Four ladies shake up the publishing industry with work that transcend local media.
In an extrovert-dominant industry, stylist MJ Benitez stays competitive by quietly but consistently putting out good work. People from the creative field are mostly outgoing and in their attempt to stand out, they tend to be louder and extra gregarious. In dealing with things her own way, MJ says that being shy can actually be an asset. “People are more inclined to tell you things which means that, at the same time, you get to learn things too,” she says. “By surrounding yourself with good people who encourage you, you get to learn your way around your work, see what you’re capable of, and develop confidence within yourself.” In her five years in the industry, MJ admits that overcoming her shyness is still an ongoing process. She believes that constant communication is always important, especially when it comes to creative endeavors. She advises aspiring creatives not to be afraid to speak up, ask questions, and offer opinions. At the end of the day, it all comes down to building a body of work that speaks volumes. — Ina Jacobe
How did you find yourself in the creative industry?
When I was on my last year in college, a friend asked me what I wanted to do after graduating and my response was, “Preview or nothing.” I graduated from Ateneo with a Communication Technology Management degree and I know that it isn’t related to what I do now but the thought of being in a corporate job scared me before and I knew from the very start that I wanted to do something creative. First, I wanted to be a filmmaker but that didn’t work out. In high school, I would always be doing guerrilla shoots with my friends. When I started with Preview I actually mentioned to them that I wanted to be a photographer. I realized then that I was too shy for photography ‘cause you’ll have to approach people. So they instead trained me to be an editorial writer and stylist, which I am grateful for.
So, how’s it like working in the industry? Were there any challenges you had to deal with as someone who’s soft-spoken?
That was the main issue for me–there are a lot of outgoing people in this industry. To be heard, people are being gregarious. You have to show yourself and put yourself out there and that became overwhelming for me because I’m really a shy person. I had to get used to it. Even until now, my shyness is still something I’m working on every day. But you know what, I also realized that being shy can also be an asset. Everyone’s so loud already so you choose to be the one who’s quietly but consistently putting out good work. Eventually, people will start noticing you.
Can you tell us more about your personal process in establishing confidence with your work?
It’s been a really long process, which started from day 1. I’ve been working for five years now and it’s still an ongoing process. I feel like I’m less rigid and I can talk to more people now. It also helps that I’m now friends with the people I admire from the industry, it doesn’t feel like it’s just work anymore. I think that it’s also important that you surround yourself with good people who encourage you. At first I would brush it off when people say nice things about my work but eventually I’ve learned to acknowledge it. In return, I’ve learned to give compliments back to people who I feel like are really doing a good job. Sometimes the industry can get so stressful and cutthroat, I feel like we need to uplift each other and encourage each other, just so the creative process would not be derailed and everyone will be inspired to do their best.
I also learned that I shouldn’t always say no to things until I’ve tried it ‘cos it’s different when you actually do it. If I always doubt myself and my work, I’ll be my hindering myself from growing. You just have to get past that and realize that you’re doing it because you actually have the skills to do it. Besides that, also think that people are getting you for a reason, diba? They won’t get you if they don’t see what you’re capable of.
What would you tell 20-year-old MJ given the chance you can give her a heads up to what’s in store for her in the future?
I think you shouldn’t be scared just because you’re shy. it’s not a hindrance to anything you want to do. If you think it’s a weakness, make it into an asset. Being shy has its perks, people tell you more things and when people talk to you, you get to learn a lot in return. Don’t be scared of people and don’t be too frightened to ask or to offer your opinion. With any creative endeavor, constant communication is always important and essential especially when you have so much to offer. It sucks when you have an idea and you choose not to say it. I know it can be hard but at least try to say it anyway. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Telling the news comes with a few caveats these days, but that doesn’t faze Rappler’s Natashya Gutierrez one bit. As the bureau chief of Rappler’s Indonesian outpost, she splits her time between managing her staff, strategizing content, and reporting. It’s a tough order, but that comes with its shae of critics; like many other journalists, she’s been accused of less than ethical practices. (One such example was a Facebook post critical of the President, which garnered thousands of online bullies.) But she reminds herself that this work is a form of public service, and that the work may be tough but it has its fair share of rewards. “This is something the trolls can’t take away from me – my morals and my principles. As long as I don’t compromise those, then I can keep doing this work with my head held high.” — Marga Buenaventura
Before becoming Rappler’s Bureau Chief in Jakarta, you were formerly based in Manila. Could you compare their respective media environments (press freedom, quality of news, etc.)? What had initially challenged you when you first moved there?
The media scene in Indonesia is a lot more saturated. There are hundreds of news outlets here, and large media players so it is tougher to break through. But quantity does not always equate to quality of news. I think there’s truly room for Rappler in Indonesia, for hard-hitting, objective journalism, and for the digital innovation that we’re known for in the Philippines. Indonesia, compared to the Philippines, is behind when it comes to that sort of multimedia, digital journalism. In terms of press freedom, Indonesia is slightly above the Philippines in the World Press Freedom Index but both countries share similar issues like threats against journalists, and at its extreme, deaths. Indonesian press is also a lot more conservative in the issues it covers. Here, LGBT, sex, and killings under past dictatorships are still taboo subjects that many media choose not to touch – topics normally discussed in the Philippines.
