While talking with Andrew G. Contreras I was reminded of a beginning sculpture class I took years ago. During the first class students had to walk slowly around someone’s piece and observe it from this place and that place, from above and below. Part of what I got from the exercise was seeing the countless number of two-dimensional views we could get of a three-dimensional object, some definitely more interesting than others.
Andrew and I talked at my home in Quezon City. Please check out his page. (Link) Many thanks to Andrew for the photographs. (Click on photos to enlarge image–they’re all well worth enjoying for a while.)
Why don’t you tell me about your experience with photography from your first camera to the present day?
When I was a kid with an Instamatic, I’d take vacation pictures or pictures with friends. I was always disappointed because the results weren’t what I’d had in mind. At the time I made no effort to do anything about it because I wanted to be a comic book artist. For years I was just shooting randomly.
My family is a family of artists, so I figured eventually I’d end up in the arts. I started college in Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas, but the program focused on drawing for advertising with a lot of technical stuff done by hand. I realized that that was not my calling. I went from there to Mass Communications at Philippine Women’s University, which at first I saw as a stepping stone for the University of the Philippines. I majored in Public Relations thinking that I would eventually take over my dad’s business. He was in PR as a consultant for big companies like Pepsi and the Lopez Group, which owns ABS-CBN. Later I found the communications background useful because of its emphasis on getting the message across in whatever medium you manipulate, rather than snobby, high-end abstract photography. It taught me to think, “If you have something to say, how do you communicate it and make it understandable?”
So after mass communications, what changed?
Getting into photography was an accident. After my third year in college, I came home late, got into an argument with my dad and got booted out of the house—actually, it was a mutual decision. I didn’t want to live there anymore. Still, it felt like my whole world was crumbling. It turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me. I went to see my aunt and ask whether she had any connections which would help me get a part-time job. During dinner, my cousin walked in and said, “Hey, I don’t have an apprentice right now. Try it out.”
I guess the trick is not to get fixated on keeping the end in sight and not to fear the unknown. Just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually learn to love it. I had the same experience with cooking. I got into it as a practical matter just to feed myself, but after I put my heart into it I came up with things I was happy with, like a damned good kare-kare.
My cousin Toto Labador was a well-established fashion photographer, doing covers for magazines like Preview, Cosmopolitan and FHM. He’s a graduate of the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena. I apprenticed for him and his older brother, Albert, who was doing weddings and architecture for hotels. They saved me. I was just blown away by my cousin’s slides of Nepal, from his climb of the Himalayas. He had books of Richard Avedon’s work and Joel Peter Witkin. and videos of National Geographic photographers. He introduced me to Annie Leibovitz. I said, “Wow, there’s so much you can do!” That was probably when I started making a conscious decision to come up with good pictures of my own. I got an SLR [single lens reflex], a Yashica with a 35mm lens. I loved that camera.
From 1999 on was the apprenticeship. I loved it, even if some of the models treated me like the help. I didn’t mind making coffee, I didn’t mind running errands, taking film to the lab and waiting for it. The part-time job became a full-time job when I graduated. During the apprenticeship I decided to make photography a career. At first I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of making decisions, like what angles to choose. For an editor you’re supposed to come up with eight solid set-ups—that’s what they call them—or layouts. Making the decisions can really squeeze your brain. But I was really glad that my cousins were empowering. They didn’t train me in order to have a dependable assistant-apprentice for life. They wanted me to make it on my own. So during the latter part of my apprenticeship, they’d encourage me to get jobs of my own, and they passed on to me some jobs they thought I could handle—and also some that they knew I couldn’t. They threw me into the fire anyway.
Because I had the liberty to get my own clients, eventually I realized it was time to go out on my own, and trained somebody else to take my place as an apprentice. In the meantime, I’d moved back in with my parents, but then my dad started losing a lot of money, and I braced myself for the inevitable moment when I wouldn’t be able to live at home and save whatever I earned. So I moved out and set up AGC Photography around 2001 or 2002.
There was a time around 2009 when the business nearly folded because no money was coming in. The quality of my work was not what it is now. Sometimes it happens that you get obsessed with earning a lot of money. You spend more time running after clients than trying to take the best pictures—at least I did. I got so burned out. But eventually I had to accept a new perspective on it and remind myself why I got into photography. From that point on, no matter what the client was paying I still put the same amount of heart into my work. My mindset needs to be that, even if I’m paid a lot for a picture and the client is happy with it, I can’t kid myself that I’m also happy with it when I’m not. That’s why I push myself constantly and continuously to do better.
Basically it’s just being honest, telling it like it is. The trick is that there may be a better way to approach the subject. That’s the challenge that motivates me to try to do something different. But again, the mass communications background reminds me that I’m just a messenger, I’m just a vessel for whatever talent I was given. The ego cannot be bigger than the art itself. Basically, there has to be a balance. Figure out how to take that picture that’s not too artsy. Sometimes the simplest picture speaks volumes.
What I really love about taking pictures is that there’s so much room for mid-air adjustments, there’s room to just go with the flow. Steve McCurry from National Geographic is one of the people whose work I most admire. He’s the photographer who’s famous for the Afghan Girl image. He said the journey is the destination. You might be fixated on going to a place where you expect to find a great picture, but while you’re crossing the street something terrific happens. If you’re not ready to adjust you’ll miss it.
You mentioned teaching. Where are you teaching now? What advice do you give your students?
I don’t have time to teach anymore, but two or three years ago, I taught at Abba’s Orchard Montessori School, and every now and then I was invited by certain corporations to do lectures for employees who were interested. I found it ironic that a lot of the amateur photographers had more passion than the greater percentage of the people who have apprenticed for me. I told my students to start with just the basics. First and foremost, move around. Don’t just sit in one place with your legs crossed and use your zoom lens. Don’t just shoot from the same place as everybody else—unless of course it’s a sporting event like tennis where you have to stay in a designated area. Get off your chair and move around.
