Interview

Building a photographers' community with Gio Panlilio

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Photography can be a solitary practice. In a conversation with Fotomoto’s Gio Panlilio, Team GRID traces how his journey led him to create platforms for the wider community.

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Team GRID
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Gio Panlilio

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In his quartet of photos in the Fotomoto Exhibit 2022: Home, Gio Panlilio was limited to scenes he witnessed from his window during the pandemic. This schema would suggest monotony, the way all our days felt throughout lockdown, but in superimposing them atop one another—different points of space and time coming together—the collage creates an unexpected third reality of home from familiar views.

Gio's photos have been traveling with the Fotomoto exhibit, which will make its way to the Orange Project in Negros in May. As its final destination, the exhibit is moving to the Bacolod Art District after stops at Parola: UP Fine Arts Gallery in Quezon City and the BenCab Museum in Benguet. Fotomoto is a photography collective that organizes an annual exhibit to promote Philippine photography as a manifestation of our shared experience as a nation, including diversity in perspectives from different geographies, socio-economic status, genders, and ages.

Gio is one of the Fotomoto founders, a member of this year’s curatorial team, and a third of the team behind Tarzeer Pictures. Tarzeer is a creative production group based in Manila that doubles as a gallery, curating a website and pop-up shows dedicated to new photography and video works. In this regard, Fotomoto and Tarzeer share a purpose as creative outlets for a diverse set of photographers. Both platforms lend themselves to showcase the evolving Philippine creative scene.

I think the real challenge is to find a way to band together and strengthen the bonds between all these individuals and make that into a coherent and functioning community where there's open collaboration.

We sat down with Gio Panlilio to have a conversation on his journey as a photographer that led him to Fotomoto and Tarzeer with insights for aspiring photographers on the field. 

GRID:As a photographer, how did you start out and how did you get to where you are now?

GIO PANLILIO: I started out in documentary and street photography, but I've kind of transitioned now to more conceptual and long-form projects. The start of my photography [career] really came from when I started Tarzeer. 

I studied economics in the States, a full 180° I know, but I minored in photography and film. Then I worked in a bank for a year and hated it. So when I moved back [to the Philippines] in 2017, it just so happened that my friends, Enzo and Dinesh, were also in the same position but they had a background in film production. Our skills complemented each other and we decided to start Tarzeer Pitctures in 2018—so about five years now.

We started as a production agency, as people who had an interest in photography and wanted to produce work as well. And we still are [a production agency], we still do a lot of photo-video work but, eventually, that kind of grew into being a photography gallery—so we're split down the middle between a gallery and an agency. We work with a lot of young and emerging photographers on the gallery side. We try and help develop longer form projects or bodies of work, then we show that in the gallery, and, now, the website. That's how I met the rest of the Fotomoto crew, through the small community that photography is and  interactions in galleries. 

Bridge by Gio Panlilio for Fotomoto Exhibit 2022: Home

GRID: What would you say were the key milestones of your photography career? 

GIO: I think the biggest milestone was really deciding to set up a space for photography exclusively: our gallery, Tarzeer Pictures. We only really work in photography and now we are slowly moving into video, but really just image-based work. And that really helped open the door to collaborating and working with the local scene—both emerging photographers and photographers who have been working for a long time, like the people here in Fotomoto. I would say that's the biggest milestone in terms of getting my foot in the door and meeting people who are part of the community.



GRID: Before Tarzeer and Fotomoto, what was your experience as a photographer like, back when you were operating more as a singular entity? 

GIO: The fun of being a single entity was that there was no pressure. You can shoot whatever you want and follow your own schedule. In a broader sense, having a camera was a good excuse to get outside, to explore certain things. There's a reason to go somewhere—if you want to go to the mountains, Binondo, or wherever—because you're taking pictures, or at least that's what I was telling myself. 

But the challenge was trying to figure out where these images are going to go. What's going to happen to them? Is it just for myself, just to post on Instagram, or is there somewhere else that they can go? So the challenge of being an individual person shooting is trying to eventually find an end presentation or goal for the images that you're taking and the work that you're doing.

