The Cinematic Wunderkind
A wild child at heart, Sam Potter lives out his dreams of traveling the world, telling stories and winning EMMY Awards — all while making Hawai‘i proud.
It doesn’t matter if he’s tracking rhinoceroses in the South African bush, sitting around a campfire with Indigenous Amazonian folk or saving coral on a French Polynesian expedition, you’ll always be able to tell where Sam Potter is from.
In remote locations or extreme weather conditions, the 27-year-old rarely strays from the quintessential local boy uniform, but recently had to trade in his casual clothes for a suit and tie when he was invited to the Northern California Area Emmy Awards, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ regional chapter that includes Hawai‘i. His documentary series, Back to the Wild, received five nominations. Grateful to have simply been in the same room as some of the industry’s best, Potter reluctantly prepared a 30-second speech in the off chance his name would be called.
The presenter announced his name all right — again and again and again.
“I ran out of stuff to say,” Potter says, laughing.
The Kōloa, Kaua‘i, native took home all five awards in the categories of best human-interest news, host, director, editor and photographer — the latter honor he shares with two members of his team, Drew Longest and Cory Martin.
“When I got that fifth one (for hosting), it blew my mind,” says Potter. “It was not expected at all. I felt like we weren’t even supposed to be there. We were going up against big production companies with giant budgets.”
A month later, he’s still somewhat at a loss for words, which seems rare for the naturally charismatic individual, who, as a kid, was banned from his peers’ birthday parties because he was deemed the token wild child.
“It was never malicious,” says Potter. “It was just always a lot of energy and, I almost want to use the word fearlessness, too. I was game for anything. I would not only get myself in trouble, but I had a way of corralling everyone to get in trouble with me.
“It wasn’t bad trouble, it was just fun trouble,” he adds with a cheeky smile. “Yeah, I was a handful.”
It’s this boy-like curiosity and zest for life that now lead Potter on grand adventures of trekking mountaintops, jumping off cliffs and swimming with sea creatures 16 times his size. But without a camera to document it all, these stunts might be considered ones of a madman who has a dangerous streak and a death wish.
It’s a good thing, then, that Potter is always at the ready with his camera (or cameraman) in tow. Though he’s working with some pretty serious equipment nowadays, it all started with an early 2000s point-and-shoot lens.
“You could say I was always really business-minded,” he shares. “I would buy my uncle’s mangoes for 10 cents a pop, take them to the corner … and have tourists buy them off me for like 20 bucks. I was 8 years old and I would come home with like $400 or $500.
“I saved up my mango money and all my silver dollars and everything, and I bought a camera.”
Like any new toy, the device’s thrill eventually faded, and Potter didn’t pick it back up until high school.
“I just always wanted something to be good at,” admits the Kaua‘i High School alum. “All my friends were good at something and I felt like I had nothing that was a skill that was going to help me in life, or help me make money or build a career, or even loved to do. When I picked up a camera, what I loved about it was its versatility; I could take it and do everything I wanted to do. I didn’t have a box — I wasn’t a surfer or spearfisherman; I wasn’t a hiker or camper. I was everything. I wanted to do everything, and the camera kind of let me do that.”
Professionally, Potter started his career by shooting commercials for local companies, and when Instagram took off, he began creating content for influencers (otherwise known as social media users with a large following).
“When I saw influencers making 10 times more than I was, and I was doing all the work … I was like, ‘I’m going to flip this camera around and build a platform.’”
With consistency and dedication, Potter gained a sizable following (as of print, he has 241,000 followers on Instagram) — and, in doing so, worked with leading national brands — but it left him feeling empty and unfulfilled.
“I became an ‘influencer,’ but that came with a lot of talking about myself,” he shares. “I was blessed with the opportunity to travel the world, but everything I was capturing and talking about was, ‘Look where I’m at’ or ‘Look who I’m with.’ It was super surface level and ‘flex-y.’
“I was traveling the world, having all of these life-changing experiences in my soul and my being — I was changing as a person — and none of my work was reflecting that.”
