How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls: Amanda and Mia

“If you could photograph only one thing in the world, what would it be?” A friend of mine once asked me this question almost out of the blue. She was half-expecting me to scream “Chris Burden’s Urban Light outside the LACMA!” or go all out and pick a really outrageous subject like, say, the divine Kate Moss, and so what rolled out of my tongue took her by surprise: “A horse.” And I wasn’t kidding, too—in fact, this was the most honest answer I’d ever given anyone. To which she intoned incredulously, “Why a horse?” I just laughed and said, you know, “Well, why the hell not?”

Said this a gazillion times before, and I’ll say it again now: To me, there is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a horse throw its head up, arch its back, and whip its tail. Pure, unadulterated magic. Hundreds of other animals out there, I know, but, to me, none of them possess and harmonize two opposing qualities as effectively and effortlessly as a horse does—i.e., not everything that’s fluid can be strapping at the same time, and not everything that’s strapping can be fluid—which is almost always what makes something such a thrill to watch (the reason why we are so fascinated with ballerinas, or why we can’t stop watching those Herb Ritts music videos, no?) and, well, to photograph.

I’d been fascinated with horses since time immemorial (the first ever book I’d finished in one sitting was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty; I’d held on to my My Little Pony blanket well until I was halfway through high school; and for a time there I’d actually considered getting that silhouette of a stallion in the lower right corner of the album cover of the Deftones’ White Pony tattooed on my wrist), but this epiphany—the joy in taking pictures of them—didn’t occur to me until a year and a half ago, when I visited the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, on a mission to take pictures of the place for my cousin Amanda Liok, who loved horses to death and had dreamt of visiting that very place one day, and I ended up spending four or so hours just clicking away at every singe horse I bumped into, living or statued. Andalusians, American Minis, Palominos, even Frieisians! Majestic equine bronze statues (Herbert Haseltine’s rendition of the legendary Man o’ War, couple of Gwen Reardons)! I even got to witness and shoot some show jumping! It was such an exhilarating experience—needless to say, I didn’t want it to ever end. Flash forward to a year later, back home in Cebu, I was starting to lament the lack of opportunities to watch or photograph these fine creatures in this part of the world when, slowly but surely, they found a way to creep up on to—or, should I say “gallop into”—my frame. For a shoot in Busay last July, I was surprised when the stylist was able to commission a pretty little riding mare named Athena to join in the sitting. And then the following month, during my first ever gig as apprentice to Malou Pages (of Shutterfairy Photography), which took us up the mountains of Carmen, my mentor had to shoot me reproving glances upon realizing I was spending more time taking pictures of this stallion named Ferrari than of our clients. And then came November, which found us driving two hours down south to Barili to do a cowboy-themed engagement session—and what’s a cowboy-themed sitting without a couple of horses, right?

Three shoots that involved horses, none of them planned or foreseen, all of them a coincidence. Glad they came along and found me, because they only gave me the chance to prepare for my biggest shoot that was to involve horses. Which brings us to this shoot right here.

For more than a year I’d been promising my cousin Amanda that I was going to find time in my frenzied schedule to visit her in her new hometown of Palompon, Leyte (some two hours west of Ormoc City), and photograph her and her daughter Mia, and, well, their horses. I hadn’t seen her in ages, and during that time our only form of interaction had been our exchange of e-mails whenever I’d found myself in Kentucky—“It’s you that’s supposed to be here,” I would write. “You are going to love this place to bits!” To me, Amanda was many things, but a lover of horses above all—naturally, no one else had come to mind whenever I’d found myself in the “horse capital of the world.” She would respond to my e-mails saying that, yes, it had been her and her husband’s dream to visit Lexington one day, and then she would send me photos of the horses in her own backyard. What beauties! She had taken her childhood fancies and whims, and then put them together to put up her own little band of horses. When I told her at one point that “it turns out naming your horses is almost like an art”—this after I’d met horse owners/equestrians at the Horse Park who’d baptized their beloved beasts with some of the most enchanting names I’d ever heard (my personal favorites: Alcatraz, Countess, and Moonshine, the latter probably after the liquor since this was the American South, after all)—she’d shared that, yes, she’d taken the naming game pretty seriously herself, and had given the most charming monikers to those in her brood. Finding out that she’d named one of her babies Moondance? Enough to make me want to meet the beauty and the rest of the family in the flesh, and that was how the idea for this shoot had been born.

So aside from Moondance there were Salsa, Chili, Ginger, Ola, Baila, and Sol. When Amanda asked me which one I wanted to include in the shoot, I picked Moondance, and she validated my choice by saying that the mare’s strawberry roan made it very photogenic—true enough, against the vast vegetation in their backyard, her chestnut coat looked so dazzling that I found it hard to stop taking pictures of her! She was the most mild-mannered of them all, too, and had a Zen aura about her. You know what they say about never approaching a horse “from the behind?” Well, I approached her a couple of times from the rear, and Moondance didn’t seem to mind. (She was the complete and utter opposite of the subject of Curley Fletcher’s poem-turned-ballad called, well, “The Strawberry Roan,” which talks of a wild bucking horse: “An’ fer throwin’ good riders he’s had lots uh luck/ An’ he sez that this pony has never been rode/ That the boys that gits on him is bound to git throwed.”) Did I mention she was very affectionate towards her master, too? Every chance she got she would stick her muzzle against Amanda’s cheeks! I thought that was just cute. I wanted to include Salsa in some of the frames, because I was in love with her smoky black coating, but the caretaker told me that that mare had to rest (apparently, horses have to take a break, too)—I did get a chance to take a few shots of her while she was taking an afternoon stroll, though, and that was enough for now (I’ll be back for you, Salsa!).

