Filipino photographer hailed as one of 30 emerging talents to watch

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Rozette Rago, who has shot icons like Steven Spielberg and Natalie Portman for the New York Times, now belongs to a list that has honored some of photography’s biggest names. Photo ERICKE TAN/Courtesy of ROZETTE RAGO

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The 2020 edition of the annual 30 Photographers list includes Filipino Rozette Rago as one of its honorees. The list focuses on emerging photographers in the U.S. to help them grow their practice. Rago went to the U.S. in 2011 to attend the New York Film Academy and found work by offering to photograph bands and artists for free. She now regularly contributes to The New York Times where she has shot icons such as Natalie Portman, Annie Leibovitz, and Angela Basset. She has also contributed work to The Washington Post and Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Rozette is one of those photographers who elevates the ordinary,” says Jolie Ruben, Culture Photo Editor at The New York Times in Rago’s 30 Photographers writeup. “She can photograph Kanye West performing at Coachella, and despite the mayhem of it all, be in exactly the right spots at the right moments, making the most striking images. But she can also be assigned to shoot a blank wall and somehow make a great photo.”

Since March 2019, Rago has been working as photo editor in the New York Times’ product recommendation site, Wirecutter.

Rozette Rago's portrait of Natalie Portman for The New York Times. Photo by ROZETTE RAGO

30 Photographers is judged by luminaries in the field of photography which this year includes Apple Creative Director Darhil Crooks; The Richard B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography - The New York Public Library Joshua Chang; Time Magazine Director of Photography Katherine Pomerantz. It has been called the “go-to outlet to discover up-and-coming photographers.”

For those who want to follow Rago's footseps, here's her advice: "Focus on your own work and what you’re trying to say, and don’t compare yourself with others too much. That’s toxic and it won't help you. Don’t give your rights away when signing contracts. Have confidence, but also try to be a pleasant person to work with."

The list has been around since 1999 and originated by the Photo District News. CNN Philippines Life talked to Rago over email about being included in the list, which has also honored Filipino photographers in the past years.

Rozette Rago's Asian redux of "The Virgin Suicides." Ericke Tan as Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst), Ann Pastor as Therese Lisbon (Leslie Hayman), Jessica Wu as Mary Lisbon (A.J. Cook), and Lhiyanne Reyes as Bonnie Lisbon (Chelse Swain). Photo by ROZETTE RAGO

In previous years, the list has featured photographers like Pari Dukovic, Guy Aroch and even Filipinos like Xyza Bacani and Hannah Reyes Morales. How important is this distinction for you?

It’s extremely validating and also humbling. The people who have appeared on this list before are some of my favorite artists that I’ve looked up to since I started my career. Even getting the nomination was already a big deal to me, and would’ve been enough knowing that there was someone out there who felt my work was worthy of it.

I obviously hold Xyza Bacani and Hannah Reyes Morales in high regard for their incredible work and all the amazing things they’ve accomplished, and it blows my mind still that I’m in here. I think the most valuable thing I’ll get out of this whole experience is the push to keep on doing my work the way I always have — hopefully with a lot of thought and intentionality, and hope the stuff I put out there resonates.

How has your practice been since the COVID-19 pandemic hit? Are there any changes, especially since photography can be a very intimate profession?

I’ve had to pause all personal projects because I can’t travel. In terms of my editorial work, it was a huge adjustment in the beginning because of the face mask and the distance. On the other hand, it has brought me to a lot of people’s homes, in their backyards, as opposed to typical locations like hotel rooms or conference rooms, which has made these shoots even more intimate, in my opinion. We also have this shared experience of living through a pandemic and somehow, when we talk to each other about how we are, it feels more authentic. I really appreciate how my work allows me to still find a way to connect with people during such a difficult time.

One of Rago's biggest breaks was when her photographs of U2 was used for the band's promotional materials. Photo by ROZETTE RAGO

You've been in the U.S. since 2011 and have gone on from working for free to contributing to legacy titles such as the Times and the Post. What was the journey like?

It wasn’t a straight path and I didn’t always know where I was heading, but I’m glad things worked out the way they did because I really do feel like I’m in my ideal situation right now. Looking back, I operated purely on ambition and adrenaline during the years I spent working for free (which I would never advise anyone to do, but at the time I needed to build a portfolio from scratch). It was exhausting and fun, but I was also really young and eager to prove I deserved space in such a competitive industry. This enthusiasm helped me build a body of work that eventually led to paying jobs, but I was also taken advantage of many times. I’m glad to be in a position now where I don’t have to accept every project in order to survive, but that is a huge privilege and I’m extremely grateful for it.

There's been a reckoning in many industries in the U.S. regarding diversity. As a BIPOC, do you feel that this will have a lasting impact?

I believe so. Everyone’s striving to be better. And those who aren’t won’t be around for much longer. The thing about this industry is that we all talk to each other so we’re always aware. I’m very lucky to have found my community because I’ve felt like an outsider for the longest time. Then I met all these other artists who have also felt like outsiders and suddenly, I didn’t feel so isolated anymore. There will always be gatekeepers, but now we know there are other doors we can go through.

There also seems to be an ongoing focus on emerging photographers, with younger photographers taking on the big magazines such as Tyler Mitchell and Kennedi Carter. Do you see this as a shift or are they an exception to the rule?

I think it’s a shift. Social media has made it so much easier to be seen by the people you want to get hired by that age really doesn’t matter anymore as long as you're professional and can execute. I also believe folks are trying to be more intentional with their hiring decisions now, which is great.

Rozette Rago's redux of her favorite films with an Asian cast. Abe Kim as Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and Howin Wong as Oliver (Armie Hammer) in “Call Me by Your Name.” Photo by ROZETTE RAGO

One of your projects highlighted in the 30 Photographers writeup was the Asian recreation of iconic films. How has the project been since it first came out?

It’s on pause, but I do plan to continue it. It’s the first project I got published that was extremely personal to me, and I was really overwhelmed by the responses I got from other Asians and Asian-Americans about it. My teenage self who lived on Tumblr and Livejournal is extremely proud of that accomplishment.


Find more of her work on her website or Instagram.

Erratum: An earlier version of this article mentioned that Rago was tapped by U2 to shoot their promotional materials. Instead, Rago's already existing photographs of U2 from their show was licensed for the materials. The name of Darhil Crooks was also mispelled. We apologize for these oversights.