It was a February afternoon. The reminiscing happened over cans of convenience store chūhais, surrounded by books, with occasional mechanical noises from the photo studio meters away. Three weeks prior, the four young photographers across from me were in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the 18th Edition of Angkor Photo Workshops. The experience being magical was shared across the board. Teeming with nostalgia, gratitude, and optimism for their career and the photography scene in the Philippines, JL Javier, James Lontoc, Geela Garcia, and Gab Mejia shared their memories of Angkor.
What was your impetus for joining Angkor?
James: I already applied in 2016. At that time, my work was still hilaw (unripe). I tried to develop it for years. It came to a point where other alum barkada [Veejay Villafranca and AG De Mesa] encouraged me to apply again. My mindset this time was that there’s so much to gain and nothing to lose.
Geela: I thought of applying in 2020 but because of the pandemic, the workshops didn’t push through. But like James, I tried my luck because I also had nothing to lose.
Gab: I wasn’t really growing anymore as a photographer in Manila. I also wanted to find the middle ground of photography both as a career and as a form of self-expression. Angkor came into the picture when I met Paolo Picones [alumni] after I moved to Palawan.
JL: I really wanted to push my work further. I was getting bored of the things I was doing or the images I was making. I wanted to know what else I could do.
What project did you propose? And did it change during the workshop? How so?
James: I wanted to explore loneliness in a foreign country and the need for intimacy. On the second day, I consulted with one of the mentors, Katrin [Koenning]. The first thing she asked was, are you lonely? Then I thought about it for a while. No, I’m not; I’m having the time of my life. So she asked, why are you even trying to talk about loneliness? That was a lightbulb moment. It then became about trusting my gut. From an idea, I made branches and then worked on one branch. So, from loneliness, the work became about posing questions about masculinity and machismo.
Geela: I have a current project about farmers and food sustainability in Batanes, so I thought of connecting it with agriculture in Cambodia. So I looked for contacts in Siem Reap to collaborate with for the proposal. I eventually had to change the topic due to logistical reasons. It then became about someone named Naret. I was having a hard time at first because our mentor Antoine [d’Agata] would ask me what I saw and where I was in my work. I never really tried to explain myself or why my process was that way. In my mind, my photographs are not about me. I then asked myself why I cared about those stories so much. Then I thought, why should I justify that someone else’s life is important? Shouldn’t that be a given? It was hard for me to articulate my intentions because, for me, everything is important especially about a person’s life. I had to overcome the challenge of expressing my thoughts and feelings.
Gab: The project I was proposing was more on the traditional history of the land, more on the trauma of the land in Cambodia and its similarity with the Philippines. Like how they deforest the places, and post-colonial settlements. I wanted to work on these intersections. One of the lessons in the workshop that made a mark in my head was when Antoine said that there are two forces in the world: the rest of the universe and you. I was taking photographs of the external world more, and I never actually took photos exploring that other force of myself. A perspective shift happened.
JL: I submitted a piece of the work we published last year about tenderness, masculinity, and male gaze. There was one session with Katrin when I told her how I didn’t fully understand yet at that time what I wanted to show in my photos. I can feel it, but I can’t hold it in my hands. Then one facilitator [Mien-Thuy Tran] suggested that maybe I was taking the photos because I see myself in them. As Gab said earlier, there’s so much trauma in the lands. I realized I was also bringing so much trauma into it. How my own ghost stories blended with the ghost stories of Siem Reap.
How was the ten-day workshop structured?
Each day started with a group meeting where each participant would present an update on their project. Facilitators and mentors gave their feedback on each presentation. Their afternoons were spent for shooting and one-on-one consultations with a mentor. The last two days were dedicated to editing photos and sequences, with the final day giving each participant the opportunity to present their project through a two-minute slideshow with background music.
Speaking of their mentors, the four photographers described them as resembling a body. In their words, “Veejay [Villafranca] is more like the spine, the system, the structure of your photographs. Katrin is more like the heart, the emotions. Antoine is the brain, your intentions, your objectives.” Their different but complementary approach made the participants’ learning holistic. The facilitators – Sean Lee, Uma Bista, and Mien-Thuy Tran – also contributed in polishing ideas, editing photos, and suggesting sequences.
