FASHION

The women fashion photographers at this year’s Art Fair Philippines

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A conversation with veteran photographers Shaira Luna, Regine David, Lilen Uy, and Garovs Vergara. Photo by REGINE DAVID/Courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

In the HBO documentary “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye” the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton said that much of our memory of fashion really is fashion photography rather than fashion itself. These images connect to everyone, from designers, consumers, creatives, to spectators, shaping our visual culture.

Often, the field of fashion photography — a field whose biggest names in the Philippines are men — is contested to be trivial, particularly with how the space has been seemingly enjoyed mostly by the elite. But Filipino fashion photographers from different generations emphasized that fashion is beyond what is captured in glossy magazine covers and worn by the few.

“People ask where they could see our work, and so we talk about the brands and publications we work with, and we end up concluding that they probably already saw our work because fashion is everywhere,” said photographer Shaira Luna, who is part of the Art Fair Philippines’ exhibit “Tattoos, Ternos and Couture, A Celebration of Philippine Fashion Photography.”

Based on a past interview with veteran fashion photographer Lilen Uy, women photographers like her started in the late 1990s, in magazines such as Mega, Metro, and Preview and in the campaigns of big brands. As our visual culture gradually transitioned digitally, more people gained access to cameras and mobile devices and posted images on social media.

In 1999, Lilen Uy moved back to Manila where she further established her career in fashion and beauty photography, making her one of the leading fashion photographers in the country. Photo courtesy of LILEN UY

This evolution is seen in the exhibit, which is curated by photographers Neal Oshima, Mark Nicdao, Gio Panlilio, and stylist and editor Michael Salientes.

The photographs capture and subvert Philippine fashion imagery. From Filipiniana ternos worn in formal events, quirky ukays that attract all types of Filipinos, Philippine textile and clothing found in urban and rural settings, and portraits that veer away from the commercialization of clothing.

Most local leading fashion magazines have folded their print editions and migrated their cover stories online. Still, international titles find a market in the country.

“Fashion will always be relevant and will always be connected to our current realities, and photographers will continue making images to be a relevant voice."

“Fashion will always be relevant and will always be connected to our current realities, and photographers will continue making images to be a relevant voice,” said Uy.

The exhibit’s co-curator Salientes, who is a former fashion editor of New York-based Details magazine said of the current state of fashion photography, “Now everyone who has a camera can celebrate fashion, everyone can take pictures of what they’re wearing, and that’s a good thing, because that means more documentation.”

According to Nicdao, “Tattoos, Ternos and Couture,” which features 26 photographers, poses an opportunity to discover and rediscover visuals by Filipino image-makers from the past to the present, while mounting all these images in an outdoor physical space.

“Fashion has been a big part of our zeitgeist, especially in the last two decades, and it's about time we pause and show its interesting journey and influence,” said Nicdao.

In selecting the images, Salientes focused his eye on the models and clothes.

“I’ve always loved photography even if I was a stylist,” he said. “There were no real criteria in choosing the images for this exhibit, but we chose images that moved us. There was this image from Everywhere We Shoot that was taken six years ago, and we chose it because it felt timeless.”

He also noted that the images taken by women photographers were in his opinion some of the strongest.

A panel from the “Tattoos, Ternos and Couture, A Celebration of Philippine Fashion Photography” exhibit at the 2022 Art Fair Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

In this roundtable discussion, we gathered four of the women photographers in the exhibit, Regine David, Shaira Luna, Lilen Uy, and Garovs Vergara of Everywhere We Shoot to discuss being cis-women in the predominantly queer male fashion photography industry.

Regine David is an international fashion and portrait photographer whose work has graced publications such as Dazed & Confused, Vogue Hommes, and New York Magazine. Her distinctive style of intimately photographing menswear has been described as “both voyeuristic and vulnerable.”

Shaira Luna is a photographer who specializes in fashion and advertising photography. Luna first picked up the camera as a hobby, and then started shooting bands in 2004. She eventually found her way through fashion and is now a professional self-taught photographer known for her retro-style images.

Lilen Uy studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and Brooke Institute in Singapore. In 1999, she moved back to Manila where she further established her career in fashion and beauty photography, making her one of the leading fashion photographers in the country.

Garovs Vergara is ½ of the visual duo Everywhere We Shoot, together with her husband and fellow photographer Ryan Vergara. The two artists who work as a team switch roles between photographers and stylists in production. Everywhere We Shoot is known for their distinct and vibrant style, filled with bold colors and playful details. Their work has appeared in every major Philippine magazine and abroad.

The four women see the space to be more “gender-neutral.” Rather than attributing shooting differences to their gender, these photographers say the difference in shooting fashion today is more generational than gender-based.

“Senior women photographers paved the way for us, they built the hard work, which is why I think this time, at present, we are able to be ourselves,“ said David.

