Truth is, I’m not so much of a sucker for love stories in the broadest sense. OK, I know what you’re thinking: for someone who makes half a living photographing couples in love, that right there is kind of a harrowing thing to come clean about. But, believe it or not, I haven’t even seen, say, The Notebook from 2004—it’s, like, I don’t care if it involves a scruffy Ryan Gosling, and I don’t care if it’s chock-full of gorgeous 1940s fashion, because it’s just too sappy for my taste! Because of my line of work, though, and because of the wide diversity of clients that I am exposed to (thanks in part to my current part-time stint at Shutterfairy Photography), I am forced to embrace the “bigger picture,” for the sake of amassing an ecompassing collection of cultural references (although I still draw the line to some extent—last year I had to turn down clients who asked for a The Notebook-inspired engagement session). But if I were to have it my way, I would like to be inextricably bound to the kinds of love stories that truly fascinate me 100 percent. I’m talking about the ones that involve beach culture/summery elements (or Californian elements, an obsession that I talked about in a previous post), or those that are laced with adrenaline—or, very ideally now, those that pair these two. Having said that, it’s no surprise that, while I have not seen films like The Notebook, I have watched, say, Crazy/Beautiful from 2001 (starring Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez) over fifty times, just ‘cause it’s set in sunny SoCal, and just ‘cause a good chunk of it features hold-on-to-your-seats freeway joyriding to punk metal/Latin-tinged hardcore hip-hop. It was this formula that got me started in the business of photographing couples in the first place: if you’ve been following my body of work, you will know that the very first engagement shoot I did, for an Ormoc-based couple, was built around this premise—well, the central theme was ‘90s/grunge, and the main inspiration was Mad Love from 1995, set in Seattle, but the jeep/joyride element was also inspired by Crazy/Beautiful.
It’s not a formula that appeals to most couples, and especially the women/brides-to-be, whose ideals almost always involve something sentimental, whimsical and mushy (again, we go back to that The Notebook-inspired engagement session that was dropped on my lap last year), and who cringe at the slightest hint of a “macho” element (it’s always a challenge to convince these brides-to-be that we need to insert a teeny-tiny bit of, say, basketball, just for the sake of putting their grooms-to-be at ease with the idea of a photo shoot), so, unfortunately for me, it’s not something that I get to do on a regular basis. Which was why when this couple right here commissioned me to do their engagement photos late last year, and they mentioned Siargao Island (not exactly California, but “the Hawaii of he Philippines,” and something I’d been dying to see for years), and that it was going to involve surfing, I got so excited I almost wet my pants! This came at a perfect time, too, ‘cause I was just reaching the peak of my obsession with anything that had to do with surfing—something that I’d picked up after spending one whole day in the summer of 2010 riding up and down that stretch of the PCH between Pacific Palisades and Malibu just taking pictures of surfers and surfboards, and that had amplified after photographing a surfer girl in Venice Beach one fine summer day last year (inspired by a photo that Boo George took of Australian pro surfer Stephanie Gilmore for the June 2012 issue of Vogue) , and after doing a surfing/longboarding-themed engagement shoot for a Singapore-based couple last July. From the moment these guys first called me, even before we could start any real planning, I just knew that this shoot was going to go down in my history as one of the highlights of my so-called career!
I had no idea how Lawrence and Estifanny had found me. I mean, I knew they’d known of me through my cousin Celestine, but how had they known I would be the right person for the job? When we first sat down I began to have a sneaking suspicion they’d seen the abovementioned grunge-themed love shoot I’d done in Ormoc some two years back, or the surfing/longboarding-themed one I’d done last July, because they pointed out it was the reckless, gritty, somewhat “masculine” feel that they wanted for their photos, nothing cheesy or cutesy. Or, could it be that they’d sensed that in me lied a frustrated adventure photographer desperately waiting for a big break? Regardless, I was just happy that they’d picked me when, frankly, they could’ve hired a more experienced photographer to do this for them.
