The Vibrant Light and Colors of Manila: Street Photography by Chio Gonzalez

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Eric’s Note: Chio Gonzalez is a 17 year-old street photographer based in Manila, Philippines. He has been shooting street photography seriously for almost a year now, equipped with a Nikon D60. I first discovered Chio when he applied (and was awarded) for a student scholarship to both my Manila Intro and Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshop. Not only am I impressed by his photography and vision (especially at such a young age) but also by his maturity and humbleness.

To find out more about his photography, beginnings, and vision for street photography in Manila -read on.

1. Chio, great to have you. Can you share with us how you first got interested and discovered street photography?

I used to live in Hong Kong in the early stages of my life. After migrating back to the Philippines, my family would still visit Hong Kong frequently. When I was 15, I began to bring my camera to our annual Hong Kong trips. Walking around a highly urbanized city, I was naturally drawn to the streets and everything in it. At the time, I was unaware of the term “street photography” – I was just taking images of things on the street that interested me. After doing a little research, I discovered what would eventually become my niche in photography. But it was only a few years later when I began to take street photography seriously.

In 2011, I had hit a wall in terms of the direction of my photography. I was stuck, taking photographs of essentially anything under the sun. Basically, I had no sense of where I wanted my photography to go. There was even a point in time that year when I didn’t touch my camera for months. But as the year ended, something just clicked (I still have no idea what happened). I suddenly became rejuvenated and inspired – photography became, once again, an enjoyable activity.

After getting my first prime lens early in 2012 (a 35mm on a crop body), I decided that it was time to try out street photography again. With a Hong Kong trip coming up, I took this opportunity to see what kind of photographs I could get out of it. After that Hong Kong trip, the resulting photographs I took (at the time I thought they were amazing, now not so much) jumpstarted my obsession with street photography.

2. Who are some photographers you gain inspiration from and how have they influenced your work?

My influences as far as photographers go seem to change every day. I enjoy experimenting with photography styles when I’m out shooting, and I believe this is because I look at the work of a different set of photographers on a daily basis. Essentially, I am inspired by whoever’s work catches my eye on a particular day.

Still, there are some photographers whose work has just resonated with me. Alex Webb and Martin Parr have been the two biggest influences in my work, especially in my recent photographs. The work of these photographers pushed me to stray away from the “classic” street photography (which, generally, everyone starts out doing). Their use of color is simply impeccable, as well as their overall philosophy in their photography.

Aside from the two I mentioned, I love the work of – off the top of my head – Bruce Gilden and Christopher Anderson. I also look at the work of a lot of contemporary street photographers – the people on the HCSP group and the Elite Street group on Flickr (the quality of photos added on both groups are simply great), Charlie Kirk, Charalampos Kydonakis (Dirty Harrry on Flickr), and the list goes on.

3. When you are out shooting on the streets, what do you look for?

I will start off with what I don’t look for when I’m out on the streets.

I’ll admit that my photographs, for the most part, do not contain any underlying story or message behind them. That’s not my goal in street photography. In my opinion, too many people try to create stories to enhance their street photos and fail miserably in doing so. I’m not saying that this happens all the time – because there are still a lot of street photographers whose photos can send impactful messages with no words needed to express it – but more often than not, a lot of photos with backstories just come off as pretentious to me.

And so, I don’t try to look for stories when I’m out on the streets. I also don’t look for people or things that are commonly shot – I call them “walking clichés”. Most of all, I hate taking street scenes that “appeal to the masses”. This genre of photography is, for me, the most personal. So, if someone takes an image just because a lot of people would like that scene, I feel it deviates from the true essence of street photography.

What I like to look for are scenes that are unique and complex. I like photographs that make me wonder. I like photos that make me feel uneasy. I like photos where I don’t even know or understand what’s going on anymore. These are the kinds of scenes I look for when I’m out doing street photography – the ones that just blow my mind (there’s no other way to put it). As for specific elements I look for on the streets, I search for good light and vibrant colors. These two elements, for me, maximize the potential of my photographs.

4. You are 17 years old with a lot of talent. Do you feel your young age is a benefit or disadvantage for you?

Without a doubt, I feel my young age is a huge benefit. When I’m out shooting, no one really minds when I take a photo of them – they mostly think that I’m “just a kid taking photos of random crap” (at least, that’s what I think they’re thinking, if that makes sense). Also, because I’m still a high school student, I tend to have more free time than the average street photographer, who usually has to balance work and other adult matters. So, I always have enough time every week to go out and take photographs.

