Filipino society is pretty much conservative and religious, generally speaking. However, Brian Sergio defies societal norms and conventions by turning his lens to the underground kink and taboo subcultures. Raw and unapologetically straight-forward, his photographs depict those who aren’t afraid to explore their somehow darker desires despite what others may think. If you’re ready to delve into the world of the forbidden, take a look at Sergio’s highly contrasted images of sex, bondage, and late night escapes to the underground world.
Brian, you graduated from painting in university, later on worked as a graphic designer and art director, and a bit more than ten years ago, you switched to photography. So your creativity has been fluid throughout your life. Do you recall some of your earliest memories as a creative kid?
I think most of the influence came from my dad; he used to work for a government advertising agency as an art director but he had a stroke when I was 4 years old and was forced to retire early. His right arm and right leg got paralyzed, so he taught himself to write with his left hand. And after a few months of practice, he started painting. I have my praise for how strong-willed my dad was that I’ve become a creative myself. I started drawing and copying illustrations from comic books and right then and there, at a very young age, I wanted to be a painter just like my dad.
In 2008, you decided to pursue a career in photography, which is what you still do today. What urged you to make that decision? Have you ever regretted it?
I think I’ve always been into photography, even when I was a kid and used to sneak into my parents’ room to look at my dad’s smut magazines, I would admire and wonder how it was photographed. And when I got into college, I used photographs as a reference for paintings. But every time I developed a film, I always thought to myself that the photograph was good enough and would question myself on why I have to paint it. I guess it’s because fine art photography is not huge in Manila.
In fact, people think it’s the lowest form of art because it’s a mechanical reproduction aspect, and art collectors want something that is one-of-a-kind. So painting makes more money. But I never regretted my decision to pivot to photography. I like the fact that I can be out of the studio and be social with people, money aside.
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Painting was your first creative outlet. What did you learn from it that you applied later to graphic design and to photography?
Mostly design theory. I can relate to Bresson’s discipline. When I learned that he started out as a painter, I looked him up and saw his compositions were applied greatly from standard painting theories. So I tried to apply that as well when I first started out. But later on, I got into William Klein and Japanese photography, and my perspective and method changed after that. It opened a door full of possibilities that my approach became more instinctual and punk rock.
I’ve read in a previous interview that you’re partly colour-blind. How would you say this affects and influences your artistic practice – in terms of colour palette (you only use highly contrasted black and white, for example), what attracts you visually, etc.?
I wasn’t born colourblind. I remember that I used to see colour like a ‘normal’ person, but I noticed that my vision had become faded over the years and now I can’t identify some of the secondary and tertiary colours. Everything seems a bit flat, and grey appears more and more. So black and white became a staple, and I pumped up the contrast and details to see it as I would prefer seeing it. It was never a visual style, it was just visually convenient.
Your style is very straight-forward, raw, sensual and dark. How was the process of finding your voice as a self-taught photographer? Would you say you’ve evolved a lot in these past years?
I think it has a lot to do with the environment. I am living in a third world city, full of grit clichés and contradictions, so my visual approach has been pretty much daily spoon-fed by these factors. The way I see it, it’s about constantly challenging myself on how I can best represent my environment and self-interests.
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Through your pictures, you open the door to an underground world full of liberated characters who embrace their sexuality unapologetically. Who are they? Where do you find your subjects and what’s your relationship with them like?
This is the kind of environment I am exposed to. I love going to strip clubs late at night and meet people who are involved in kink activities and exploring the taboo subculture. For a country that is known for its conservative traits, people of this generation have become unfastened to their sexual urges and desires. So the subjects I shoot are the people I encounter every day – friends and friends of friends. It’s natural for me to photograph these things because they’re existent in my life.
If I’m not wrong, Filipino society is deeply religious, at least generally speaking, so I guess you’ve come across people who don’t accept or understand your work. Have you ever faced serious backlash or censorship? How do you deal with being an artist who breaks society’s preconceptions and moulds?
I had a show back in 2014 called Pak! that was cut short because of a backlash from feminist and religious groups. Because of them, my show got abruptly cut-off. I have also been rejected by local galleries because of my work, so I gave up on them and started looking into other platforms like publishing photo books. They have helped me greatly since I figured a photo book is a much more personal item, sort of like a hand-carry gallery which you can view anytime, privately. I considered it as a compromise to show my work without having to deal with society’s conservative perceptions and sensibilities.
Fetish and kink are recurrent in your work, and because of your style, your work reminds me of Japanese photographers Nobuyoshi Araki or Daido Moriyama, to name a few. How have some of these names influenced your work? And how would you say your work updates or modernizes their points of view into the 21st century?
My first encounter with Araki was his bondage work when I was browsing through a photographer compilation book called The Photo Book, published by Phaidon. I got drawn to the way his subject looked at the camera. Even if I know it was staged, there’s a certain melancholic feeling to those pictures. That made me curious to dig deeper and research about the world of Japanese bondage. For that, I also became obsessed with the work of Norio Sugiura, which shows different forms and techniques of Kinbaku – which I later applied to my work.
As for Daido Moriyama, it was different because it was honest and straight-forward. That was best captured in his cutting of the blacks and a certain shade of grey, which I find astonishingly succulent. With these references, I figured that I wanted to be more involved with the subjects I photograph and show my personal and intimate take. I don’t know if it modernizes the ideas from what these past masters have achieved. All I know is I’ve become more adaptable to what is out there.
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You’ve been much praised because of your photo books. You first published Pak! in 2017, and one year later, you released A Bastard Son. What does this format allow you to show differently from an exhibition?
I like the photo book format, I think it’s a supreme platform to showcase photographs. I’d rather have something published than having short-run exhibitions that will be forgotten after a long time. I think photo books are timeless, it’s an affordable gallery exhibition that you can hold with your hands and store on a shelf.
Are you working on another one right now?
I have a few projects on the pipeline right now, and hopefully, I’ll have something out published by Dienacht Publishing real soon. And maybe, another one with Zen Foto Gallery.
There is a global lockdown due to Covid-19. How are things in the Philippines, and how are you living the situation both personally and artistically?
Manila is on complete lockdown. The government demanded everyone to stay at home. I might be asymptomatic with the coronavirus, and we got a limited supply of testing kits because our country couldn’t afford mass-testing, so I shot a few self-portraits for fourteen days, a one-portrait-per-day kind of thing since the virus only lasts fourteen days. I’m guessing by now I should be virus-free. I posted my progress on my personal Facebook account and later posted on my Instagram and my Facebook page. Other than that, just watched some Netflix shows, learned how to cook paella and other dishes. Just killing time till the lockdown is lifted.
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