I can’t seem to recall a time, ever since we became friends, when Mia and I weren’t discussing her dream engagement photos. Like our common love for babydoll dresses (OK, just so we’re clear: I don’t wear them, I just love them for their grunge connotations), it felt like planning her engagement shoot was part of our friendship deal. We started hanging out some three years ago, in the summer of 2010, and one of the first places we visited together was the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington (my second time, her first), and that was when it all started. It surprised me that Mia became smitten with the place almost immediately—up until then I’d thought I was the only one in our party who adored horses (and who actually knew Kentucky was all about horses and not chickens). And she fell even more in love with the whole thing with every nook and cranny we explored (perfect timing, too, because we went on their annual Hats Off to Kentucky’s Horse Industry Day, which meant there was no cover charge, and you could take advantage of everything the park had to offer without having to spend a single cent). She went to town on being touchy-feely with and taking pictures of the horses (after all, they were of breeds she had never before imagined being face-to-face with), as well as interacting with their owners, riders and grooms, as I did, but it was the surroundings that enthralled her the most—the picturesque, well-manicured paddocks, miles and miles of gorgeous horse fencing, the rustic yet orderly boarding stables, the imposing barns… All of it was enough to make her proclaim, “Can you imagine how amazing it would be to have your engagement pictures taken here?” And just like that, her dream theme was born. From that moment on, she knew she was going to pursue a kind of country rustic motif for her engagement shoot and, well, the subsequent wedding! (A few days later I would drag her to Keeneland, the racecourse, still in Lexington, just so she could immerse herself in more inspiration.)
And so what followed over the next couple of months was an endless loop of talking about engagement photos, looking at blogs and magazines for ideas and objects of envy, sealing my role (and those of our other friends) in her own engagement photo shoot, because she wanted everything and everyone to be prepared “for when the day comes.” (A little disclaimer: I am not saying that Mia is of the bridezilla variety; she’s just the kind of girl who likes to plan ahead.) And take note that this was during a time before Pinterest exploded in popularity and became all the rage for hopeful brides the world over—and before I even considered pursuing a little side career in photographing couples! If you come to think of it, I guess Mia’s interminable prompting was one of the many things that gave me that much needed push forward (because if you look at the timelines: summer of 2010 was when we first hung out, and February of 2011 was when I did my first ever engagement shoot). All the more reason, then, for me to stick to my promise of helping her out with her future engagement session—I mean, to a certain degree, I owed her one, right?
Fast forward to three years later, and Neil, Mia’s boyfriend of six-plus years, did pop the question, flying in from a business trip to the States with a rock, asking her to marry him on their seventh anniversary (November 20, 2013)! That was when I knew the real work was about to begin—I mean, I know we’d been talking about the shoot for the past three years, but now it was time to get our hands dirty and translate those three years’ worth of ideas into execution!
It was nice that after all that time Mia had not changed her mind about the arrangement we’d had in regards to the shoot, and I was still her photographer of choice. (And whereas when she first asked me I would be quick to plant doubt in her mind, saying things like, “I think you should look at other photographers if you want your photos to be gorgeous,” this time I was actually more confident, after having gotten decent experience under my belt.) Well, for a small window of time there, some fickleness in her part did kick in, and suddenly she said she wanted to explore another theme for their photo session, which got me mildly disturbed. I don’t know where it came from, but one day she just blurted out that she was changing her theme to “past, present, future”—i.e., she wanted one a set of photos with a sort of ‘50s or ‘60s kind of vibe, another one with a modern-day (2000s) kind of feel, and then a third and final one with a “futuristic” twist. For the record, I think there is a special level of cool for photo shoots that string a sequence of themes together—very much in the same vein as the “’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s” thing that I did for one of my couples early last year—but I was just a little taken aback by the fact that someone would change their mind the last minute. Besides, what was the “futuristic” bit going to look like? Would I then be compelled to promote The Jetsons to white-hot reference? Even in my years of styling for fashion shoots for magazines, “futuristic” was one territory I was careful not to chart, and I only did the avant-garde thing once or twice. I’ll chalk it up to my amazing disputing skills that I was able to sway Mia back to our original deal. Because, really, why would someone want to turn their back on a theme as gorgeous as country rustic? Especially after years and years of planning it, and after it had been tattooed on our minds? And I guess I’ll have to chalk it up to my mood boarding skills, too: I only had to show her, for example, couple of country-themed photos from Lauren Conrad’s LC Lauren Conrad for Kohl’s July 2013 catalog, which, incidentally, featured many of Mia’s favorite things—bunches of baby’s-breath-like flowers in coarse tin buckets, sunny country roads, stackable vintage suitcases/trunks, weathered wood furniture, floaty summer dresses—and we were back in the game. Once I got her to rekindle that old flame, she became this unstoppable ball of fire—suddenly she was on the phone with a woodworker to commission him to come up with 20-plus weathered wood picture frames, the next minute she was asking a set decorator friend to whip up batches of lace-covered mason jars, and then after that she was inviting me to look in her closet for pieces she might already have that could pass for country rustic or prairie chic! Seriously, I didn’t even have to make a list for her—she took it upon herself to assemble her own list, and so my only job was to piece everything together! Love it when I only have to lift half a finger!
