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Three songs, no flash: Dispatches from the photo pit

I've been shooting shows for some time now. I'm not stopping.

A couple of years ago, in the middle of a concert, I decided I wanted to become a concert photographer.

It was at The 1975’s first arena show in Manila, I was with a friend, and our section was filled with screaming tweens and scene kids. I really can’t remember the exact moment when it happened but at some point during the British rock act’s show, I started to feel this insane drive pushing me to document what I was seeing, never mind that A. I had no real experience with live music photography, B. I was seated at the lower box section and C. I only had a small point-and-shoot camera in my hand. As what you might have guessed, the photos I took that night looked like absolute shit. But whatever. In the words of Susan Sarandon’s Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I tasted blood and I want more (more, more, more).

About a month after that, my editor asked me if I wanted to cover British pop band The Vamps’ Manila show, and being the impulsive sucker that I am, I said yes. We reviewed the images the very next day and by some strange twist of fate, let’s just say that for someone whose background in photography consisted of shooting Tumblr images, it seemed like I was actually pretty much at home in the pit.

The Vamps’ Brad Simpson during their first Manila show.

Everything started to snowball from there: I got to shoot Carly Rae Jepsen; I got to tail and mosh with Incubus; I got to photograph Ed Sheeran’s first Manila show; I got to nab a prized photo pass to shoot the very first One Direction show post-Zayn Malik.

Ed Sheeran during the Manila leg of his Multiply Tour.
Incubus’ Brandon Boyd during the Manila leg of their Trust Fall Tour.

Looking back at it though, I think I really should have realized why things came together the way they did much sooner — the signs were all there, after all.

Music has always been a big part of my life. As a child, I used to hoard cassettes and CDs of my favorite artists; I would tape my favorite songs off the radio whenever they get blasted on the airwaves; in highschool, I made mixtapes and filled CDs with tracks which I thought told my life’s story; and when I entered college, I started saving up whatever I could from my allowances just to get into concerts and gigs.

Nicholas Petricca works up the crowd during Walk The Moon’s Makati show
Passion Pit’s set during the inaugural GoodVybes Festival at the Aseana Open Grounds.

The latter, unsurprisingly, proved to be quite the challenge. I mean, let’s face it: not only are concert tickets expensive, scalpers also expertly snatch up seats at the speed of light, and the Metro’s horrible traffic makes going to venues seem like a trip through hell and back. But god, when you get break through all of that and finally see your favorite acts up close? It’s Heaven, and no, I am not kidding.

It’s the same thing with concert photography.

James Bay performs for the Manila crowd during his 2016 set at the In The Mix festival.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea though, photographing live performances isn’t easy: you’re only going to be in the pit for three songs; you’re going to get smashed against barricades; your gear will get jostled and roughed up; you will find yourself having to work and walk and at times even crawl, in near-pitch darkness; you will find yourself contending with security, fans, and production teams; you’re always on edge; and you’ll go home with your ears ringing. 

Most of the time you’ll also feel like a huge impostor. Or maybe that’s just me.

When I started doing concert photography, I had no actual mentor to speak of, so I devoured what I could from books, magazines, and the Internet. I spent hours on Rolling Stone, NME, Pitchfork, and Kerrang. I looked at the portfolios of some of the most esteemed photographers in the industry today: Kevin Cummins, Mark Seliger, Kevin Mazur, Robin Harper, Adam Elmakias, Matthias Hombauer, Todd Owyoung. I also scrolled through local professional photographers’ Instagrams and webpages, oscillating between periods of inspiration, fascination, and frustration — not necessarily in that order, but you get my point.

Matt Healy of The 1975 performs for the Manila crowd during their 2016 In The Mix festival set.

By the time I got into it full-time, things kind of shifted: I would keep asking myself why I chose to take this shot instead of that shot; I would beat myself up whenever I didn’t get through screenings for passes; I would berate myself for not taking a Pennie Smith-style image; I would feel frustrated over what I thought were faults on my part: my propensity for weird and wonky angles, my non-professional gear.

More often than not, by the time I would submit my images, my mind would be clouded by dread and doubt: What if they chose another photo? What if they think I’m utter shit? It was bad. And terrifying. And sad. 

I was in the middle of grieving over the radio silence I received regarding my photo pass application for this major pop star’s then-upcoming Manila show back in 2017 when things just clicked into place. I realized that I became too cerebral, too focused on projecting this social media-friendly image that I ended up forgetting why I loved being in the pit in the first place — I realized I forgot about the music.

So I did what any fan with a camera would do: I messaged one of my favorite bands — in this case, Ang Bandang Shirley — on their Facebook page, linked them to my website, and offered to shoot their album launch for free. I got in.

Standing in the pit that Sunday night, and feeling the warmth of a crowd eager to listen to their favorite tunes, I started taking photo after photo, jumping over and squeezing under barricades just to get to prime spots where I can easily capture those sought-after decisive moments. The night was electric, and as I shot one image after another, I felt this incredible realization wash over me: I was shooting my favorite band, and I will be damned if I didn’t capture their genuine emotions on film. Or card. Whatever.

I guess that’s why I shoot live performances the way I do — like a madman firing away with his camera like there’s no tomorrow — because I want to preserve what I can from what are inherently ephemeral instances and then share those with others. I mean, as much as we love our favorite artists, we can’t really take them home with us without getting into run-ins with the law, you get what I’m saying? But I can always take pictures.

A boy I used to date once told me he liked looking at the photos I shoot at gigs and concerts because they make him feel as though he’s in the same space as the artist, that they’re from a fan’s perspective, and that they’re buhay.  I’ve no idea how truthful those statements of his were but screw it, I’ll take them.

I like taking photos of shows because I know those moments aren’t forever. I want the images I take to make people feel like they’re not at home, that they’re there at the front row, singing their hearts out to their favorite tracks. I want the images I take to make them feel as if the bands and artists that they love are singing and performing right in front of them, no VIP tickets needed. 

Now, lest you get the wrong impression, I’m still the farthest thing from being a professional photographer: I still have a long list of acts and artists I want to shoot; I still haven’t been contacted by the glossy music magazines that I worship; it’s been quite some time since I last stepped foot inside the pit; and doubts and fears still eat at me from the inside every once in a while. But whatever. I’m ready. 

Let’s shoot?

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