“Manila felt like it was buzzing in the ways that attracted us to the States in the first place,” shares Enzo Razon, sitting alongside co-founders Dinesh Mohnani and Gio Panlilio in the unassuming art gallery that houses Tarzeer Pictures. “So much about the city had passed us by when we were gone, especially in terms of the creative outlets and the people participating in it. It felt like now was a really good time [to build a company].”
The trio behind Tarzeer Pictures walk us through their sophomore exhibition Swoon—featuring the work of eight Filipino photographers depicting the intimate connection between a photographer and subject and the nuances within the experience—as well as the playful space they’ve carved out for themselves in the local art community and in the city they call home.
Tarzeer Pictures is described as a creative agency and photo gallery that aims to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and creativity. What makes it different from other creative agencies and photo galleries that are currently out there?
ENZO: The through line I guess is, providing as big a platform as we can to people who are creating things here. For me, it’s just as simple as that. If a person in the Philippines is making a creative life for themselves, we want to be a part of that; we want to know that person, we want to be able to provide any kind of platform [for them].
DINESH: When we started it, we really wanted the agency side of it to be very [cause-oriented]: we would only do documentary series for Filipino craftsmen and Filipino non-profits. But as we’ve grown over the months, and as we’ve learned more, [we saw that] our passion has really been in the exhibits. That has really been fueling what we do. So we’ve had to broaden our agency side a little, and the projects we were willing to take on, so we have funding to do the shows. Our focus however, remains with documenting and celebrating local brands, artists, and stories.
GIO: I guess it’s really how we’ve evolved from the initial stages of what we were thinking of doing. We were pretty idealistic in terms of what we wanted to do and it was slightly unrealistic to expect that from every project. What we’ve been learning to do is really to find this balance where there’s enough creative and social fulfillment in the agency work, but at the same time we can also use whatever funds we make from that to sustain the gallery side and mount less commercial exhibits.
Can you tell us more about the shows? What kinds of stories do you want to execute with it visually, and who are you looking to collaborate with?
ENZO: We wanted to start producing the shows that were about very fundamental aspects of photography, so the Barado show was talking about time, because you know photography is literally about time, freezing a moment, memory– there was a lot of work about memory–so it was a conversation about memory and time and history. For Swoon, that came out of the fundamental thing, the relationship between the photographer and the subject. So that’s the conversation we wanted to have with Swoon.
“If a person in the Philippines is making a creative life for themselves, we want to be a part of that.” <callout-alt-author>Enzo Razon<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
In terms of, where we’re being inspired from on a curatorial base, it’s about the fundamentals and exploring those and having the complexity emerge in the viewer’s mind because of how the interpretations of the photographers converge and tell the story. Which is why we like talking to the artist in the very beginning so that the group show can feel cohesive and a little bit more harmonious because they’re part of the conversation from the very beginning and the show solidifies itself the day that we see all of them together. It’s a very organic process that we like to do.
DINESH: With the shows, it ends up being really expensive because with a lot of the younger artists, it’s hard to expect them to print their work, frame their work at those sizes. If we really wanted to maintain the quality of the prints, our arrangement with them has always been, give us the work, we’ll take care of the printing and the framing, and you only reimburse us if it sells. If it doesn’t sell, then they don’t have to worry about it. So that’s sort of one of the major costs of the show, but it’s really just [to] help artists be super willing to show works that maybe are not gonna sell, but it’s work that they’re passionate about. It just allows us to give them a space to show personal projects that they otherwise wouldn’t have [been able to show].
GIO: Yeah, and to give them the freedom to not be afraid of whether or not it’s going to sell. Because I feel like as an artist, at times that can be the conflict, between showing work that you actually want to show or showing work what you think will sell. Since we’ve all been there, we’ll help eliminate that conflict and just give them more freedom on what they want to show.
Working on your exhibitions requires collaborating with several, individual artists. How did you reach out to these people at the beginning, and can you tell us what it’s like working on something like this with a lot of people?
GIO: I think the biggest part of the exhibition process for us is the collaborative aspect of it. We find a lot of them on Instagram, based on what they have there. We like to reach out to them months in advance, and just explain to them what we have in mind for the theme, and then we just leave them alone for them to internalize it, shoot the work, or find existing work. And from there, then we’re able to kind of piece together the show with the work they give us. So it’s really a conversation most of the time. Well, all of the time.
