Everybody around here knows Fretzel Buencensejo. Well, maybe the not the name, but you’d be lying if you said you’ve never seen that face before, once or twice or many times, by accident or otherwise. It hasn’t been around much of late, but there was a time there, especially sometime in the mid-2000s, that that face was kind of everywhere, gracing high-profile ad campaigns for the likes of Gatorade, McDonalds Philippines, Pampers, and Paradise Mango Rum. Chances are, you’ve also seen it plastered on a side of a train (MRT), holding up a delectable, smoky cup of Nescafe. There’s probably a dozen other stints, too—smaller ones—that we don’t know about, or that she’s decided to omit from her portfolio/book, perhaps because she’s run out of space, but most likely because she’s too humble about her success stories. Because that’s just Fretzel. Everybody here might be familiar with that face, but what most people don’t know is that she is the most modest, most down-to-earth person you’ll ever meet—if a light had to be shone on her, she would, as much as possible, make sure it would only touch her so-called flaws, like the scars in her arms (she talks about them the way other people would talk about their medals). That’s the Fretzel that I grew up with (I met her when we went to medical school together), the Fretzel that I worked with (it was I who’d casted her for her first ever modeling gig back in 1999, and ever since then she’d become part of some of the more important shoots of my career as a stylist), and that’s still the Fretzel I know to this very day.
And so when the time came for her to announce her engagement to her longtime boyfriend Jeff Enecio early this year, and she contacted me (and Malou Pages of Shutterfairy Photography) to talk about their engagement photos, it didn’t really come as a total shocker that she asked for a theme that’s “as simple as simple can be”—i.e., she wanted the photos to be shot in Dalaguete, the quaint little coastal town (some 50 miles southwest of Cebu) where she was born (or in Ormoc, where Jeff was from), and she wanted them to reflect the “simple joys” of small-town livng. Outrageous? If this came out of someone else’s mouth, then I would’ve fallen from my seat; but this was Fretzel I was talking to, and so I kind of had seen this coming. To be completely honest, if there was anything that shocked me, it was the fact that I, of all people, tried to talk her out of her idea—I was one of her closest friends, and no one knew the real her quite like I did, so why did I ever think of trying to dissuade her from what she wanted to do? I even went as far as asking all of our common friends to “please talk some sense into Fretzel” and/or to “please convince Fretzel that we have to do something pretty and glamorous!” Calling up all my “mood boarding powers,” I would relentlessly paint lavish pictures to inject into her head, including one particular scene that involved this gorgeous kitchen at her aunt’s North Town home, Jeff in chef’s whites doing flamble (he likes to cook), her sitting on the countertop in little black dress and a glass of bubbly in her hand. I even jumped through hoops trying to get our designer friends to pledge outfits for her, and I got about three of them to say yes! Me going to hell and back just to try to sway Fretzel from her convictions—that was what was outrageous!
Well, you can’t really blame me, can you? I think that, human nature being what it is, and especially if you work in the image-making industry, when you are presented with a face thats ‘s photographable as Fretzel’s, your first impulse is always going to be to picture her in settings that are as gorgeous as she is—that’s how we’re programmed to put two and two together. (Let’s face it: even when you are asked to photograph/style ordinary-looking—for lack of a better term—people, you are always going to try to find ways to make them look like better versions of themselves because your job is to present them in the best possible light.) And plus because I knew this assignment was going to be filed under the Shutterfairy banner, and we all know Shutterfairy likes exquisitely styled settings with a vintage-y feel (case in point: the whimsical and pastel-y Parisian-themed engagement session that we did for this one couple a few months ago), there was that pressure to stay loyal to that particular (albeit unspoken) “style guide.” But I think that my mistake wasn’t in trying to push my agenda on Fretzel and Jeff. My mistake was in trying too hard. I mean, four months of nonstop nagging? It’s a miracle they didn’t get annoyed to a point of considering “un-booking” me!
Needless to say, in the end, Fretzel and Jeff would win this match (their way or no way at all!), and soon we were going to find our sleepyhead selves aboard the 4 AM bus to Dalaguete, arriving there at six, and after a quick but invigorating breakfast of puto, sikwate and mangga (sticky rice, Filipino-style hot cocoa and mango) it was straight to work. I’d been to this town a few times before, but this was the first time ever that I was to really see it in its full glory, you know? They took us to the local public market where we got to feast on native delicacies, some of which I had never heard of or tasted before—minced meat-stuffed saba bananas, anyone?—and where we got to sip on fresh coconut juice. We also got to see the certuries-old San Guillermo de Aquitania Church where they were set to tie the knot (we couldn’t talk a lot of pictures there, though, because it was a Sunday when we went and there were hundreds of churchgoers, but that’s alright because the last thing we wanted to do was to leave none for their wedding photos). They also took us to this deserted beach where local fisherfolk docked their vibrantly-colored boats. Finally, they acquainted us with the town’s premier natural attraction, and Jeff’s favorite spot: a freshwater spring called Obong, where locals liked to do their laundry and/or fetch water for everyday use, and where visitors liked to take cold dips—turned out this was also a historical site of sorts, because here, in one corner of the basin, you could see a lone ancient dalakit tree, the very tree believed to have given the town its name.
