Through a Lens, Brightly

By Laura Ross

Photos by Antonio Pantoja

Antonio Pantoja has a shy grin at first that quickly explodes into a Barnum & Bailey, take-no-prisoners, all-in, brilliant smile. “I don’t think my story is that important, but some people can get things out of it. Others have it a lot worse than me,” he said.

But, what a story it is.

“I’m a Peruvian-Italian horror filmmaker and conceptual fine
art photographer.”

It’s hard to sum up Pantoja, a complicated, creative force who is a photographer, videographer, filmmaker and budding artistic genius.

Today, he sits in the uber-stylish office of a colleague and humbly, yet excitedly, tells the tangled story of his life thus far. It hasn’t been an easy ride for this 34-year-old, who has a backstory out of a Hollywood playbook. He’s lived a lot of life and has much more to tackle.

Dozens of professional awards herald his current work as a filmmaker and photographer. His cinematic wedding videos are coveted by brides across the country. His avant-garde fashion photography is stunning, provocative and in high demand on both coasts. His music videos set the soundtrack for a generation. His passion for horror films would chill even Steven King and bring a nod of approval from Linda Blair of “The Exorcist.”

“The Cylinder and the Cellar” by Antonio Pantoja. Hair and makeup by Raina Trimble. Model: Bethany Hood.

The young Antonio, beset by a broken family riddled with addiction and poverty, never dreamed any of that would be possible. His mother suffered from addiction and mental illness, and his father, a Peruvian immigrant, was a laborer who was rarely home. 

“I was out of the house and homeless by the time I was 14 years old,” Pantoja explained. “I lived in a car, which was crazy. I didn’t go to school; I just worked from that point on. I was driving by age 14 illegally, and I was couch surfing with friends’ families just to sleep somewhere.”

He had nowhere to go. With only an eighth grade education, he sought out odd jobs. “I was 15 and sleeping in my car,” he said. “One night, it was dripping rain on me and eventually the rain stopped, and I thought, ‘Man, this is awful.’ I heard kids behind me, and they were all dressed up beautifully, probably headed to a party, and I thought, ‘God bless, how different our lives were. They’re partying, and I’ll wake up tomorrow and wonder, will I eat today?’ That was such a big division and I knew how different my path was.”

He never veered into the “street life,” but instead, sought out mentors who were older. “They probably felt bad for me. They gave me a lot of good advice that I keep close today – most importantly, always be nice,” he said. “That’s fundamental to who I am today. I was the guy with no place to go, and I saw things people should never see. That was my reality. I would go to a friend’s house and think, ‘This is crazy, is this how families operate?’”

He worked at random places so he could eat and survive. “I met all kinds of people and that helped fuel my creativity,” he said. 

“You are the ocean and I am drowning” by Antonio Pantoja. Styling and setup by Heather Rous Weeks. Makeup by Nicole Mclinnahan. Model: Katherine Lewellyn.

“My photos and videos today draw inspiration from those life experiences.”

As his teen years faded, he continued to work hard. He joined the military and served in the Army National Guard. As he entered his early 20s, life evolved rapidly for Antonio Pantoja.

A chance meeting in a restaurant set his destiny in motion. “I was working in a restaurant playing music, and I saw this server. I said she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen, and if she’d just give me a chance, I’d marry her in a heartbeat,” he laughed. “I lied and told her I was in a band that played all the time. I was horrible, the worst bass player of all time. I had no business playing music, but I liked it, and amazingly, she gave me a chance. I got the craziest opportunity ever with her.”

That server, named Jordan, became his wife in 2010. In time, his daughters Mia, 10, and Echo, 4, were born. “I’d have a million of them if I could,” Pantoja said. “I love parenthood; it’s all I live for. I want to be there for everything and I want to support them 100 percent.”

He also landed his first “real” job as a sales trainer at Sprint during this time. He borrowed a suit for the interview and scooped up the entry-level job with gusto. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, I’d clean the trash out of this building if I could.’ I’d never had an opportunity like that. I got the job and I’d stay after hours and I worked nights, weekends and holidays,” he said.