Local media in the Philippines has come under fire lately for its alleged biases against the current government. How do you keep your head down and continue doing work amidst the restlessness of naysayers?
Ah yes. The vitriol is unlike anything I’ve seen before. But I am able to keep writing because I know who I am, I know my work, I know my values, so that the comments have left me largely unscathed. I sleep soundly every night knowing my integrity is intact. I am not a paid journalist and I have consistently turned down bribes. That is something the trolls can’t take away from me – my morals and my principles. As long as I don’t compromise those, then I can keep doing this work with my head held high. What I also want to emphasize is that we always see the hateful posts because these commenters are the most vocal, but I am driven by the many, many messages I get every day from friends, family and best of all, strangers, who encourage me to keep speaking up and to tough it out. Those messages keep me going.
What pushes you to keep taking the tougher road (being critical when need be, despite relentless bullying) when it comes to reporting the news?
What keeps me going is the constant reminder that journalism is a form of public service, and that it is never about me but about the public we serve – a public that deserves to know the truth. And always, always making sure we continue to practice ethical journalism. We are always fact-checking, making sure we get both sides of the story, and constantly questioning. I think in the end, no matter what hate they throw your way, when you know you’ve done your work well, you’ve respected the core of journalism, then the insults slip by you. If we journalists don’t hold the government accountable as is our job, if we don’t speak up, then who will?
How does one introduce Shaira Luna? With billboards, magazine covers, and editorials under her belt, Shaira is definitely one of the biggest names in her field. But even with a decade of experience in photography, Shaira says that there is still much to be done. For her, the learning process is never ending: the constant lookout for inspiration, researching for concepts, and lots of practice helped her grow creatively. Going against what’s current, Shaira says that she gets inspired by looking at things that other people don’t really look at. Her dreamy cinematic work shows us themed stories that often leave us hungry for the possibilities of the image. The quality of her work is the result of her perseverance and dedication in practicing her talent—proving that slow but steady, persistence really does pay off. — Ina Jacobe
Standing in a photo pit, waiting for the right moment to capture someone onstage is hardly the most comfortable position to be in. Photographer Rozette Rago, however, portrays her subjects with a curious sense of serenity and comfort. She’s currently the photo editor at Time Out LA, but her roots are much closer to music photographer. The Los Angeles-based photographer has shot over hundreds of musical artists by now — from Duran Duran, Foo Fighters, Kendrick Lamar, U2, and FKA Twigs, to name a few. Music photography has its own set of challenges, all of which Rozette believes boils down to flexibility and an ability to improvise. It hadn’t been easy to move from Manila to Los Angeles — she says she always feels like she’s a few steps behind — but she stuck it out on her on, and the work has clearly paid off. So to her younger self, she would tell her, “Not to pay too much attention to other people who try to make me feel small. The insecurity is normal, but it goes away as you become more confident in yourself as a person and as a photographer.” — Marga Buenaventura
I know that you’re Time Out LA’s photo editor (congrats!), so how’s that experience so far?
I just started working there. The experience so far has been wonderful. I work with a really small team of very enthusiastic editors and writers who love the city as much as I do. I also correspond with people from the New York office who have been incredibly helpful with transitioning into my new role. I’m really excited about what we have lined up.
You’re widely known for your great music photography. What does it take for you to get a photo that you’re happy with? What’s the formula to the perfect shot, given the conditions you’re shooting in (crowds, distance from the stage, etc.)?
I often say there’s no such formula really because like you mentioned, you’re thrust into a set of conditions that you need to work with. Every show is different. Lighting could be amazing, but then the band isn’t moving so you don’t necessarily get the most interesting shots. Or it could be vice versa. It’s a matter of being flexible and being prepared to improvise.
Of all the artists you’ve photographed, who did you enjoying shooting the most? What made those experiences memorable?
I really enjoyed working with Daveed Diggs. It was memorable for me because it was my first cover shoot, which I wasn’t aware of at the time. The shoot was booked last minute and everything about it was improvised. I had no art director or photo editor giving me any sort of instruction. I had to work with what we had available for a pretty short period of time. It helped that Daveed was so relaxed because it lessened the pressure. It was meant to be a small feature, but it got bumped up into the cover story, which I’m really proud of. I think you can see in the photos that we had a lot of fun.
Photography isn’t an easy business to break into, and you moved from Manila to LA and set out roots there. Could you tell us what it was like to get started there?
It was really challenging and it still is because I always feel like I’m a few steps behind. It’s hard to not feel that way when you’re an immigrant. Students here have such great internship opportunities which eventually help them land amazing jobs after. I don’t have any of that in my resume. I would say even my career involved a lot of improvisation on my part. I started a culture blog, which lead to many opportunities shooting for small publications. Over time, as my portfolio grew bigger, so did the clients willing to hire me for assignments. It hasn’t been an easy path, but I’m proud to have gone through all of these things on my own. I see my own hard work paying off and it feels really good.
What was something you wish your younger self knew when you first moved to LA and got started on photography there?
I would tell my younger self not to pay too much attention to other people who try to make me feel small. The insecurity is normal, but it goes away as you become more confident in yourself as a person and as a photographer.