Perhaps Mia’s greatest feat during this whole thing was nailing the perfect shooting location. So fiendishly difficult to find decent horse farms in this part of the world, and this had always been the challenging part of my previous country- or cowboy-themed shoots. But her energetic research skills led her to stumble upon the Ranch Resort and Farm in Toledo City (some 30 miles west of Cebu City). Didn’t look anywhere near like the Kentucky Horse Park, of course, and the vegetation was tropical woodland and not prairie gorgeousness, but it was the best we could find: architecture that hinted at the charming hacienda styles (the main building, which also served as a bed and breakfast of sorts), gorgeous Arabian horses, and, best of all, a wonderfully austere and inelegant stable! Needless to say, the stable was quick to become my absolute favorite spot in the entire area—I ended up shooting 60% of the photos in there!
I shouldn’t also discount the fact that, as far as heavy-duty props go, Mia here takes the cake! In my two or so years of shooting and set decorating, I think the chunkiest thing I’ve had to lug around was this 250+ lb., 8 feet tall cupboard dating back to the late ‘50s/early ‘60s for a ‘50s housewife-themed shoot I did couple of months back. Mia crushed that record by towing a circa 1950 Ford F-3 along on the day of her shoot! Because what’s a country rustic-themed shoot without a strapping vintage pickup truck, right? And it came in an exquisite fire engine red, too! She said it had been sitting in their neighbor’s garage for decades, and she’d always been fascinated by it, and so she had her dad pull some strings, and here it was before our very eyes. (So amazing that, despite being over 60-years-old, it was able to go the distance from Cebu to Toledo—and we all know that’s not a very smooth ride!) It was so beautiful that it was about the only thing that succeeded in peeling me from the stable and the horses. I hope my photos do it some justice!
I was worried about Neil at first: during our sit-down meetings he wouldn’t really open his mouth to speak, only let out a sheepish smile here and there. I was afraid he fell into the shibboleth that guys don’t really care for engagement shoots. Was the country theme even palatable to him, or did he find it ridiculous? Was he willing to be styled? Would he be willing to endure 10 hours of shooting? Was I going to be constantly assessing his comfort levels? Well, he totally proved me wrong on the day of the shoot. Although he wasn’t a superenthusiast of the whole country thing, he did have a little soft spot for it—he’d never been to the Kentucky Horse Park, but he’d driven up and down the Bluegrass State a couple of times during his visit to the States (he went to visit Ohio, which is just upstairs from Kentucky), and that was enough to make him whistle in appreciation. He’d never worn cowboy boots before, but he valiantly slipped into the dirty old pair that was handed to him. He spoke very little the whole time, but he never got anxious or flustered, either—maybe the “pratice shoot” that we’d done a week before this main event helped to some extent!
