Emasculating the lens

Text and photos by Muloy Luib

I knew I needed to learn from seasoned female photographers when I decided to focus on beauty and fashion-inspired portraiture. I turned to fashion and beauty photographers Sara Black and Pilar Trigo Bonnin who top the list of photographers who have informed the way I look at female beauty as a photographer. I attended their photography workshops the first year I got a bit too serious about photography as a weekend hobby.

Emasculating the lens

Have I learned enough to be able to photograph an everyday woman and make images that flatter her own natural beauty?

I guess I have. I say that reluctantly though as I do not want to embarrass two of the female photographers I claim to have influenced the way I look at women portrait sitters from behind the lens. (Just in case they disagree and deny me.)

There is no dearth of workshops in the country’s photography community. Two organizations — the Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation and the Philippine Center for Creative Imaging — conduct workshops the whole year round on almost anything you want to learn about photography. You check out social media photography communities and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the surplus of photographers peddling their expertise to newbies and amateurs looking out to be mentored for a day or two. It’s easy to be fooled as well for there are a few offering to teach newbies techniques in making portraits look impossibly beautiful — chiefly by blurring out every pixel of the skin — and how to direct every female portrait sitter on how to spread their legs and give out that come-hither look, as if every image is created only for the art director preparing the next edition of the country’s leading men’s magazine. But I digress.

I chose Ms. Black and Ms. Bonnin precisely because being women, they are sure to know how to photograph women without hypersexualizing them or presenting them as if their images are meant exclusively to satiate men’s prurient desires. I chose them because when I looked at images they created for clients, the women looked beautiful and elegant, with expressions that did not tease.

Emasculating the lens
Photos taken during a fashion photography workshop conducted by Sara Black at the Philippine Center for Creative Imaging. Makeup by Julia Arenas; Hair by Eddie Mar Cabiltes; Design by Eric Delos Santos; Styling by Mikas Velasquez; Photography by Muloy Luib.

To this day, I still have to keep working on erasing a few entries from my mental list of poses. I proudly say though that under no circumstance will I ever press the shutter to capture an everyday woman’s portrait with her finger posed a centimeter too close to her partly open mouth. And I still hesitate to photograph a woman sprawled on the floor.

Not that these two photographers talked about respecting women at great lengths during their separate workshops. I don’t remember them being emphatic about the subject. But it’s the small details that argued in their favor.

During an October 2014 workshop with Ms Black, a male participant commented on the female model’s hips, saying they made her look injured or overweight. Ms. Black brushed aside the negative remark and pointed out that it was the model’s bone structure that grabbed the participant’s attention. This reply came from someone who started working in front of the lens as a model and made the move to the other side to become one of the country’s leading fashion photographers. At the same workshop, she demonstrated how she would fuss over the models’ hairstyling that did not really match the vision in her head, the lip color that did not play well with the eye shadow, or to study carefully whether or not the left ear is too conspicuous in the image because of the way the stylist swept the model’s hair over to the back.

It took me a while to process what seemed to me a contradiction.

I later stumbled upon her online biography that mentioned a book she published in 2009. “When I Look in the Mirror is a series of extreme close-up portraits of real women with facial imperfections, meant to provoke contemplation in a society growingly obsessed with vanity and perfection.”

Neither was Ms. Bonnin in her Classical Portraiture Lighting workshop particularly focused on how to treat women during photography sessions. I remember though how she showed empathy when working with a female model who was hired for a workshop session on how to highlight a sitter’s tattoos. Obviously, the participants waited to see a lot of the ink, excited to learn how certain lighting patterns would show the tattoos’ details while flattering the sitter’s beauty and her curves. The model was wearing a tank top and some of us participants surmised that she would have to lift her shirt up. She did not.

Ms. Bonnin later explained how she had to be considerate with the model who during the shoot expressed reluctance to expose her abdomen because of the loose skin she developed from a recent pregnancy.

Both photographers have ways of working with female models that encourage students to keep in mind the welfare of models.

During a midday shoot on a rooftop in Makati, I felt faint and had to grab my bottle of water in between clicks. While I was quenching my thirst, Ms. Black walked onto the set under the scorching sun with two glasses of water for the models.

“Guys, your models are humans, too.”

There is an abundance of online tutorials for new photographers to learn how seasoned female photographers work with female portrait sitters and models. And it is a good idea for beginners to tap this free resource as a way to offset the risqué humor tossed around by a few veteran and popular male photographers who seem unaware their jokes during public talks further engender sexist language that does not help those who look up to them.

Over the last four years since I started learning portrait photography, I have strived to use all that I’ve learned from photographers who respect women to each of my own photo shoots. Without a doubt, it’s not a walk in the park to direct a regular woman into poses and expressions that flatter her. To help them choose between three dresses is a challenge since I myself am unsure when not to wear a brown belt. But I do know how to shut up when the portrait sitter wants the makeup artist to give her a pair of overdone eyebrows over smoky eye shadow.

As a hobbyist portrait photographer, I continue to keep my guard up against perspectives that are disrespectful to women. And when I begin to puzzle over whether I should photograph her from above eye level to slim down her hips or at a lower angle to keep her broad forehead from being magnified, I try not to overthink. I simply remind myself: the portrait sitter in front of me is a human, too.

The author can be reached at muloy.luib@gmail.com.

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