It’s just been a back and forth where we’re constantly e-mailing them, texting them every week, asking them how the work is, what they have in mind, which helps us also put the show together at the end, cause we have a good idea of which direction each artist is coming from, where they can fit well with each other or where it might be nice to show the contrast.
“I feel like as an artist, at times that can be the conflict, between showing work that you actually want to show or showing work what you think will sell.” <callout-alt-author>Gio Panlilio<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
ENZO: What’s really great is that I think we were able to build relationships with the artists, because of how long the process takes and how much we talk to each other. We end up becoming friends, which is fun and really nice and I think that helps make the work better in the end, because there’s a sense of trust between the two of us.
DINESH: It was their show. Even during the opening, they were in the gallery for five hours, all of them talking to people. It was really, it was their show. They really owned it, which was really nice.
And I really liked how no one really posted before the show, but then after the show, James posted outtakes from the shoot and Regine posted other images of her subject, Turner.
At the core of Tarzeer Pictures is your passion for photography, and this is evident in the way it has shaped your last two shows. But why move forward with photography as a medium instead of doing other kinds of art?
ENZO: I think between the three of us, photography is where all of our interests confluence the most. Dinesh really enjoys the editorial and the building part of it, Gio is a full fledged photographer, and I have a filmmaking background. So that’s one reason, because all of our interests really converge at photography. We also super duper love it and it’s just one of the things that I think photographers, more so than any other form or medium, they kind of respond really well to each other.
And it’s so fundamental when you strip away the specificity of every project; What the photographer is responding to is so fundamental that when you create a subject for an exhibit, I find that a lot of times those are things that photographers had already been thinking about, in their own works, in just their own daydreaming, so in that sense putting together the group show format it’s just a little bit more harmonious than let’s say, if you approach eight painters and you guys have to paint things about intimacy.
GIO: And I think another part that we like and is attractive to us is that it’s so accessible in a way. I feel like everyone’s a photographer with their phones, so that’s something that people can all kind of walk into and relate to and understand.
DINESH: What we’ve heard from a lot of the photographers, in this show at least, was that they were just really happy to have a space to show their personal work. There’s publications, there’s other galleries, but for the most part like purely photo, it’s not as much as all the painting galleries. And there’s a lot, there’s so many really talented photographers in Manila.
GIO: Yeah there’s no shortage for sure. I kinda went with the assumption that there is a lot of talent at work, and the last two shows have only been a confirmation of that.
ENZO: The purchase-ability and collectability part of it is separate though. There’s definitely no shortage of work that can be shown, but there’s definitely, I wouldn’t say a shortage because it’s not really a resource-base thing…
GIO: It’s the appetite I think, that people have for purchasing photography. It’s something that we want to just kind of explore and see what it’s like and see where our shows can possibly influence that.
Your current exhibition talks about the relationship and the trust built between photographer and subject. In the same way through the gallery, you're also building relationships with the photographers you’ve worked with in the past two shows. In the future, do you foresee yourself working with these people again? What else can we expect from Tarzeer?
GIO: Yes, I think so. Now that we know the photographers, we know the people, if anything comes up I’m sure we can reach out to them. The relationships are now there, it’s just a matter of what project.
ENZO: I think, because we’re the only photo gallery in Manila that’s also a commercial agency, we exist in the middle of two sides of a spectrum—on one end there’s the commercial side, and on the other is the art side, the finite side. In the middle I think people are finding, especially cause of all the boutique brands that are opening, that the lookbook is a good medium between the two sides. In those kind of projects is also where we exist in terms of the agency side, so I think that’s a happy medium where we can potentially collaborate with the photographers.
“Our focus remains with documenting and celebrating local brands, artists, and stories.” <callout-alt-author>Dinesh Mohnani<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
GIO: There’s definitely a talk [happening], and we just felt like that would be a really good way to get people talking about photography, the meaning of photography, and just for the artists to explain more about their work. In addition to that, we’re also playing with the idea of having a permanent collection between shows just as a way to keep people coming to see and appreciate photography.
ENZO: The nice thing about exhibitions and art is that everything is deliberate. If the viewer can see it and perceive it, then it has to be material for a valid conversation. Everything has to be very deliberate, very considered, so you have to know your stuff a little bit. If you’re gonna present it and it catalyzes conversations then it’s better if you know what you’re talking about. Photography is just something we knew a little bit more than anything else.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Swoon features works by John Eric Bico, Christine Chung, Regine David, James Lontoc, Ralph Mendoza, Renzo Navarro, Cenon Norial III & Mav Bernardo, and Raymond Paredes.