What is your name and title?
I’m Emily Payton and I am a DP/Director and Director of Post Production for ECG Productions.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you get into the arts and what made creating art important to you?
Is it cliche to say my love for art started when I was young? If it is, what the hell, it’s true for me. My mom was eighteen when she had me, she had me right out of highschool, and what was great is she immediately went to art school. She was like, “No, I’m still going to do this.” And when I was a little kid she would involve me in her art projects.
There was this one photography project where I was floating in this pool and she took different pictures of my arms, my legs, my nose, and she put it in a collage; each body part from a different perspective. It sparked something. I knew I wanted to figure out how she did it, because I had never seen anything like it.
It was nice to find these moments in my childhood. My home life was very unorthodox, to say the least. There were dark times that weren’t coming from the beautiful shade of the mossy trees of Jekyll Island. My childhood was overshadowed by addiction, sexual abuse, and a messy split between my parents–and through it all there was theatre. Acting was this space where I could jump into someone else’s head (which I didn’t initially realize I was doing), it just felt cathartic and quickly became a hobby I loved so much. I loved being able to create something.
At fourteen, after my parents’ divorce, we were shunned from our small town that was our home for years, and we moved back to Atlanta. I was depressed, angry, and probably in shock. On top of that, I developed a severe skin reaction that put me in the hospital. I was terrified, the last thing I recalled was the doctor telling my mom, “At this point just make her comfortable,” and I thought I was going to die.
I was on bedrest for five weeks and afterward I felt like I’d aged, it was so weird. I began to get focused, I wanted my future and I was going to do anything I could to get it. I doubled down on acting; got my headshots, took classes with the Atlanta Workshop Players, and I pitched myself for tv/film. It gave me a sense of purpose, like “This is what I’m working for, this is for my future,” and all the negatives were just conditioning.
I’ve never wanted the hardships that I’ve faced to define me, or beat me. I want to do something with it! My experiences allowed me to empathize with people who feel silenced, and that’s what’s driving me. I want to tell people’s stories, give them that platform, and help them in the ways that I can.
In the process, I share some of my story too. I hope if someone relates to it at all, they can do their damn thing with it. By sharing our stories we realize everyone’s living their own complexities and that sparks empathy which allows us to celebrate each other’s triumphs.
How did you find your way to helping people share their stories?
So, throughout highschool things were still pretty tumultuous. My parents were going through their issues and I was working and occasionally paying to turn our water back on. Through it all I stayed focused on my dream. I had a savings account that my paternal grandparents opened for me that they continued to put birthday and holiday money into, and added my savings as well. At one point I was told there was about $10,000 in that account, and my plan was to use it to move to LA, really jump start my acting career.
As graduation neared, I went to my credit union to make my withdrawal and my whole life went into a tailspin. All of that money that I’d saved up was gone except for $200, and no one had answers as to where it went.
I called my grandma and told her, because clearly there was some kind of mistake and she just said, “I don’t know, you should talk to your dad. I’m so sorry that you had to find out like this.”
When I spoke to my parents, they both pointed fingers at each other, so I just started back from scratch and began saving. While I was saving, my friends were in college and I was feeling like I was getting left behind, you know? After my gap year I applied to Kennesaw State University and got in. My plan was to stay for a short while and network, but something more fulfilling happened: I stayed and graduated.
During my time at KSU I fell into working at the college radio station. It was a playground. It had nice equipment and us, and it was our space to do whatever we wanted. I always wanted the station to be a place where if you had an idea, we were going to make it happen.
While there I had the opportunity to work with an inclusive learning program for differently abled students, and my work with one student in particular changed my life. He wanted to make an Andy Griffith-style commercial for the radio station, and as it morphed and changed, it became a mini-documentary. He introduced film to me. We worked together, learned to edit together, and together we were able to share his story in a genuine way.
The way he viewed the world is a way I think we all wish we could and getting to see through his eyes reminded me to look outside the box. He inspired me to tell more stories and highlight other perspectives, so when my senior capstone came up shortly thereafter our options were a thirty-page paper or a mini-doc. And I guess y’all know what I chose.
Tell me about the mini-doc and how it led you here to ECG and how your work pushes forward healing through art (film, music, performance)?
Around the time of my capstone, I hung out with friends who were in the Atlanta Comedy Scene. While I was out at a show one night, my friend Joe Pettis had this bit about how he turned his mother’s funeral into a roast. He said, “My mom didn’t want us to sit around and cry, she’d want us to laugh.” And that processing of emotions spoke to me.
I remember I read a book in my African Americans in Comedy class called Why Are You Laughing which allowed me to evaluate all the reasons we laugh at comedy: we’re uncomfortable, or we’ve experienced the same ridiculous thing. I realized I wanted to share this beautiful artform through Joe’s perspective, so I asked him if I could follow him around and film his experience.
I got to show vulnerability through stand-up comedy and it seemed so freeing. This experience taught me to keep things light or to find the funny of how we benefited from turning our experiences into something. So many people are fucked up, it’s not just me, and comedians are amazing at molding their traumas and that helped me not be as angry about the things in my life. That’s the thing with catharsis; the way we create art helps us as individuals deal with everything. Then the audience gets to see it and even if they’re not fully ready or can’t laugh at it yet, they still get the opportunity to process it.
After graduating I thought my trajectory was heading toward music, but when I started my internship at MadLife I gave music my last honest try, and I realized I didn’t want to work in a studio. That along with the creation of my mini-doc made me realize I wanted to take my life in a new direction and show people’s unique experiences through film.
When I got my shot here at ECG I was really green, but they gave me a chance and let me edit a video. After freelancing with ECG for a few months, the rest is history.
From here, where would you like your career and your art to go?
I’d love to make nature and conservation documentaries from the perspectives of people you don’t know. I want to be hands-on and Jane Goodall this shit. I want to hopefully make a tiny little ripple. With everything I do I just want to have a purpose.