The photographer talks to Vogue Philippines about what it was like working on the cover story featuring Gemma Cruz Araneta, finding his photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, and capturing magic in the mundane.
Writing often begins with an image. A writer would conjure up a scene, real or imagined, and then document it using language that can effectively project it as pictures in the mind. In “Why I Write,” the late writer Joan Didion describes these projections as “images that shimmer around the edges.” In this light, writing is a visual practice. “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence,” she writes, “as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”
It’s a technical inclination as much as it is an innate compulsion—to tell stories in their truest form. This is at the core of photographer Lloyd Ramos‘s practice: capturing the magic in the mundane, or rather, all that “shimmers” around the edges. As a writer believes there is a story to any place or person, Ramos believes everything has the potential to be a photograph. A visceral effect can even come from something familiar, he tells Vogue Philippines: “If I took a photograph of sunlight on a tree, I would want you to experience it—to really feel that warmth of the sunlight, the smell of the leaves, and the rustle in the wind. That’s the kind of imagery I’m trying to make.”
On being orderly and regular
Born in London to Filipino immigrant parents, he grew up teetering between sciences and the arts. He had always been creative, he says, but also “a very sort of technically minded kind of kid, and so I always had my foot in both worlds.” When he wasn’t drawing, he says, he immersed himself in chemistry, biology, math, and English literature. He went on to major in the latter—the neat in-between of his two sides.
But Ramos’s love for visual imagery would begin at the limit of what words could convey. He picked up a camera between classes, helping in student journalism to cover happenings around the city. He got his first start in fashion by covering runway and backstage at the London Fashion Week shows, which “got the ball rolling in the back of his head.” It was the first time he thought, “Okay, maybe this could be a career.”
He explains, however, that he graduated at the tail-end of a global financial crisis. “2013 was still a pretty tough time,” he says, recalling the “gap in time” he worked at his parents’ East Asian grocery store. “I thought, I’ll show up for a year or two, you know, [to] figure out what I actually want. [And] then that one year ended up turning into five years, and then ten years.”
Still, at that time, Ramos kept the ball rolling. “I was always shooting my daily life, and [I] would assist fashion photographers every now and then in London,” he says. For him, it was a period of growth, a necessary time he spent honing his eye. “I think there’s a quote from Flaubert, ‘Be orderly and regular in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ And I only realized I [put] that into practice about three or four years ago because before, I was always just, you know, shooting in spurts and just having these bursts of creativity, but really, it’s not a boil. It’s [something] you have to keep simmering.”
On being violent and original
Recognition from these years of consistency shortly followed as two of his photographs were selected for exhibition for the Portrait Prize at the UK National Portrait Gallery. “It was a bit of a milestone for me—it was a bit of a confidence boost, especially in the middle of Covid lockdowns—and it helped me apply for grants, which allowed me to produce the market stories work on a scale that I didn’t even envision at the start of it.” In shooting the series, Ramos used a large 8×10 camera that took 15 minutes to capture a single image. “During that time, I would just converse with the market traders and [ask] about them about their daily lives.” He continues, “I feel that portraiture, specifically, is really about creating space between you and the sitter, and just trying to carry a conversation.”
This was the philosophy that would later inform the cover he would shoot for Vogue Philippines. “People love talking about themselves,” he mused. “I think we all have an internal dialogue that we really want to express.” Striking a connection with Cruz Araneta was the easy part. “That’s the kind of approach I took with Gemma because it’s known that she’s such an interesting person,” he says. “Like she has so many amazing stories and like so many strong points of view and stuff, and so I wanted to build up on that rapport.” He adds, smiling, “In short, it’s just me being very nosy, very curious.”
Between conversation, every one of Ramos’s portraits is a confession, with its aim to tell you something of the subject’s character in a way that language can’t express. “I think it’s part of my literature student background, you know, like I love stories,” he explains. “I love, for example, T.S. Eliot. I love how he would sit in a pub and just sort of listen to people’s conversations, you know—is that kind of nosiness? That’s part of my dynamic when I’m on set.”
To sink or swim
When asked what advice he could give aspiring photographers who are new to the industry, the answer Ramos gave was simple: “It’s just consistency.” He explains, “Even if it feels like the inspiration isn’t coming, you need to have discipline. You need to quiet that self-doubt and just keep going.” It was, after all, his persistence that the shoot with Vogue Philippines even came about.
Ramos was only scrolling on Instagram when he came across a post by Sharif Hamza, Vogue Philippines’ contributing creative director and acclaimed photographer. “I followed him for a while because I always admired his work, and I saw that we had similar backgrounds, both being from London and Filipino, and me trying to get into, like, his world, I guess—in that industry,” he says. Ramos replied to Hamza’s story to compliment him, not expecting him to respond by asking to see a body of work.
He sent Hamza his portfolio after 24 hours, but after that, it was only radio silence for a while. That was until he told the Vogue Philippines team he would visit the Philippines on vacation. “I thought, best case scenario, I’ll get coffee with one of the editors and sort of discuss ideas,” he says, but just as Ramos arrived in the country, he got the call from beauty editor Joyce Oreña.
Just as with his market series, he allows “a certain lyricism, a certain elegance” to rise to the surface. He says, “If you manage to keep it natural, keep it flowing, a camera sort of disappears and it just becomes like a conversation between two friends.”
Lloyd Ramos is currently part of a group exhibition at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Art in Japan, with two of his prints acquired for their permanent collection as part of their Young Portfolio Prize. The exhibition will be on until May of next year.
By CHELSEA SARABIA. Photographs by LLOYD RAMOS. Beauty Editor: JOYCE OREÑA. Styling by NEIL DE GUZMAN. Makeup: Angeline Dela Cruz. Hair: Nhot Bituin. Producer: Bianca Zaragoza. Nails: Extraordinail. Multimedia Artists: Gabbi Constantino, Tinkerbell Poblete. Production Assistant: Bianca Custodio. Photographer’s Assistants: Javier Lobregat, Ruel Constantino. Stylist’s Assistants: Jillianne Santos, Kyla Uy.