Also, I feel that my youth gives me a head start over most street photographers. I don’t have to take it so seriously at this point in my life (even though I do). I am free to experiment with whatever photography style will eventually suit me – and then I’ll still have a lot more years of improvement to go.

Lastly, I believe that starting street photography this early helps me refine my philosophy on taking photographs. I can go through different processes, ideas and approaches to shooting street photography. And with maturation and time, I know that I’ll have a clearer idea as to what I want out of my photographs.

5. Describe the street photograph scene here in Manila.

Manila is such a colorful place. It has so much variety, with every street offering something new and different. The streets are just so real. People here are among the friendliest in the world (with regards to having their photos taken). Some locals even ask for their photos to be taken – and this happens a lot.

The street photography community here is also booming and developing well. It was only through the Eric Kim Manila workshop that I met a lot of other local street photographers who share the same passion as I do. I was surprised to find that there are so many others like me. And I can safely say that the street photography scene here will only continue to get better.

6. Where would you like your photography to be in the next 5 years?

Simply put, I want to be happy with the street photos I’ll be taking in the next 5 years. As I said earlier, I’m still young and inexperienced – my philosophy and opinions on street photography will continue to change as I evolve and grow as a person and as a photographer.

And I hope that the stages in my life that I will face in the future will dictate where my photography will go. So, I won’t come out with any bold predictions as to where I’ll be as a photographer in the next 5 years. I’ll just do what I do, and wait and see what happens next.

7. You won a student scholarship to my intro and intermediate/advanced workshops these past few weekends. What did you learn and what do you want to focus on now after the workshops?

Everything is in the details. The little nuances, the subtle things that help better a photographer matter a lot. It’s ironic how the huge difference between the good photographs and great photographs are in the small things – What if I was one step farther away in the scene? What if this distracting element wasn’t present in the photo? What if the subject in the photo was looking directly at the camera? What if I timed the photo better?

After the workshops, I am definitely going to focus more on creating a street photography project. Sure, single images are nifty, but I feel that they lack depth in the grand scheme of my goals in street photography. I still don’t have a specific idea or theme in mind, but I want to take my time starting whatever project I’m going to do. I know that accomplishing a project that I’m proud of will open up new avenues to take my street photography to the next level.

8. What do you love most about street photography?

I love the continuity of it. As an individual, I will go through different phases in my life. I’m always going to be changing – and so will my ideas, perspectives and philosophy. But with street photography, I can stop shooting for years and then go back like I never left – and the streets will still have so much to offer. It’s something that will always be there. It’s timeless.

But the thing I love the most about street photography is that I can express my photographs in my own way. It’s so dynamic, with a plethora of different styles for different photographers. Anyone can look within themselves and find a street photography style that genuinely suits them. The body of work that I’ve built and will continue building is almost an extension of my life – my personality, experiences, memories, things I’ve gone through and so on. It’s a visual representation of me.

9. What is some advice you would give to other young street photographers?

Work ethic is everything. I don’t believe in natural talent when it comes to photography. Although there are some characteristics that make a good street photographer – being observant, for example – the key to improving is putting in the work. And to be able to work hard, that desire to improve as a street photographer has to be present.

Being obsessive and passionate is what makes great street photographers. With that obsession comes the work ethic – so study photographs, photo books, always go out and shoot, find a style that fits, etc. That’s why compliments like “you have an eye for photography” don’t really tell the whole story. Because having a keen idea of what makes a good photograph isn’t a talent – it’s something that is developed through desire and hard work.

The best piece of advice that I can give though is to never let that desire waver. There are going to be days when the street outings produce nothing substantial (it happens to me all the time), but that’s a part of the process. Most street photographs are not going to be good anyway, but keeping focused will not only improve the general quality of work produced, but will also give a better sense as to why one does street photography.

10. Any shout-outs you would like to give?

Shout-out to my school photography club, Ateneo High School Zoom Photography, to the people at DAAN (big thanks for organizing an incredible workshop), to my fellow workshop students, and to all the Filipino street photographers out there – let’s continue building the street photography community!

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