course I want my people to rise up. I’ve never really thought about what I could do to help us.”
Flexibility: major key
Last December, Cam started at NPR as an intern and was later promoted to his current role — he’s a temporary hire. “They keep extending me,” he said. Cam can only retain his temporary status for one full year. He hopes he’ll have a full-time offer by the end of December.
There is still more to learn at NPR and Cam wants to actively expand his skill set. As of now, he has little editorial experience. He writes on his own and does poetry, but Cam knows that improving his professional writing ability will make him a much more well-rounded journalist. His first NPR editorial was published a few days after this interview. His aim is to be a “triple threat” with the added writing element.
Cam would like to find his way out to L.A. in the near future to continue with music documentaries and expand to feature film work, but he doesn’t know exactly when or how he’ll get there yet.
At the moment, no individual in particular greatly motivates him to keep pushing, but he says his friends and others who refuse to settle are people he looks up to.
“I feel like so many people don’t even try. They’re scared of trying. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who raised them. How can you be afraid of trying? I fail, ok. Sometimes you fail. But at least you try. You’re going to be stuck if you don’t try.”