I tell them, “First, really love what you do.” A lot of people get into stuff like music and photography because it’s “in,” it’s considered cool. If your heart is not 100% into your work, it will never be as great as it could be. The work you put into the craft will be reflected in whatever rewards may come—which for me are just a bonus. The real prize is the picture itself. If photography is your profession and you love it enough, the money will come in eventually.
We talked about your sending me some pictures. Could you talk about the specific ones you’d like to send?
A lot of the stuff I’ve come up with recently will probably be in an exhibit to be called “Down Time.” It comes from in-between moments when I’m shooting for a corporate client but then suddenly I see something else. Probably I’ll share a photo I took during Christmastime. I was working for Coca-Cola following a truck made up to look like a vending machine. People stood in line, and out of the door came gifts, like lechon [roast pig] or a flat-screen TV or cups. We went from barangay [local district] to barangay and covered the people’s reactions when they got their goodies. In one of these locations I saw a guy who had dressed his dogs up with Christmas hats and shades. Two had toy guitars around their necks, and another one was sitting in front of a toy piano. So I excused myself to go to the restroom, and I ran to the corner to take a picture of the dogs. The owner didn’t want to be in the picture, but if you look closely you see him reflected as a tiny image in the shades of one of the dogs.
It’s those quirky things on the side I find really fulfilling. Basketball is really big in the Philippines. Recently, I went to a lot of rural areas. While I was waiting for the client to get set up, I took a picture of kids playing basketball. I focused on the ball and the kids’ very, very dirty feet mid-air.
Another time we were in Bulacan, already packed up to go back to Manila. There was a beautiful sunset and a father holding three-year-old son. They were standing in front of and orange house. Fiesta banners were casting perfect shadows on the wall. It was just beautiful.
I went to Thailand recently, and I made sure to wait until after the busy hours go to the floating market. When the market closes down, the hustle and bustle of trading is gone, so you can walk around without being hounded to buy something at five times the normal price. You see people washing their dishes in the river, and you can have a boat all to yourself. You can tell the boatman where to go because nobody else is in the way. I love those moments of peace.
When you capture a moment, it’s yours. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t go back. Even shooting an event, I’ve found that if I wait a bit longer there’s always the possibility that I’ll get something better. I like to go back. The lighting conditions would be different, and there would always be a different perspective. So that drives me, the nagging feeling that maybe I could get something better. It’s also humbling to say it’s not so perfect that I couldn’t go back. Every unique place has a unique moment—we’d like to think only for us, right? For example, in London the morning before my flight back to Manila, the sun was coming up. The light was perfect. At one end of a long bench there was a guy in a suit and tie, on his phone. He looked very ready to mix it up. At the other end was a homeless guy asleep. I’d like to think that a moment like that it mine. It won’t happen again. Or if it did there wouldn’t be someone there to photograph it, right?
I was in a vegetable market with perfect defused light creeping onto one of the stalls. A vendor wearing green was selling greens. The background was a gray wall with speckles of light on it. I took a photo, and I was really happy with it because the moment was unique. Three minutes later the guy is no longer there. The moment was a gift of nature or whatever, the powers that be. As a photographer I feel fortunate to be able to shoot it the best I can.
What cameras are you using now?
Right now I use a Canon 70D and 60D. I usually carry two bodies around, especially for work. I move around a lot, and I don’t want to worry about changing lenses. One nice thing about digital is you don’t have to change film after every 36 shots. I encourage people to learn as if they were using film and didn’t have memory to burn although I might be saying that because of my loyalty to film, because that’s how I was trained and how my skills were honed. Film is a very harsh teacher. You wait for your contact prints, sometimes you look at your contact prints and you think it looks good. But then it turns out to be out of focus or too shaky. What you did wrong really sticks in your memory. My purpose even with digital is to get everything right initially. Of course with digital a certain amount of editing does have to be involved with every photo, but my practice is to not edit it to a point beyond what could have been done on film or in the darkroom. It has to look real.
I still love film.
Yeah, with digital people can take pictures that are technically really good but have no soul. Not many people understand that. A lot of the new school photographers are obsessed with what the gear can do for them. There’s a saying that it’s not the bow and arrow but the archer. Nowadays some photographers will convince clients that the gear they have is a requirement for taking good pictures. They think it will do everything. But that’s not going to happen until cameras have auto-compose, auto-frame and auto-anticipate. I know some people who have the eye and who take good pictures with cell phone cameras. For me it’s the soul and the composition and the recognition of that unique moment, not huge lenses. There are “professional photographers” who shoot a whole event from one spot. I’d get bored just sitting glued to my seat, especially during sporting events or concerts when there’s so much movement, so much happening. Apart from the wrong reasons for getting into photography, all this hi-tech brouhaha has made everyone lazy.
How you practice your art or your craft is parallel with what you’re going through personally. With the clarity I’ve found, I assume I can sniff out those who are just doing it for the money versus people who are purely passionate about their respective craft. I can smell the posers from a mile away, maybe because I’ve had so much experience with dishonest artists.
How do you get digital to look a little more like film?
Personally, I really love shooting at higher ISOs to get more grain. When digital started out, the challenge was to equal the quality of film because film looked so much cleaner. Then digital caught up and overtook film as far as clarity was concerned, and digital looked too clean. When a shot looks too sharp, I use a blur tool on Photoshop like you would focus in a darkroom. I don’t like it when the lines are too sharp and the skin tone is too smooth. I still like that old film texture that’s not too perfect.