I enjoyed doing this shoot so much that I almost forgot the fact that we got up at three in the freaking morning to prepare for our ride at five (and that we didn’t finish until half past six in the evening!). That won’t surprise you if you’ve been following this little blog of mine—you should know by now that, if it’s a gig that involves horses or anything equine-related, I am willing to suspend all exhaustion and weariness in the world! That’s just how much I love those creatures—I do not believe there is any other animal in this world that is as photogenic. We were only allowed to use one horse for the photos with Mia and Neil because there were other visitors who wanted to horseback ride, and we chose the lovely Joharra because she had the best chestnut coat, and she wasn’t too tall (i.e., as petite as Mia), not to mention she was the most mild-mannered that day. But that didn’t stop me from taking some pictures of the others on the side—as the team went out for our lunch break, for example, I asked to stay behind so I could sneak in a little session with Joharra’s friends. I could shoot these babies for days and not get tired, I swear to God!
Well, maybe the real reason why I did not feel an ounce of depletion that day was because I had so many helping hands! A little too many, in fact! In most of my assignments, you see, it’s like I’m just a step from carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders—i.e., apart from taking pictures, I spray starch the clothes, organize them in racks, sort the accessories, assist the subjects in slipping into (and out of) their outfits, jerk large and impossible props around, clean the areas where I am to erect the sets, dress the sets, clean the areas after dismantling the sets, etc., and sometimes I even do menial stuff like distribute packed lunch to everyone in the team, or, say, help the makeup artist rummage through their kits for misplaced fake eyelash glue! (So, OK, it’s like in more than 50% of my blog posts I’m disclosing an exhaustive rundown of all the things that I do in any given shoot, but please do not think I am doing this to complain—if anything, I am only trying to relieve you of any quixotic notions you might have of jobs like mine!) For this shoot right here, I did not have to do everything, only a little bit of everything, thanks to Mia’s awesome friends who volunteered to help that day: our props master Jenny for sourcing everything in our list, Charlete and Jurex for helping us dress the sets, Kia for helping with the sets and the clothes, and Kia’s boyfriend Alain for doing the far manlier and more dangerous tasks, like hammering nails, taming the horses, and stabilizing the utility ladder to keep me from falling flat on my face! Thanks to all of you, I actually got to enjoy extra cigarette breaks! Most of all, thank you for your companionship, the jokes, the laughter. I have a sneaking feeling that, for a couple of times there, we may have blurred the lines of professionalism with each other, but that’s alright because it was such a cheerful and creative atmosphere, and I learned a lot just having you guys around. It was just one of those days that I wish would never end… Pretty much like the day Mia and I went to visit the Kentucky Horse Park together some three years ago! You see how everything comes full circle?
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So sorry I have not blogged in so long. I was supposed to upload these photos and write this post last month, some two weeks before Neil and Mia’s wedding—that would’ve been perfect because I was in Kentucky at the time, and what better way to wave the scepter of coming full circle, right, than by writing this in the place where Mia and I first became friends? But, as you all know, the typhoon Haiyan happened, and, as some of you might know, my family is from Ormoc, one of the towns that were hardest hit by the cyclone. It was pretty distressing—I don’t think I’d been that anxious and scared before in my life—being 8,000 miles away from home, and not being able to get ahold of anyone from my family for three or four days. I could barely sleep or finish a meal, let alone think about work or this blog! Thankfully I would hear from a good friend that my family was OK—our homes in various states of ruin, but that’s alright, because what was important was none of them were hurt. As with others affected by this disaster, it will be a long time before my family can get back on their feet again, but because of my faith, and because of the all the help extended to them by kind and generous hearts here and everywhere, I know that they will be fine. I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank those of you who have connected with my family directly, as well as those of you who have reached out to the victims in Ormoc, Tacloban, Guiuan, and other areas affected, via relief organizations and lifesaver operations. You won’t see it now, but when all of this is over, and when everyone is back on their feet, you will know your impact has become embedded in the core of their renewed strength, and you a hero in their eyes.
Jose Neil Sanchez and Mary Rose Bacolod | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Toledo, Cebu, on August 11, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Vanessa Gamus | Set decorators: Angelo Kangleon, Jennifer Hortillosa, Kia Lyndel Roble, and Charlete Eve Enriquez | Special thanks to Jurex Suson and Alain Navarro Meraveles | Extra special thanks to Gayle Hernando, Jun Pilayre and Dr. Shy Faciol