While the participants enjoyed a variety of feedback to develop their projects, it was crucial for them to know and trust their own voice. As one of them said, “You need to be grounded in what you want to show, not just follow or please one mentor.”
What are your favorite moments?
Geela: It’s so beautiful that everyone’s just listening to the one presenting their work in front, without judgment. Understanding that there are different ways of seeing changed my perspective. That every way of seeing is valid.
JL: I also loved those group sessions. But my favorite was when I finally made a breakthrough in my work. It appeared to me in a way that I couldn’t understand at first, which was scary. But when I finally accepted it, I felt like I crossed into a different world.
James: Personally, the small moments are my favorite. I remember during the last day when they were handing us our certificates. When they called my name, Antoine got the certificate and gave it to me. When I accepted it, he embraced me and told me it was beautiful, the work I did. I almost cried at that moment.
Gab: Everything was so special that I can’t really believe this happened. Angkor showed me it’s possible to have these spaces in the photo industry. Now we’re back to the normal setting, and I’m thinking, can we bring these spaces and communities home?
I see that you found a healthy community to grow individually through Angkor.
Geela: If I want to think of photography or have questions about photography, I have this small group I trust. You know how the industry can sometimes be competitive.
JL: In Metro Manila, there are few opportunities. Very cutthroat. So, it could be hard to see the works of other photographers for what they are because you see them as a competitor, especially when someone has already said what you wanted to say. But Angkor made me realize that it’s not about competition; it’s about different ways of seeing things. Now, the challenge is how you get everyone to have that respect for…
Geela: Or that magic for photography.
JL: Yes, that magic.
James: Photography is not an end; it’s simply the means to an end. Photography is the tool you use to communicate how you interact with the world. It’s like what Gab mentioned earlier about perspectives. It’s also a means to be able to ask questions. If you think about it that way, it’s not about competing with other people anymore. They have something they’re saying, and you have yours. You might be discussing the same topic but coming from different perspectives altogether. The rest is just a practice in aesthetics.
Geela: Really, just trust in your gaze or what you want to do.
Last question: Who is the post-Angkor you?
JL: How I engage in life, my work, and other’s work have changed significantly. If you’re fully present while taking photos, it will show in the final output.
Geela: I understand that the stories I photograph are important because of their sociopolitical context, but I had never considered that I am important too. I learned now to acknowledge myself and my feelings more.
Gab: I’ve shed the rigidity in my process of taking photographs. Also, I’m embracing how everything is just a spectrum. There’s so much flack, for example, how you can’t be an activist if you’re working as a journalist. This is such a binary way of thinking.
James: Angkor is just the beginning. Your jumping point towards greater heights, I suppose. The post-Angkor me has more confidence in my authorship. I’m very excited to do more work after this experience.
As we ended the interview, James added a final prompt, “What are your goals? Gab is doing the Nat Geo grant for two years.” By July, they would have been featured as part of the “next generation of National Geographic Explorers.”
Geela said she would be out of town again in a few days, this time in Batanes. Since 2022, she has been working on a long-form project on food sovereignty in the province.
James also shared the same desire to publish. By July, he would have released a zine titled “Loverboy.” That month would also be the launch of Flint Photo Collective formed by James and JL with AG De Mesa and Christine Chung, earlier alumni of Angkor Photo Workshops.
You may read more about their Angkor Photo Workshop projects on Tarzeer Pictures.
Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops are now open for applications for the 19th Edition in 2024. The Workshop deadline is on October 9 (until midnight), while the Festival, which will be curated by Ng Hui Hsien, is accepting applications until October 31. For more details, please check their official site.
The interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
Lk Rigor had a 180-degree career shift in 2021, from IT to the arts. After spending more than half a decade in tech, she is now pursuing her passion in art and writing. She is currently juggling her postgraduate art studies at UP Diliman, research assistant duties, and freelance writing. Her research interests lie in the realms of photography, archives, contemporary art, and film.