James Membreno and Michael Watkins, photo editors for the Courier, began their two hour drive on a Wednesday afternoon. Membreno was feeling particularly nervous, which only worsened when he saw Watkins pull out a bulletproof vest upon reaching their destination. It probably did not help that Membreno’s expired passport later led to his temporary detainment by customs agents.
For them, this was just another spur-of-the-moment adventure that they had decided to embark on. Their plan was to photograph the migrant caravan that had arrived in Tijuana in 2018. Little did they know, it would become one of many crazy stories for them to tell.
From photographing the Golden Gate bridge at 4 a.m. to spontaneously driving to two Southern California wildfires within several hours of each other, Membreno and Watkins have had their fair share of exciting experiences.
Throughout the past several years together, they have not only become a highly skilled photography duo, but have also become extremely close friends. Their self-described loud, musical and chaotic relationship has entertained the journalism room on more than one occasion.
Though most of their interactions consist of telling dad jokes and poking fun at each other, they take their responsibilities seriously. It is this balance between spontaneity and dedication that allows Membreno and Watkins to chase after story opportunities with little hesitation.
“I get that question a lot—why do you do it?” Watkins said in a video call. “Part of it is because it’s like an adrenaline rush, but the other part of it is because I’m a journalist. It’s my job to get information and show people the truth. The best way to do that is with pictures.”
Though cliche, the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is something that Membreno and Watkins completely agree with.
“For some of the most famous events in history, you don’t think of what the writer wrote,” said Membreno in a video call. “You think of the picture that comes along with it.”
The two met when Membreno joined the photojournalism course in spring of 2018. Watkins was already the co-photography editor and multimedia manager for the Courier.
“When I met Mike, he was technically my boss, so he would treat me differently than how he treats me now,” said Membreno. “I thought he was a very straightforward person.”
It later became apparent that his initial impression of Watkins could not be further from the truth. Something Membreno now appreciates about Watkins is that he is always high-energy and always smiling.
“One thing I love about James is that he loves my dad jokes,” said Watkins. “One thing I hate about James is that he pretends to hate my dad jokes.”
Membreno and Watkins have seen each other at class nearly every week for the past few years, but their time together this semester was cut short due to the campus closure.
“I’m extremely bummed about it,” said Watkins. “One of the highlights of my week is going to class on Mondays and Wednesdays. I felt like the whole class was vibing really well too. It’s rough. We do it over Zoom, but being in class was different.”
He and Membreno always look forward to being able to photograph sports together, particularly baseball. They both grew up playing and watching sports, which is why they have such an affinity for it.
“We get competitive with each other,” said Membreno. “It makes us want to try harder so it elevates our pictures.”
Membreno did not always want to become a photographer. He initially came to PCC as a biology major, en route to be a doctor. While taking classes and working a full-time job, he decided to enroll in a photography course on a whim. He had prior experience from his high school’s newspaper, but had not picked up a camera since.
It was not until his photographs from the March of Our Lives demonstration in 2018 were published as a gallery that he realized where his passions lie. As Membreno recalled, one of the first times that Watkins had ever spoken to him was to compliment his photos for the event.
“That was my first gallery that was run for the Courier,” said Membreno. “It was definitely a different experience than anything I’ve ever seen or felt. My name was attached to it. I was like, yeah, I can get behind this. I can do this.”
Watkins, on the other hand, was always interested in photography. His mother was the first sports editor for California State University Fullerton’s newspaper, the Daily Titan.
One of his favorite memories with photography is in 2015, when he and several others drove around Kruger National Park in South Africa to photograph wild animals. They were playing “Big Five,” a game where everyone takes a shot of alcohol every time they spot a lion, hippopotamus, leopard, elephant or cheetah.
“Towards the end of the day around sunset, we see something walk out onto the road,” said Watkins. “It’s a leopard, walking even with the truck. It doesn’t even act like the truck is there. The sun starts going down and creating this lighting effect on it. I’m drunk and I’m leaning out of the truck because I don’t want to change my lens.”
The other passengers eventually had to grab him by the back of his shirt to pull him back in, but it was an unforgettable experience that impacted his photography career.
Despite entering the photojournalism course with varying levels of experience, Membreno and Watkins can both attest to the immense amount of growth they have had under Professor Timothy Berger’s instruction.
Just as their expertise has grown, so have their expectations for each other.
“Normally, pictures that I may have thought were good before meeting Tim, like ones that are a little out of focus, is something that won’t fly now,” Watkins said.
Membreno and Watkins have shared desks in the newsroom only a foot apart for the past two years. Beginning next fall, they will be going their separate ways. Watkins is set to graduate from PCC this semester, while Membreno hopes to finish by next spring. Whether working individually or as a team, their chaotic and spontaneous dynamic have produced countless award-winning works.
“That pretty much sums up our relationship,” said Watkins. “Our friendship is very chaotic, but it always works out.”