Antonio with mentor Lloyd Kaufman of Troma films. Photos by Steve Squall.

He also met his boss and now mentor and friend, Lee Kiper. “I have watched Antonio grow personally and professionally for nearly a decade and to be honest, it has been one of the greatest honors of my life,” said Kiper, general manager of Sprint Business. “His stamina for work is unrivaled. His positive outlook is something I admire. No matter the size of the challenge he must overcome, he walks through it with an equal amount of confidence and humility. That is extremely hard to find in talented people.”

His hard work paid off when Pantoja was promoted to sales manager and given a team of 15 employees. “I looked at it as I was helping people like myself find work,” he said. “If I could help another person get a paycheck, I’d work as hard and as long as I could to make that happen.”

Life was working out for Pantoja, but he wanted more.

“Losing teaches you so much more than winning.”

Simultaneously, Pantoja faced older demons. He had recently reconciled with his father, who passed away eight days before Pantoja’s wedding. “I was devastated when my dad passed,” Pantoja said. “I realized I only had a few seconds of video of him, and through video, you become immortal. I’ve watched that video a million times. Your story will always go on. If you capture that moment, that image stays long after they are gone.”

He also realized that he desperately wanted images of his infant daughter, Mia. “I thought my wife was going to kill me, but I dropped $600 for my first camera,” he said. “I learned how to use it and begged people to let me shoot them.”

With this, he found his calling. He began shooting weddings and branched into video work. He convinced his wife Jordan to leave her accounting profession and join him in photography. 

“Clavos” by Antonio Pantoja. Makeup/SFX/Hand by Matt Goodlett. Hair by Rian Miller. Model: Amanda Terry.

Together, they worked as a team, with Jordan shooting photos and Pantoja videoing weddings. They caught the eye of wedding planner Lauren Chitwood just as her high-end wedding and event business was taking flight, and he partnered with Chitwood, shooting many of her events nationwide.

He then landed a job as creative director at WDRB-TV. “I sent in a reel of my video work, got connected with people in the industry and it just took off,” he said. “Then, I started shooting weddings and music videos and commercials, and I did fashion and fine art photography on the side. Everything is through connection, and Louisville is the perfect place for that.”

But, the excitement came with a price. “Two years into it, I had to make a decision,” said Pantoja. “My daughter drew a picture and it had my wife, my other daughter, the cat and the dog. But, not me. I was working so much. I said ‘Where’s your daddy?’ She said, ‘Daddy, you’re always at work.’ I thought, ‘Oh man, I’ve lost my baby.’ So, I quit my job (at the TV station).”

It was a risk he knew he had to take. “I’ll choose my daughters every time,” he said. “I didn’t want my girls growing up without a family like I had done. Now, I do my own thing on my own schedule. I take work as it comes and spend as much time as possible with my family.”

And the work comes. As Pantoja’s reputation grows, he has quickly accumulated countless clients and dozens of photography and video awards. He works coast-to-coast and is highly respected in the visual arts community.

Posters by Nathan Thomas Milliner, illustrator for “Halloween II,” “Halloween III,” “Dawn of the Dead” and other horror films.

“Antonio’s constantly striving for perfection is what truly makes him tick,” said Kiper. “He feels like an underdog the majority of the time, which keeps him hungry, but helping others achieve and grow gives him sustenance.”

“The awards put you in an awkward position,” said Pantoja. “You want to put it out there professionally because that’s what people expect. I lose more than I win, but losing teaches you so much more about yourself than winning.”

“One Must Fall”

“At some level, I was always creative,” said Pantoja. “I’ve always loved movies. It was the one thing we did together as a family when I was little. My dad would get my brothers and me on the couch, and we’d watch horror movies. It’s funny, but that’s the only family unity I remember.”

A part of Pantoja always nurtured the dream to write and produce a horror film, perhaps as a throwback to those memories. His wife encouraged him, and with prodding, Pantoja went after that dream one year ago. “She took the kids to Florida and I locked myself inside and wrote the script in a week,” he laughed. “Then, I spent months cleaning it up.”