These interviews below attest to how women contributed to the pillars of the Philippine fashion industry through their lens, and how it continually evolves. They also make it a point to shift the gaze away from themselves when it comes to building the image, crediting the production teams — the designers, stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists, production designers, assistants, etc. — in crafting iconic photographs.

These interviews attest to how women contributed to the pillars of the Philippine fashion industry through their lens, and how it continually evolves. Photo by REGINE DAVID/Courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

What made you decide to pursue fashion compared to other fields of photography? What makes it special for you?

Shaira Luna: I didn’t know fashion photography was something I’d get into, because I wasn’t fashionable at all. When I started shooting fashion stories in 2010, I had no idea about fashion, I had no idea what I was doing. I think the feeling of being a fashion photographer only started a couple of years ago. I didn’t exactly choose it, I fell in love with it along the way. I think it grew because I love old things, and fashion helps me put a time stamp on things, it was making my own stories through the help of clothes. I was able to craft little stories with clothes.

Regine David: Like Shaira, it wasn’t the first thing I explored, it was more of like something that happened, I was always fascinated by the artistry and the fantasy aspect of photography. I think it was only a little bit more recently when I began to appreciate its relevance in contemporary space. Fashion is always interesting when it relates to the environment and that’s how I fell in love with it. Clothing is very telling of an era, an experience and you can derive stories from it. It’s not limited to fantasy, because fashion also explains the function of things.

Lilen Uy: I am a photographer who happened to do fashion photography. I did not set out to pursue fashion, but when I was given many opportunities to do work in this line, I found myself enjoying the storytelling, the imagination and creativity it involved, and that it never sits still.

Garovs Vergara: From the start, I was super into avant-garde foreign fashion and music magazines already — the ones you’d find in second-hand shops like Booksale and that small stand in Park Square 2 in the middle of the bus and jeep station. That [was] 20 years ago! They had all the rare finds and back issues that made our eyes melt. We didn't have money to buy all the time, but just looking at the covers was already enough to inspire us to create our own fashion photography works. I can’t say though that Everywhere We Shoot is a fashion photographer. After 20 years, parang halo-halo na yung works namin. Kahit papel lang photo namin, sa colors na gamit namin parang laging may feeling of fashion. Kasi pag fashion, just like art, design, it’s in everything. Kahit walang damit or model.

"From the start, I was super into avant-garde foreign fashion and music magazines already — the ones you’d find in second-hand shops like Booksale and that small stand in Park Square 2 in the middle of the bus and jeep station," says Garovs Vergara. Photo by EVERYWHERE WE SHOOT/Courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about fashion photography?

Shaira Luna: That we get to take home the clothes. (Laughs).

Regine David: That people are mean. And that fashion photography is trivial. People associate commercial avenues as irrelevant when it’s actually a big part of our culture. It’s not a trivial thing, because it’s also an emotional space.

"I think [my love for fashion photography] grew because I love old things, and fashion helps me put a time stamp on things, it was making my own stories through the help of clothes. I was able to craft little stories with clothes," says Shaira Luna. Photo by SHAIRA LUNA/Courtesy of ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

Shaira Luna: I agree, it’s not as trivial as what people think. There’s a lot of thought put together. It’s not just getting someone with a camera to shoot, no. If people only knew the amount of time we spend before the shoot happens, it takes a lot of work.

Regine David: Yes, it involves a lot of planning research, because that really helps build your story and your work. When Shaira does character studies, that’s studying history, that’s researching references, and that’s not a trivial thing. I wish people realize fashion photography comes from somewhere.

Garovs Vergara: Actually anyone with a camera who takes a photo of something visually stimulating, that’s already fashion photography. I think it's a lot like art, without knowing the context and backstory, it's up to you how you accept what you see.

How do you address these views — that fashion photography is trivial — in your line of work?

Garovs Vergara: Photography in general is about producing images to make the viewers think, feel, wonder for themselves. Waste of time to even think about what others think of you — di naman nila alam kung saan fully nanggagaling ang art mo.

Regine David: I don’t pay attention, there will always be people with something negative to say about somebody's line of work. But as somebody that was outside of this industry growing up, even if it weren't relevant to me directly — I couldn't afford the clothes, I couldn't fit them, the actual images I saw still resonated with me. The photographs got me excited and thinking of possibilities.

Shaira Luna: The same experience with Regine, I grew up being told that I had to focus on school, get a “real job.” It’s the same when you enter fashion photography — they see it as something on the side, “art lang yan”, but I learned to chuck that out, that’s why I became a photographer, not a doctor. It’s not shutting comments completely too, but we don't let them interfere with work, because people will be affected. This is a livelihood for a lot of people, and fashion photography has its own place, just like other industries have their own place.