At the time of our first meeting, Lawrence and Estifanny had been dating for a little over 7 years, but for more than half of that time they’d been living apart—him in Isabel, Leyte (some 40 minutes southwest of Ormoc), where he worked as a engineer, and her here in Cebu, because she couldn’t bear being away from her family just yet. Of the sea between them, they shared that at first it had posed as a challenge trying to figure out creative ways to be together, until one day they both had fallen in love with the stimulating and intoxicating sport that is surfing. Ever since then they would make it a point to go on a surfing trip at least four or five times a year, sometimes with the friends they’d made in the local surf world, but most of the time just by themselves. As they were telling me this story they made the whole setup sound like a compromise—I had to stop them and comment that having four or five summers a year and spending them in the some of the most breathtaking beaches/beach towns in the country with the person you loved was hardly what anyone would call a compromise! Their serious case of surf fever had taken them to Siargao Island a couple of times, and to Dulag, Leyte (some 25 miles south of Tacloban), Guiuan in Eastern Samar, and Calicoan Island (can’t remember if La Union was in their list, but if it wasn’t I’m pretty sure it’s going to be in their long list of next stops). It was exactly this aspect of their relationship that the couple wanted their engagement photos to shine a bright light on: the surfing trip that allowed them quality time together. They made it very clear, though, that, unlike the previous surfer-themed shoot that I’d done, they wanted theirs to look kosher, nothing staged or ersatz. The only way to achieve this, of course, was for them to go on a real surfing trip—their fourth for 2012—and for me to tag along! We first discussed Guiuan, because it was closest to where we were, and, between them and I, we knew a bunch of people there who could host us. But then Lawrence was quick to point out that, although the place was indeed closer, it was going to take hours and hours to get there by virtue of the fact that there were no flights to take us (a local airline had opened the service a couple of months back, but had to discontinue due to poor seat sales). He then offered that Siargao Island meant more to them, and was easily accesible by plane (Cebu Pacific, three times a week)—not to mention it was more “photogenic,” and not to mention the cultural significance of it being the country’s premier surfing destination. Of course, I was in no position to turn this offer down, especially since it had been more than a decade that I’d been itching to see Siargao!
So it was the quasi-documentary/guerilla approach that they wanted me to take—in other words, and perhaps more fittingly, since it’s surfing we’re talking about here, “go with the flow.” Sounds like a piece of cake, right? Well, not necessarily. Because although it was as easy as 1-2-3 following their trails as they made their way to their favorite spots, old and new, and chasing them around as they did their thing—even helping them lug their boards around wasn’t so bad—it was the work that took place before the actual shoot that didn’t exactly make the whole thing a “go with the flow” kind of deal. Wish I could say it was as effortless as just packing my bags and going, but the truth is, in the weeks leading to this shoot, I had to do massive amounts of research in order to come up with a solid mood board. For starters, I spent two whole Sundays scouring the used-books shops for back issues of Surfer Magazine. And for days on end I had to study the works of the great surf photographers like Jason Kenworthy, Morgan Maassen, and, my all-time personal favorite (it is my dream to meet him one day), Chris Burkard. I also had to do a considerable amount of reading on the legendary photographer John Callahan, who is credited for putting Siargao on the map via a feature in the March 1993 issue of Surfer Magazine (“Philippines: Beyond Perfection” was emblazoned on the cover). I also had the follow a bunch of surfer folk on Instagram, from the pros (Kalani Robb, Gabriel Medina, Kolohe Andino) down to the hobbyists (The Hills star Brody Jenner, Filipina actress Mylene Dizon, etc.), and for a time there all I ever looked at on Tumblr were posts by California-based singer/surfer Catherine Clark. I also looked to Right at Dawn for inspiration—in case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a “visualized novel,” or a novel told through words and images, by writer Ryan Patrick and photographer Keegan Gibbs, who are also surfers. On the styling front, I had to pore over the work that Melbourne-based fashion photographer Nirrimi Hakanson and Queensland-based stylist/blogger Mandy Shadforth (A.K.A. Oracle Fox) did for Billabong (their spring/summer 2012 campaign, in which the central feature was a European road trip). Most Saturday evenings would find me cooping myself up in my bedroom to watch surf films like the seminal The Endless Summer from the mid-‘60s, North Shore from 1987, Blue Crush from 2002, and Chasing Mavericks. Believe it or not, I even had to come up with a special playlist, just to set me in the mood: not purely surf rock—although I did have some Surfaris and The Beach Boys in there—but a list of songs that I would listen to if I were to go on my own summer adventure (most of these songs were borrowed from my California playlist): “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap and “She’s Got You High” by Mumm-Ra (both from the  Days of Summer soundtrack), “Summertime” by Cody Simpson, “California” by Atherton, “Boy Meets Girl” by Evan Taubenfeld, “Beach Song” by Seryn, and “These Are the Nights” by Making April, among others. Goes without saying that music is a huge element in my creative process. Some of the best (to me, at least) images that I’ve produced are often results of when I had a song ringing in my head. The photos that you see here of Lawrence and Estifanny sitting in front of a bonfire, for example, were inspired by lines from “These Are the Nights” that go: “’Cause these are the nights that you know when you’re there/ You couldn’t have planned it much better, I swear/ And you hope that your senses aren’t failing you now/ And you think to yourself, Now, I could be wrong/ But I might have just stolen this scene from a song/ And you know that your sense aren’t failing you now…” Yes, I borrowed a scene from a song about borrowing a scene from a song!
