Pinoy photographers reveal what makes a great portrait



“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it,” said Edward Steichen, the great American photographer known for elevating photography into an art form. His description of the portrait is echoed below by six Filipino photographers who we asked to share with us the most memorable portraits they’ve taken over the years, all the products of powerful, awkward, harmonious, confident and engaging engagements. reverent with various subjects.

All six – ESL Chen, Jes Aznar, Jason Quibilan, Geric Cruz, Raena Abella and JL Javier – join more than a hundred Filipino photographers attending the first photo fair of the brand new FotomotoPH collective. The event was officially launched at KONDWI in Poblacion Makati, and the following openings will take place at The Alley at Karrivin Plaza along Chino Roces Jr. Extension (this Saturday, November 27), at Manila House in Bonifacio Global City, as well as in other places of BGC and Makati. Each site will feature a unique set of images. Some shows will run until the end of the year, while others will run until the first quarter of 2022.

Some of the portraits included in the current Fotomoto exhibition: Portraits.

Part of Fotomoto’s plans is to hold an annual festival celebrating Filipino photography. The inaugural exhibition highlights portraits capturing the Philippine visual and cultural context. But why start with the portrait? “Due to our prolonged isolation during the pandemic,” said the group’s statement. “As a society still reeling from the pandemic, the portraits play with and challenge our sense of familiarity, estrangement and even solidarity.” Portraits below included.

Here are the answers of six of our favorite photographers on the subject:

ESL Chen

What makes a good portrait?

A portrait is a conversation between the model and the photographer. It is almost impossible to take into account all the different combinations of the two parts, and all the possible scenarios in which the two will be put together. Some sessions last for days and even years, but others only last a few minutes. In my opinion, it is almost impossible to assign arbitrary rules that define a good portrait.

The beauty of the portrait lies in the interaction between the model and the photographer. Personally, I am interested in extremes. This means that either the subject gives the photographer a second of attention to pose, or an almost unlimited amount of time during which the two can interact. Everything in between seems artificial. Obviously, time is only one aspect. There are many more, including emotion, place, composition and context.

Even though I hesitate to define what makes a good portrait, I can say that I am drawn to those who move me. I also believe that most large portraits are the result of a truce between the model and the photographer. One of them must submit to the intention of the other.

Why a truce? Because both the photographer and the babysitter invade each other’s psyche in any shoot.

My Mother, by Edric Chen.
My mother, by ESL Chen

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

The only problem with this question is that I will mostly remember the circumstances behind any portrait I took once I see it again.

For more ESL Chen photos, click here.


What makes a good portrait?

A photographic portrait full of stories to read is a good portrait for me. Of all the face images we see on a daily basis, a good portrait also has the power to quickly make a connection with the viewer, it has that instant appeal and makes us want to look at the photo more.

Photo of Imelda Marcos by Jes Aznar
Portrait of Imelda Marcos by Jes Aznar

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

I remember shooting Imelda Marcos once in their mansion in Ilocos Norte for a story. She kept changing wardrobes and always tried to pose whenever I lifted my camera to shoot. But being the gracious host, she showed us every part of the house and shared the story of every trinket inside the rooms that caught our attention, and even asked helpers to bring out the items that are. emerged from the discussions. But I found it hard to think of how to tell her that she didn’t need to pose for me – in a way that wasn’t too imposing, in a way that she would easily understand.

That day, I tried so hard to hold back not to tell her that all I wanted was a steal. Things might get too embarrassing.

For more photographs of Jes Aznar, click here.


What makes a good portrait?

A portrait can be likened to a conversation between two people. A good portrait occurs when (1) the subject opens fully and (2) the photographer “listens”. The photographer listens with intention, technique, timing and context. When the image reveals something real about the subject, and is taken well, well timed, well framed, well lit, with clear intention, then, I believe, a portrait becomes exceptional.

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

Memorable for me? Or for other people?

For me, this would be the time when I photographed the late Mayor Lim in his condominium in Makati. Why? Simply because I stepped on stinky dog ​​poop right in front of his unit and had to shoot barefoot all the time. Nice guy, I got some good pictures out of it. And he gave me and my publisher money! Haha! (We gave it to the church!)

More seriously :

I had the privilege of photographing a doctor who was a breast cancer survivor, warrior and activist. She allowed me to photograph her naked, to show her scars where her cancer was caught. I felt an immense privilege to be able to witness such beauty and courage in a human being. And also, a great responsibility, because I was then part of her storytelling journey.

For more photographs by Jason Quibilan, click here.


What makes a good portrait?

More than the technicalities of the camera and the artistic elements necessary to make a good composition, for me, to make a good portrait is to connect with the subject and capture its story. There should be a narrative that says something about the person so viewers can understand what the photo is about.

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

My favorite portraits are those of my favorite muse / subject: my son, Razi. I did several works on him and his journey to become his own person. Borrowing from a line from a photographer that I admire, the bond that my son and I have created during these shoots is “a marrow deep and stronger than death”.

Raena Abella
“Under the surface” by Raena Abella. Gelatin silver print on fiber paper
Raena Abella
“Under the surface” by Raena Abella. Gelatin silver print on fiber paper
Raena Abella
Raena Abella’s “Journey to Become”. Ambrotype, positive wet plate on glass

But I stopped shooting him when he was 16. Ayaw na niya daw. But now that he’s 22, he’s ready to be my muse again. So I’m planning on doing another series that we both can collaborate on.

For more photos of Raena Abella, click here.


What makes a good portrait?

I think what makes a good portrait is a good story. A good portrait or any good photo speaks for itself and says something true.

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

From the portraits I did, I still think back to my shoot with Kidlat Tahimik in 2018. It was such an honor to have captured the mind of someone who, at least to me, seems so much larger than life. Much of what he talked about during this shoot still resonates with me too – about the art, the storytelling, the point of view.

For more photographs by JL Javier, click here.


What makes a good portrait?

When I am able to have an exchange or an understanding between me and the babysitter, and finally a friendship emerges.

Geric cruz
Photo by Geric Cruz

What is the most memorable portrait you have ever made and why?

I have a lot. It is difficult to choose favorites. But the most memorable are usually when things are going organically and it doesn’t feel like work.

For more portraits of Geric Cruz, click here.

[Access to the Fotomoto: Portraits exhibition on site is free to the public; however, exhibition access per venue will follow the IATF health guidelines and safety protocols implemented in each LGU. All images will also be shown online at Many of the images will be available for sale as mounted archival prints (separate from the exhibition prints). For more information about the exhibition in other participating venues and online events, follow Fotomoto’s social media pages ( and on Instagram) or email [email protected]]



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