When Ella Pansacala and Eduardo Genson first sent me an e-mail middle of last year to describe how they wanted their engagement photos to look like, I was baffled, to say the least. They mentioned “road trip,” which I totally got, and which got me excited, because wasn’t that a kind of recurring theme in most my love shoots under the Shutterfairy Photography banner (or even outside of it)? But then they launched into more detail, bringing up a “roadside fruit and/or vegetable stand,” an “old chapel where we can offer a short prayer,” and a “picnic-style luncheon with all-Filipino fare.” They even mentioned “discoral,” a vernacular term for the outdoor dance parties held in rural areas, typically during town or barrio fiestas. Sensing that I was a little lost and needed a some visual guidance, they followed it up with a mood board that showed pictures of a woman shopping for fruits and vegetables at a small wet market, of a couple praying inside an old chapel, of various dishes served during a traditional Filipino town/barrio fiesta, and of a bunch of people merrymaking at a rural street party. This was when it occurred to me: they wanted something that was very Filipino! How they arrived at this idea, I don’t know. Perhaps it was because they felt they’d been away from home for so long (both of them were Singapore-based now), and they felt they needed to do something to pay homage to their roots?
Not gonna lie: my first impulse was to talk them out of it, and not because I thought the whole thing was a little too tacky for my taste, but rather because I seemed to know I was no expert on the matter (full disclosure now: I cannot tell the different between piña fabric and jusi fabric to save my life). But then I thought about it and realized, wasn’t this exactly was I was looking for in a client? Didn’t I always ask for clients who made their own creative decisions, and who were brave enough to try something new and out of the ordinary? Now that I had such clients right in front of me, who I was to stifle them and the very qualities that I was looking for? I had to admit that, among the more than fifty mood boards that my e-mail inbox had seen, most of which contained “Westernized” cultural references, theirs was like a breath of fresh air. And so I had to pull myself together and declare, “Let’s do this!”
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about thing, because although my level of expertise when it came to anything traditional Filipino was close to nil, I had lots of friends to help me out! When it was time for me to start making a list of possible shooting locations, for example, I didn’t have to rack my brains or do an awful lot of scouting and ocular inspections, because my good friend Owen Taboada (the makeup artist) readily suggested this one spot along the Cebu Transcentral Highway up the hills of Busay (a few miles past Ayala Heights, if I am not mistaken) that had roadside vegetable and fruit stands—exactly the kinds that Ella and Eduardo had in mind for their “roadside market” photos! Another awesome thing about this place was it was only a few steps away from a sort of lookout park, which came with a bunch of picnic tables—perfect spot for a barrio fiesta luncheon scene! As for the clothes, I was keen on making room for the barong Tagalog and the baro’t saya (traditional Filipino garments), but didn’t know where to get them—thank God my friend Kristin Seno was willing to lend me a couple of pieces from her closet! For the props and set decoration, I was completely hands-off and left it all to the able hands of Shutterfairy’s in-house set decorator Jenny. I was aware of Jenny’s capabilities, but had no idea that when I handed this to her she would be really enthusiastic about it—turns out that this theme was right up her sweet spot (something to do, I guess, with how, as a child, she’d been really participative in elementary school-initiated culturally-inclined activities like Linggo ng Wika [National Language Week, held every August]). She jumped right in and amassed quite a robust amount of stuff to use for the shoot, including items I would never have been able to find on my own, like paperback romance novels in Tagalog, and a PVC-coated tablecloth in a frowzy chintz-like tropical fruit/flower pattern like those they typically use in carenderias or roadside eateries (if there is a Filipino version of shabby chic, then this tablecloth is poster child for it)! She even found a way to incorporate cheesy Filipino pick-up lines into the picture—inspired, perhaps, by the 2010 John Lloyd Cruz starrer My Amnesia Girl? The couple’s good friend (and wedding coordinator) Rey Awing was kind enough to help out with the set decoration aspect, too, particularly for the picnic-style luncheon set—it was him who called to shots when it came to deciding what kinds of Filipino dishes were going to end up in the picnic table (he opted for the mixed vegetable dish pinakbet, grilled whole fish, and street-style pork barbecue, among others), and providing the palayoks (traditional Filipino earthen pots). Preparations took a good four months—about the longest amount of time we’d had to spend preparing for a single shoot—and at one point I even posted on Twitter that this was shaping up to be “our most challenging shoot ever!” But when the day of the shoot came and everything fell into its right place…well, as anyone who has experienced something like this before knows, it felt amazing.
Not very confident about the styling aspect, especially since, with the South China Sea between the couple and I, we virtually had no time for fittings and all that good stuff, but I think I made some pretty passable creative decisions. Like electing to not go all-out costumey for the set in which they were to don Filipiniana wear, for example—I asked them to do away with the saya and the formal trousers, and wear shorts with their baro and barong instead, just to give the look a funky, unorthodox twist. The whole thing came out cute in my eyes, but I hope this does not raise the eyebrows of Filipiniana purists out there—OK, now I got to knock on wood for good measure! One thing made me extremely happy, though, and that’s the fact that I finally found an excuse to involve one of my most prized possessions in the picture: a circa late ‘90s limited edition T-shirt with a the face of Philippine cinema supervillain Bella Flores printed on it, by Cecile Zamora-van Straten (yes, before she launched the very popular Chuvaness.com she used to design streetwear and run a crazy cool store named Grocery)! I’d never thought I’d see the day I’d take it out for a spin again and give it the star treatment it deserved!
We never got to find an old chapel for the prayer scenes that they’d wanted—I mean, I knew of a chapel in the Busay area, and in fact I’d used it as backdrop for another engagement shoot back in 2011, but that chapel had a closed door policy, and Ella had made it clear she wanted pictures of them inside the thing, kneeling and praying. So we decided to do this set at a big old church instead, and the couple picked the Basílica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu. It was a bit of a challenge, because our shoot was on a Sunday (imagine the throng of churchgoers that we had to deal with), but the church turned out to be the perfect choice because we got to take photos of them doing a lot more than just kneeling. Loved the part where they got one of the many women candle peddlers to offer up an intercessory prayer to the Santo Niño via the storied “candle dance” (known as the “Sinulog dance” to us locals)—not just very Filipino, but very Cebuano.
Another thing we never got to get around doing was the “discoral” scene, just ‘cause, well, we never got to find us a “discoral” to serve as backdrop! Trust me, I tried—it was weeks and weeks of research, and I even approached some friends in the Provincial Government to see if I could get a list of towns/barrios that celebrated their fiestas on the week that we were shooting. After all those efforts proved futile, I decided to just recreate the look and feel of a barrio fiesta road trip—complete with a “Sarao”-style jeepney, and a couple of background actors to serve as the couple’s companions/co-passengers. I had Jenny scout for the perfect jeepney (it had to look a little rundown, not too immaculate), and asked Ella and Eduardo to invite a bunch of friends, and—voila!—we got the photos that we wanted! This wasn’t the first time we used background actors to be part of an engagement shoot—back in March of last year we’d also asked a bunch of kids to be part of a classroom set of a Glee-inspired shoot. It’s something we at Shutterfairy are kind of proud of, because we’ve never seen other people do engagement shoots in this manner before, at least not in other parts of the world. To borrow the Philippine Department of Tourism’s now ubiquitous slogan, it definitely is “more fun in the Philippines!”
Eduardo Genson, Jr. and Ella Pansacala | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Cebu City on December 23, 2012 | Main photographer: Malou Pages for Shutterfairy | Hair and makeup by JingJing F. Manching | Set decorator: Jennifer Hortillosa | Special thanks to: Rey Awing and Kristin Seno