Perhaps the most important lesson that I’ve learned from all this homework is that, if you want to effectively tell a story, you’ve got stick to a certain discipline—in this case, it’s the discipline of framing in a horizontal format. The thing about Burkard and Hakanson is that they rarely—almost never even—shoot in the vertical format. And the more I studied their images, the more I uncovered the rationale: images shot in the horizontal speak to you more because they look more natural—after all, to quote the great Annie Leibovitz, “the eyes see horizontally.” So for this shoot I made a conscious effort to never tilt or tip my camera to portrait orientation, and it felt so damn good! That’s not the only modus operandi that I espoused from the greats, though. As I was reading Surfing Brilliant Corners, the British surfer and travel writer Sam Bleakley’s 2010 book on “extreme global surf travel,” I picked up a tip from the part where he wrote about John Callahan and his technique: “his commitment to capturing cultural lifestyle, through place, artefact, [and] people, is supreme.” So I had to remind myself, too, to not focus on my subjects 100% of time, and to turn my camera to landscapes and objects around us every so often.
One thing I loved about this assigment—apart from how it educated me on technique—was that it brought me together with the talented young makeup artist/illustrator/photographer Alex Lorenzana. This really wasn’t the first time our works were going to come together—we’d become accidental collaborators some two years back when our photos of Sinulog street party scenes were used side-by-side for a special feature in StyleCebu.com—but this was the first time we’d met face-to-face. Being a self-confessed beach bum herself, no one else could’ve been more perfect for the job, and she knew what kind of make-up would look best for the photos we were trying to achieve. Her sick illustration skills came in handy, too (especially for the frames wherein I needed skin scribblings in Lawrence’s and Estifanny’s backs). Best part was when she also got to help out with the styling aspect by loaning Estiffany some of her favorite beach outfits!
I found it quite intriguing, the kind of chemistry that Lawrence and Estifanny had. I was doing individual portraits (i.e., pictures of them not together), and while he was energetic and self-confident in front of the camera, she was kind of camera shy. But then when I put them together in one frame, the mood sort of changes—he is still self-confident, but more benignly this time, while she somehow loses her inhibitions. And when I put them in the water or hand them their surfboards, the atmosphere changes some more—they’re more at ease, and there’s more swagger! It’s amazing for me to be able to witness these kinds of things—how two people affect each other, how their environment affects them—and study them closely, because they help me take pictures that are honest and uncontrived, and keep me from over-directing my subjects. Yes, so happy to finally be able to conduct a shoot in which I didn’t have to play dictator! Reciprocally, Lawrence and Estifanny pretty much left me alone to my business, and never did anything that would alter my point of view. Loved that they had so much insider knowledge of the island, too—we always found our way and we never got lost! You’d think that three days of shooting the same subjects would drive you batty, but that wasn’t the case here at all: apart from giving me some time off so I could explore the place on my own, they treated me as a friend, and not as a vendor/contractor, and I guess that’s why it all went so well—not to mention they were very bent on overfeeding me and Alex! Thank you so much for everything, Lawrence and Estifanny! I will forever be grateful for this opportunity!
Not sure if it’s appropriate to share this, but I must say that the feedback that I’ve gotten for these photos (I put up a sneak peek some two months ago) have been pretty overwhelming. I’ve been told by friends that this right here is truly my niche, and that I should be doing shoots like this more often! I’ve even received notes from strangers (from as far as England!) asking if I was based in Siargao and/or if I would be willing to take their photos should they plan to visit and have their own Siargao adventure one day! So crazy! Biggest pat on my back, though, came from the surfer and Surfista Travels Philippines owner Elaine Abonal (check out their amazing tour packages now!), who found me via Instagram, and who said she loved the silhouette shots and the “save the date” photos! This is all so amazing to me, especially since I never expected to get these kinds of responses. I mean, at the outset, all I cared about was making sure my clients were going to be happy with my work. For a moment I was even unsure about this whole thing—I mean, I don’t even own a telephoto zoom lens with a focal length decent enough for sports/action shots, and I don’t even have waterproof housing to enable me to get closer to the surfing action (thinking of buying one now, though)! But I assured Lawrence and Estifanny that, although I didn’t have an arsenal of sophisticated equipment to boast of, I’d done enough love shoots and I’d spent enough time soaking up beach/surf culture to be able to churn out the pictures they envisioned. That was what was important to me—to be able to take the pulse of them as a couple in love, against a backdrop of a sport they were absolutely passionate about, and a place/culture that made them one with the universe by spatially expanding their horizons. Whether or not the resulting photos would catch the eyes of others—and especially the surfing insiders—was really just an afterthought.
Lawrence Gochoco and Estifanny Sevilla | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Siargao Island, Surigao del Norte, on November 23-26, 2012 | Hair and makeup by Alex Nicole Lorenzana | Special thanks to Hippie’s Surf Shop and the staff of Ocean 101 Beach Resort | Graphic tees and surf jams, Aframe Surf Company; lavender jacquard henley, Koto, Urban Outfitters