He pulled from old memories to plot the film, titled, “One Must Fall.”

“I was alone all the time as a kid,” he said. “I decided I wanted to be a priest, so I read the Bible and I came across (the Book of) Revelation and it scared me to death. I changed my mind about becoming a priest then! Revelation is scary, but by the same token, I fell in love with the horror aspect of it and now, later, I’ve even based one of my film characters on it. I think the passages can be interpreted as scaring you into doing the right thing. It all comes from somewhere – very dark places with redeeming stories. Inspiration is weird.”

Pantoja picked the horror genre from a strategic perspective: It typically doesn’t rely on an “A-list” actor and most audiences watch horror based on the concept. “One Must Fall” is set in the 1980s and follows the story of a woman who experiences sexual harassment at work and is wrongly fired. She teams up with a friend and together, they create a crime scene cleanup business. A serial killer is on the loose, and the team finds themselves locked in a warehouse with the killer while they are cleaning up a recent crime scene.

The film was shot entirely in Louisville, mostly in a warehouse in Portland. But, even with local ties, Pantoja used his industry connections to build national support and participation in the film. Special effects artists, directors and film professionals who’ve worked on blockbusters like “Rocky” were part of the production team. Pantoja traveled the country, painstakingly picking up vintage 1980s accessories to ensure authenticity in the film.

Antonio and Jordan with daughters Mia and Echo.

He created a business plan, started a crowdfunding campaign and approached mentors and industry professionals for support. It all worked.

Louisville-based entrepreneur and film producer Gill Holland took note. “I stumbled across his work and his visual flair struck me immediately,” said Holland. “I basically became a fan and thought, ‘Wow, I really need to figure out a way to meet this creative genius.’ As soon as I found out he was working on a film, I told him I would do anything I can to help him make it have the best possible outcome in the film industry.”

As Pantoja puts the finishing edits on the film, Holland is helping line up the film’s journey on the festival circuit. If all goes according to plan, “One Must Fall” will hit screens by the end of the year.

“Everything good in my life has come to me because I was nice to someone else.”

Sometimes, all this success scares Pantoja. “I wake up with nightmares that I’ll lose everything,” he said. “I’ve been at that point, but then I realize this is my reality now. I’m lucky. The success is terrifying (because) I don’t want to let anyone down.”

In those quiet, dark times, Pantoja knows life could be much different. “What stopped me from becoming another negative statistic was love for people and what I’m doing,” he said.  “If I was lucky enough to get this opportunity, maybe there is someone else out there who needs the same kind of opportunity. Maybe I can help them.”

“I see Antonio achieving whatever he desires,” said Kiper. “He has overcome so many things in his life where most people would have folded. He smiles through the tough times and always moves forward with optimism and positivity. He is one of the best human beings I know, and I cannot wait for the world to know the Antonio I do.”

“Antonio is one of the hardest working folks I know,” added Holland. “He is a key part of the amazing creative fabric of Louisville. Like the directors Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez are to Austin, or John Waters is to Baltimore, I predict that Antonio can have that same kind of success for Louisville.”

How does Pantoja define passion? “It’s doing something you love unconditionally,” he said quietly. “I didn’t realize that growing up. I met my wife and learned what unconditional love is. If you can find passion, whatever it is, you must go full force on it. You’ll cry. You’ll want to give up on it most of the time, but if you find it, it will give you life if you let it.”

He stared off into space for a moment and then said, “It’s all about the path you take. Just because you’re dealt that hand, it doesn’t have to be your destiny. Every decision you make could be one that changes your life forever. Don’t ever give up on what gives you life.” V

Behind the scenes of “One Must Fall,” which was filmed in Louisville.
Photos by Steve Squall.

  • Lisa Johnson

    Absolutely amazing story. Antonio is such a genuine person you can’t help but love him. He is gifted beyond imagination and deserves all the treasures of the universe. ❤

  • Nicole

    Amazing! So proud of this guy! Beautiful work and a great heart! He volunteered time with me years ago when I was first starting in real estate!