For Mia’s set, we decided to include the latest addition to their ever-growing family: a 4-year-old Miniature named Iris. Pretty awesome, because only a year ago, when I’d showed Amanda my photos of the American Minis I’d spotted at the Horse Park, she’d said that it had been her dream to get Mia a Mini, and now here we were face-to-face with a dream come true! Actually, the little girl didn’t get just one but two Minis! The other one, Barrack, we couldn’t ask to join in the photos because he was in a foul mood that day and thus had to be kept at bay. That was alright, because Iris by herself was gorgeous enough. I would’ve wanted for Mia to mount Iris for a couple of frames, but Iris was pregnant (another Mini on the way!), so we just forgot about it.

Horses weren’t the only, um, quadrupeds that made special guest appearances that day. Mia’s blue Australian Cattle Dog named, well, Blue also joined in the fun. Such a mischievous little creature, that fella—he was all over the place, darting from left to right, jumping up and down, always wanting to play catch—but when it was time for him to face the camera he was surprisingly tame and well-behaved! Suffice to say that that doggie stole the show—it was as if he was thinking, I am not going to let a bunch of horses upstage me!

It’s uncanny how much Mia looks like her mom. I was staring at the little girl’s face, and it took me back to years ago when Amanda and I were little kids, and we’d lock ourselves up in her bedroom to play with her Barbies (actually, she would take me to her bedroom so I could play with her Barbies, and then she’d rush back out to play with the boys). It got me feeling somewhat, um, melancholic thinking that Amanda finally had a “mini her,” while here I was without a “mini me!” When I asked Mia what she wanted to be when she grew up, she just shook her head, pressed a thumb against her nose (she loves to do that, so cute!), and said she didn’t know yet. One thing’s for sure, though: she’s gonna take after her mother’s love of horses. When Amanda showed me a photo album of their recent trip to Down Under, noting that some of the more beautiful photos had been taken by Mia, I said, “I hope she grows up to be a photographer!” Of course, wishful thinking in my part that, since I didn’t have a “mini me” of my own, Mia would take after a part of me, too. Wouldn’t that be nice, though?

I was happy that I got to exercise a teensy-weensy bit of styling during this session. You see, I’d had reservations at first, knowing that Amanda and I, although we’d practically grown up together, had completely opposing views when it came to clothes (didn’t I mention me playing with her Barbies and her running off to play with the boys?)—i.e., she was the T-shirt-and-jeans kind of girl, while I favored, well, everything impractical. I was also aware of the fact that she was making a conscious effort to raise her daughter in a certain way—i.e., she didn’t want Mia to grow up appearance-conscious—and I wanted to respect that more than anything. But thank God she trusted me enough to let me have my way that day, and she agreed to wear some of the items that I’d brought along with me. I was in for a pleasant surprise, though, when, upon inspecting their closet to look for other items we could use, I spotted these exquisite little pairs of two-tone top-stitched cowboy boots (Amanda’s in aquamarine and coffee, and Mia’s in cameo pink and camel)—turned out that, although function was their utmost priority, they knew a thing or two about injecting a little form and fancy into their wardrobe, after all.

OK, OK. I know you’ve been thinking it while looking at all these photos, so let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? These are some seriously good-looking cowgirls right here. Amanda is going to laugh at this little commentary, though, even call it absurd, because she’s down-to-earth like that. But the fact that they didn’t need makeup to look this good in photos (our makeup artist friend Sheila On, my go-to girl whenever I have shoots in Leyte, wasn’t available that day) is only testimony to how naturally beautiful they are. But make no mistake, behind those pretty faces are some, well, pretty tough interiors. Like the horse that marries good looks and might, these girls possess those two qualities not easily contained in one person. Amanda, for example, is not one you would want to mess with. One can imagine her bringing home trophies from practical shooting competitions in South Africa, or hunting kangaroos in the Australian Outback—all of which, and more, as it happens, she’s actually already done. She’s the kind of girl that, growing up, I’ve been wanting to be, but, well, just can’t. But while I’m terribly unlucky that I can’t be her, I’m still lucky in that not only is she my first cousin, she’s also my oldest best friend.

Amanda Kangleon-Liok and her daughter Amilia (and their mares Moondance, Iris and Salsa, and their dog Blue) | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Palompon, Leyte, on November 27, 2011 | Special thanks to Marnelli Uyguangco | Hyperfloral jersey babydoll dress, Topshop | Vintage wash denim jacket, stylist’s own | Chambray folk skirt, The Fab Grab

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