Lilen Uy: I agree, fashion photography is a part of a huge industry, and part of this lies in advertising. This is bread and butter for a lot of us. People might not realize this, but it takes a lot of skill and discipline and knowledge to get in and remain in this industry. It is also not for everyone, but it is work, and that in turn enables us to make a living and pursue the stuff we love.

"We remember things through photographs, but because it’s so ingrained, we don’t even realize that there are people behind the lens who control the narratives."

Regine David: It’s weird that people are not even aware of photography as a medium and how much it influences perception reality. We remember things through photographs, but because it’s so ingrained, we don’t even realize that there are people behind the lens who control the narratives. So how could they look down on photographers when perception is heavily based on our way of communicating — photography.

Fashion photography in the Philippines is an industry with mostly male photographers. As a woman behind the lens, what difference does a woman's eye bring?

Lilen Uy: My style is really just going with my observations, and focusing on what resonates with me at the time. It is like a live performance, there is no second take, just being in the present.

Regine David: I don't think there’s a difference, I used to say there was. But I guess now, what I want to say more is that women's views are just as varied as men’s and we deserve to be heard. I don’t believe in that gendered thinking. You know, the initial approach, that women are delicate and intuitive, but no, because a woman can be soft and hard, and a woman can be many different things, and I think there is value in what we can share.

Garovs Vergara: I take photos, literally, behind a man behind the lens. Sometimes in front to fix the subject, sometimes beside the lens to direct, to check, and later to post-process the photos. And then we switch roles as needed. I think every eye sees differently, no matter what gender. Especially in fashion, it's not just our eyes that make the photo, the whole production team's eyes create with you.

On her style, Lilen Uy says, "[It's] really just going with my observations, and focusing on what resonates with me at the time. It is like a live performance, there is no second take, just being in the present." Photo by LILEN UY

How was it working with the curators for this exhibit?

Shaira Luna: I never considered my work exhibit-worthy, I've always backed out in exhibits. My work looks like stills from a movie screenshot, that’s why I didn’t really see it up in an exhibit. I was so hesitant, the curators kept on following up! (Laughs). I didn’t know what to do, but it was a learning experience. I think it’s not my forte, but I’m really glad to be able to do this.

Regine David: No Shaira, I really loved your work! I think it’s good that this is a different space and that’s the beauty of doing exhibitions. It allows you to re-see yourself in a place you don’t usually see yourself in. As for me, I really wanted to take advantage of Michael Saliente’s stylist eyes. It was so cool to work with somebody that had access to fashion history that I wasn’t a part of.

Shaira Luna: I also realized how important a curator is. They managed to pick five images that I didn't realize would go together. Everything they picked was totally different from what you would come to mind when you think of my work. Viewers describe my photos as “retro” and “downy,” and these photos in the exhibit are not necessarily what comes to your mind when you hear those words.

Regine David: I sent them 700 photos, bahala na sila! (Laughs). But they managed to pick a story I shelved years ago. At that time it didn't have a space, but I liked it anyway, and now it found a home in the Art Fair.

Garovs Vergara: Only the curators can get us to immediately dig that much into yeeeeears of fashion photography archives!

Regine David: Yeah, and I guess having a curator was also something that I wish was more common in fashion photography. Unlike photojournalism, we don’t have fashion editors that curate specifically per photo, but we might miss certain things, and it’s good to have that.

A panel from the “Tattoos, Ternos and Couture, A Celebration of Philippine Fashion Photography” exhibit at the 2022 Art Fair Philippines. The exhibit can be viewed at the Ayala Triangle Gardens until April 1. Photo by JL JAVIER

With everything going on around the world, how can fashion photography remain relevant both for photographers and consumers?

Lilen Uy: It will always be relevant if it stays connected to the current realities of our world. We have multiple and urgent problems that dictate, change the way we live, and consume. Photographers will have to step up on that and be a relevant voice.

Regine David: I agree, and fashion can reflect a point in time, or it can remind you of that time. During the pandemic, fashion became more colorful and wild. I guess it was a coping mechanism or a way to survive. But at the same time, there were also people who were barer, who cared less. Fashion is a direct reflection of your space. So how can that be not relevant? It reflects what is going on.

Shaira Luna: I like this quote from designer Esme Palaganas:

“I disagree when people say that fashion is just all about luxury — it is an everyday thing, an essential good, and a source of income for many groups and industries. Moreover, the act of buying anything, be it clothes or products, is a reflection of our values in life — buying locally, for instance, speaks of our support for craftsmanship and livelihoods. At the end of the day, we need clothes just as much as we need food and shelter.”

Garovs Vergara: Everyone is into fashion, even if they don't know it. And photography is everywhere (we shoot).

Art Fair Philippines returns as a hybrid event for the 10th edition, which runs from March 23 to April 1. The physical exhibition will take place at the Ayala Triangle Gardens and gallery venues, while online exhibitions and activities can be accessed at artfairphilippines.com.