So, Potter flipped the script and began telling other people’s stories instead. And, not just anyone, but Indigenous people’s, whose voices are often unheard and underrepresented in today’s media. This includes the Waorani people fighting to protect their homeland from massive oil companies; a Native Hawaiian man named Kaina Makua seeking to perpetuate traditional practices; and the Kazakh eagle hunters, whose generation-spanning connection to golden eagles keeps their culture alive.
“When I see someone working so hard for something way bigger than themselves, it inspires me and I can’t help but wonder what I can do to make a film about that,” says Potter.
“I think I’m able to do this because of Hawai‘i — because I grew up on Kaua‘i. It taught me how to be a good guest,” he continues. “Even though this is my home, I’m still a guest here. I’m a haole boy. I’m a first generation. I learned how to be a guest, and, in doing that, it allowed me to tell these stories around the world and eventually come home and tell the stories here and do it in a respectful and humble way.”
At first, he collaborated with small production companies, but then COVID hit, and everything was put on pause.
“I was kind of bent because I felt like I was so close. I felt like ‘Under a Mongolian Sky’ (about the eagle hunters) was so close to the film I really wanted to make,” says Potter. “It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a film that tells a really good story and I want to play all the roles; I want to play as a producer, director, writer and host.”
Potter heard whispers from big executives and networks, but nothing came to fruition, leaving him with only one option.
“I was like, ‘OK, whatever, I’m going to do it myself and I’m going to go out and make the best possible series I can,’” he says.
Enter Back to the Wild, a documentary series that follows Potter as he “connects with people who maintained a connection to the natural world,” to hear him tell it.
“I find those are the stories that intrigue me the most,” he says. “When people have an understanding and relationship with their place, they have a superpower. There’s something about them, like an aura, glow or happiness. It’s an understanding of their purpose that I think is really rare to find.”
Boasting six episodes, the series takes viewers on a journey to South Africa, Mo’orea and Hawai‘i, and, as of print, has tallied more than 1.1 million views. The last episode, titled “The Coral Gardeners,” follows fellow island boy Titouan Bernicot, who’s determined to save the world’s coral reefs through restoration efforts and community awareness. Given Potter’s pure fascination with Bernicot — and the two’s obvious kinship — there’s no wonder why this installment was the one to win the Emmys.
“He started a little coral garden right outside his house,” Potter says. “He also harnessed the power of social media and got it out to the world and … now he’s hired 30-plus individuals in his community, all island kids who would’ve otherwise been in the tourism industry or doing something else, but now they have a legitimate job where they’re learning about their coral reefs. That alone, I was just so proud of him … he created a job where people just connect with ‘āina.
He continues, “That episode is what I was trying to create my whole career … It was a big milestone for me. I could show this to a Netflix executive, like, ‘Dude, check this out. This is what I was able to do by myself. Let’s do something together.’ It just feels network ready, which is a big goal of mine.”
Well, if Potter wasn’t already being eyed for his own TV show, he certainly should be now after his mostly self-funded passion project that he created with just two friends won five of the biggest awards possible for its class.
“Growing up on an island, you sometimes feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but Nainoa Thompson (Polynesian Voyaging Society president and expert navigator) said it best: ‘We have to start knowing we’re in the middle of everywhere.’ I want the Emmys to represent that we’re capable of anything, and not only are we capable of anything, we’re unique; we have something that no one else has.
“To the kids who watch my stuff and watch my road and see where I’ve gotten to, I did it all here, I did it all on Kaua‘i. Sure, I traveled, but I was never trying to be something of the mainland. I was never trying to replicate some process I saw an influencer do in LA. I was authentic to who I was, and I found that there is power in our uniqueness and power in being from Hawai‘i. I would encourage everyone to keep that in their mind and in their heart: Hawai‘i makes me unique and special. I’m not some kid from nowhere, I can achieve big things, and being from Hawai‘i, it’s going to lift me up.”
It’s evident where Potter is from, and the board shorts and his near-permanent shaka aren’t the only giveaway. It’s in the way he treats everyone he meets, where his passion lies and how he moves through life with aloha as his guide.