Duration: Two-and-a-half years as a full-time photographer.
Location: Los Angeles, California.
Education: LLB Hons from the University of Nottingham, Nottingham, United Kingdom; certificate from the Hallmark Institute of Photography, Montague, Massachusetts.
Career path: After completing my law degree and working in the field briefly, I found myself unfulfilled. Photography was a hobby in high school and university, so I assisted a fashion photographer in Manila for a few months to see if I wanted to switch careers—and found it very rewarding. So, I enrolled at the Hallmark Institute of Photography, a one-year technical school for commercial photography. After graduating from the program in 2008, I moved to Toronto, Canada, and joined Westside Studio at the start of 2009 as a 1st assistant, later moving to a digital tech position. In 2014, I decided to go freelance as a digital tech, shooting for my own clients on the side; then in 2017, I pursued my own shooting career full-time.
Cultural influences: I grew up in Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. My parents highly valued travel, so at a young age, I was fortunate enough to explore North and Central America, much of Western Europe and Southeast Asia. We also had a great collection of books on art, photography, architecture, anthropology, and periodicals like Life magazine, National Geographic and Scientific American. We visited countless museums and attended ballets, plays, operas and symphonies. At the time, I did not always enjoy or appreciate it, but looking back, this incredible access to art, travel and performance undoubtedly was the fuel behind my curiosity. Today, I continue to visit museums and attend art shows and gallery openings—especially when they’re focused on subjects I don’t know much about. That way, I can keep learning.
I also have recently started to appreciate the work of contemporary artists like Tom Friedman, Toba Khedoori and Robert Ryman. Their art is abstract and minimalist—completely the opposite of my realistic, tangible work, but just as beautiful and meaningful. If anything, it has reinforced my process, to always look deeper and further and find what sometimes might be hidden. Other times, you have to take things at face value—but you will not know until you take that step to investigate further. In terms of photographers working in commercial advertising, I am a big fan of Andy Anderson, Dana Neibert, Jim Krantz and Andy Mahr—to name a few.
Favorite projects: My project with Faroe Islands Tourism, which started my career as a photographer. It was a series of profiles of Faroese people from various walks of life, and it led me to find the style and approach that now guides my personal work and some of my client work. Working in small teams with nonprofessional talent and minimal production support and equipment is the only way I have found to capture intimate moments that are often unguarded and honest. This approach enables me to deeply connect with subjects; I often stay in contact with them and later develop friendships.
I’m also taking this same approach to my current project, which consists of profiles of Los Angeles–based artists. I visit the artists in their studios two to three times as they create a piece, normally from start to finish, and delve into their artistic process. I end up with a lot of images, so distilling it to a few images that tell the whole story is always a fun challenge. It’s been inspiring to see how other artists approach the creative process: breaking through creative blocks, finding inspiration, and navigating the complicated space of art and commerce.
Approach: Curiosity is the main driving force of my approach. No matter the subject or project, I try to look at it with fresh eyes, ask questions, show excitement and empathize with my subjects. I may not always understand or share a subject’s point of view, but by being open minded, I can take the first step to bridge that divide.
So when I’m photographing someone, I love to have a conversation before and during the shoot: asking questions, getting their opinions and listening to their anecdotes. This helps them get comfortable with me and let me into their personal space. It’s very important to have a clear message behind the images I create, so I always strive to find that story and guide the narrative; without it, the viewer has no emotional connection to the image. It is both a privilege and an honor to be allowed to photograph someone so intimately, so you need to do that justice by always giving it your best.
Philosophy: When it comes to projects, it’s important to apply the same work ethic to every project you are working on, whether it’s a personal project or a commission. Be detail oriented and double check things—and then check them again. There will always be factors that are out of your control, which will affect the final outcome of a project. However, it’s important to me that I can walk away from a set, proud of the fact that my team and I did everything to give the client the best experience.
I am convinced that in this industry, it boils down to ten percent hard work and technical skill, ten percent timing and luck, and 80 percent developing and maintaining relationships. The best careers have longevity, not just because they are talented or technical geniuses—though it definitely helps—but also because they have excellent reputations and long-lasting relationships with clients. Ask any rep, art buyer, producer, client or assistant about their favorite photographers to work with, and I 100 percent guarantee the first thing they will say is: “They’re such a wonderful person.” Who you are as a person takes precedence to the work. It is imperative that you have integrity, be kind, bring a positive attitude, admit when you make a mistake, stand up for your team, stay humble and be grateful for your opportunities. If you surround yourself with people who share these qualities, you will have a great team to grow and share your journey with.
Anything else: It’s very important to me that I’m able to grab a beer or share a meal with whomever I work with. Life’s too short to work with assholes! I only want to surround myself with crew and collaborators who leave that drama behind, do the work and have a good time. We have a pretty amazing job getting paid to create images and tell stories—often in exotic locations in the company of remarkable people—so I want to share this experience with people that I can call my friends.
Gabriel Nivera’s portrait by Carmen Chan.