It was the couple that mainly called the shots that day, especially when it came to the locations (but of course), but I had to make sure I had the final say when it came to the clothes. The outfits that you see Fretzel wearing in these photos were inspired by what real-life Dalaguetenon women liked to wear in the streets: summer/tourist dress shirts in mondo, multicultural or tropical prints, presumably plucked from thrift/used clothing stores, and printed calf-length A-line skirts. Yes, I’d made a quick visit a couple of weeks before this shoot to do my homework. It’s a very Pacific Islander kind of look, wherein the locals inherit vacationers’ clothes and put their own spin to them and so they end up looking like living travel diaries (it kind of reminds me of what the waitresses in Siargao wore when I visited the island late last year). Of course, I had to “glamorize” the look a bit by re-silhouetting the shirts (so they don’t look too boxy) and by having Fretzel pile on handpainted wooden bangles from Gracie Q (the accessories design firm that she modeled for last year). I knew she’d asked for things to be simple, but I figured that just because she wanted to retrace her small-town girl roots didn’t mean she couldn’t do so stylishly! (She asked to wear a plain white shift dress for the church scenes, though, and I had to give in to this—can’t look too frilly when you’re in church grounds!)
On the days leading to this shoot I hadn’t been too excited about not having it my way (except clothes part), but I must admit now that being there that day and watching how things unfolded only did me good by giving me a new perspective that would help me reassess my creative approach. Being surrounded by Fretzel’s family (and Jeff’s soon-to-be in-laws) who prepared hearty home-cooked meals for us, exploring the streets where she’d grown up and that had given her the scars she now wore like medals, being entertained in between sets by her incredibly limber little brother who was now a competitive ballroom dancer, nibbling on the street food of her childhood, and listening to Jeff talk about their relaxing trips to Obong Spring and other excursions… All of this made me understand why Fretzel wanted their photos taken here more than anywhere else—this was where their hearts were, and these things where what they held most precious. (We were even supposed to do a couple of scenes at Fretzel’s father’s unassuming woodworking factory, where they liked to help out from time to time, but some in the team were in a hurry to hop on the next bus home, for fear we were gonna end up staying overnight if we stayed any longer.) I was reviewing the photos I took on the ride home, and that was when it hit me: yes, they weren’t very pretty by conventional engagement/wedding photo standards, but they were also not impossible or threatening, the kind of photos that everybody could respond to—in other words, they were real. Right there are then I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of how I’d ruthlessly tried to coax them out of this in the beginning—definitely not a shining moment for me!
When you work in the image-making business, especially if it has to do with weddings, there’s that tendency to get tunnel vision about making things look perfect and peachy keen, and so you go over the top, coming up with outrageous concepts, sourcing impossible clothes and props, exploring fantastical locations, demanding more than what is readily available. I will admit that this is true for me, especially with my background in editorial/fashion, and how I grew up looking up to the works of the likes of Vreeland and Coddington and their penchant for transporting the viewer to a different level of perception—it’s no secret that I like to make my subjects play the part of, say, Amelia Earhart, or that I ask people to custom-make era-specific clothing for certain sittings, or that I hire moving trucks to tranport heavy-duty props. And that’s all very well and good, you know, if the goal is to give your customers the best experience possible, or to have a leg up on the competition, or both. But if all of that only distracts you from putting meaning where it should be put, if it makes you lose sight of what truly matters to your clients, then, Houston, we have a problem—you may be doing it boldly or differently or uniquely, but you’re completely missing the point. It is going to take a lot of work—not to mention a lot of patience—but at least now I have the resolve to rethink my approach and reprioritize my creative goals to ensure the client’s best interest comes first. I just can’t believe it took me this long to see that! I am now reminded of the wise words of my friend Christina Garcia-Frasco, who, as I was photographing her for the premier catalog of Shandar shoes some two years ago, told the story of how, being the wife of a mayor (Duke Frasco of Liloan), she got invited to all kinds of weddings in their town—from the simplest ones to the most elaborate—and when I asked her if this exasperated her, especially the ones that required her to drive up rural, remote areas, she just smiled and said that, to her, it didn’t matter if the wedding was not grand or anything, because no matter what, “at the end of the day, more than anything, it’s a celebration of love.”
Jeff Enecio and Fretzel Buenconsejo | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Dalaguete, Cebu, on August 18, 2013 | Main photographer: Malou Pages for Shutterfairy | Hair and makeup by Aura Verallo | Set decorator: Jennifer Hortillosa | Accessoried by Gracie Q| Special thanks to Kurt Buencosejo and Grace Neilly Querickiol-Niggel