Inherently, photographers are solitary practitioners. Photographers are quite good at working on an individual basis, going on assignments on their own, putting work together on their own. [Then, there are] photographers who are shooting personally, maybe it's not their full-time job, maybe it's not what they do for a living—but who do have bodies of work that are worth showing, that are worth exhibiting, that are worth being seen. 

I think the real challenge is to find a way to band together and strengthen the bonds between all these individuals and make that into a coherent and functioning community where there's open collaboration. So that's the importance of transitioning from being a lone individual photographer to participating in the wider community and having spaces and platforms to show your work. 

Sunset by Gio Panlilio for Fotomoto Exhibit 2022: Home

GRID: Then, is that what Tarzeer and Fotomoto strive to do, to address that gap you pointed out? 

GIO: [Tarzeer] started out as more of a passion [project]. Eventually, as part of the community, we do start to notice where we can fill in the gaps, where we can provide platforms and spaces that may not be there yet. And for us, that was really working with emerging photographers. So yeah, it was more we started with an interest that led to us figuring out how we can help develop the community.

I would say, definitely in terms of scale, [Fotomoto] is one of the few [exhibits] that I know of that have this many submissions. I think that is part of the foundation of Fotomoto, where the backbone of the exhibit is this open call. We do have special exhibits where we invite specific photographers to show specific work and we have our own founders’ images, but really the backbone of it comes from the submissions from photographers all over the Philippines. What we're trying to achieve in Fotomoto is to be a place where different kinds of photographers—from photojournalism to fine arts to documentary to fashion—congregate in an open space and have open dialogue where everything is accepted. 

Glare by Gio Panlilio for Fotomoto Exhibit 2022: Home

GRID: With your experience, what are your insights on the photography landscape in the Philippines? What makes being a photographer relevant today?  

GIO: Well, I think photography is quite instant now. People are quite used to developing this visual literacy, where we're used to seeing images on social media or the news and then gleaning information from what's happening in an image. So I think to be a photographer is important because it gives that bridge of communication, where it doesn't necessarily have to be written, but there's a story or there's an emotion that can be [conveyed] through an image. 

GRID: From the likes of having the right gear, a formal background, or even tenacity and luck, what do you think makes a good photographer? What advice do you have for aspiring or early-career photographers in the Philippines? 

GIO: I think it's a combination of curiosity and obsession, with any practice really that involves art-making. I think you have to be curious about exploring stories, ideas, places, or people and you also have to be kind of obsessive about that curiosity. You can't just expect it to be a short-term thing. You have to be invested, that interest and that curiosity has to stay steady throughout a period of time. And the obsession comes in as wanting to explore it from every angle. 

[For those wanting to get into photography], don't overthink it. Just take photos you want to take even if people are telling you to shoot certain things, work on finding what you think is interesting in your practice. 

GRID: Can you tell me about some of your favorite projects captured in the Philippines—exhibited here at this year’s Fotomoto or maybe a recent project you loved?

GIO:  [My photography] is more personal long-form projects. More in the conceptual side because it's kind of exploring ideas more than being a documentary.

A favorite project that I've recently worked on is a series of collages that I did through my window over the pandemic. I think that's been interesting for me because a lot of the time as a photographer, it requires you to go somewhere to take a photo. So it was a challenge to be stationed in one place, kind of placed in front of the same window day in and day out. And as a photographer, as a person who is trying to make something, [you’re] hyper-aware of what's going on underneath and what changes from day to day. So it's a series of collages, each image consists of maybe 30 to 40 pictures taken over the span of months or days. I find that interesting because it changed how I think about photography and the ways I practice it.

This year’s theme, home, was a natural progression for us from the last exhibit on portraits. We're interested in the idea of home because, going back to what I mentioned, we were curious to see what people will have if they were forced to look at their immediate surroundings. [The theme] was broad enough that we could have a variety of submissions and a variety of work, but also specific enough that it could lend itself to more subcategories within. Personally, it's quite hard to photograph locations where you're at a lot and places where you're comfortable. It becomes more of a challenge, more of an exercise to see past the stuff that you normally see. 

Lightning by Gio Panlilio for Fotomoto Exhibit 2022: Home

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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