Artist Geloy Concepcion becomes an internet confidante in his latest project

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As he takes root in the U.S., Geloy Concepcion continues to take intimate portraits of strangers. This time, without faces and not with his camera. Photo courtesy of GELOY CONCEPCION

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Tatay, lie down,” Narra tells her father, artist Geloy Concepcion, towards the end of our interview. Concepcion tilts the camera down to show me his toddler. At the sight of a stranger, she coyly smiles and says hi before resting her head on her father’s stomach. Not long after, as if forgetting that a stranger is virtually present in the room, she grows keen on urging her father to go to bed. Bea, Concepcion’s wife, arrives and Narra nonchalantly leaves her father.

It’s mid-afternoon in Manila and late night in California. The lights in their room are already off. Concepcion’s face is illuminated by a nearby table lamp and his tablet. It was just right for Narra to remind her father of sleep. After all, the Pandacan-bred artist, who moved to the US in 2017, spent much of his day working at Java Point Café.

“At the café, you can’t look at dirty dishes and say, ‘I’ll do it later when I’m inspired.’ You can’t say that to customers when they order an omelet. You can’t procrastinate the same way you do with art. But what I learned most from working here is that sleep feels great after a long day of hard work. It’s like you really earned it,” he says.

These days, Concepcion’s life revolves around their home and work at the café. He rarely goes out to shoot portraits of the people he meets on the street because of the pandemic. If anything, his current work ruminates on his domestic life and takes a closer look at the human condition.

Geloy Concepcion's project "Things You Wanted to Say but Never Did" is an intimate space where even the most silent whispers are heard. Photo courtesy of GELOY CONCEPCION

Before the lockdown, Concepcion launched a series called “Things You Wanted to Say but Never Did.” Here, he collects statements from strangers on the internet, writes them on images “like vandals,” and catalogs them through his Instagram account. The result is much like portraits, except that they don’t bear faces nor are they taken through his camera.

The project lives on the internet where screaming is normal but can sometimes be left unnoticed. But “Things You Wanted to Say but Never Did” is not a void. It’s an intimate space where even the most silent whispers are heard: first by Concepcion and then by anyone who chances upon his Instagram (if the algorithm allows).

In this interview, Concepcion talks about the project, his life as an immigrant, and how he keeps himself inspired.

You like to draw and write on your photos. Where did this interest in combining images with illustrations or words come from?

Dati ang pinaghahalo ko talaga picture at drawing. Naging inspiration ko sila Jim Goldberg at Robert Frank. Sinusulatan nila 'yung picture nila. Para sa akin nakakadagdag siya sa authenticity ng portrait. Madalas lang naman ang sinusulatan ko noon mga portrait ng ibang tao.

(Translation: I used to combine pictures and drawings before. I was inspired by [photographers] Jim Goldberg and Robert Frank who also leave inscriptions on their photographs. For me, it gives authenticity to the portrait. The photos I often write on are portraits of other people.)

How does it make an image more authentic?

Kasi para na talaga kayong nag-collaborate. Sinulat niya tapos hindi mo siya dinirect kung anong isusulat niya. Parang binigay mo 'yung stage sa kanya. Hindi mo lang pinakita 'yung style mo. Hinayaan mo silang mag-kwento. Kwento naman nila 'yun.

(It’s almost like a collaboration between the subject and me. I don’t direct them what to write. In a way, it’s like allowing them to tell their story. It’s theirs after all.)

The practice of writing on images is the highlight of your current project “Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did.” How did it start?

Mga bandang ganitong time last year meron akong naisip na i-[Instagram] story lang. Sa story ko 'to unang pinost eh. Parang poll tapos may mga sasagot lang. Tapos may mga sumagot na 20 lang kasi hindi anonymous eh. Kumbaga 'yung iba nahihiya kung anong gusto nilang sabihin kasi, "ay kilala ako ni Geloy." Tinanong ko lang 'yun. Tapos tinabi ko lang.

Nung February 2020, parang medyo nagkakaroon ako ng crisis na parang tinatamad akong mag-photography. Ang nangyari niyan, nag-try ako gumawa ng isang project na pinitch ko sa mga editor sa mga magazine dito. Sa isip ko, sige, itodo ko nga 'to. Mag-pi-pitch ako ng mga istorya. Walang nag-reply.

Naisip ko pahinga muna ako sa photography. Ginawa ko tinignan ko lang 'yung mga photo ko. Tina-try kong ibalik 'yung excitement ko. Nagtingin ako ng photos sa hard drive tapos inalis ko 'yung mga parang mundane lang. Bigla kong naisip, anong pwede kong gawing series dito? Anong series ang pwede kong gawin sa photos na tingin ko unusable? Talagang random lang na bigla kong naisip 'yung ginawa kong poll na 'yun. Tapos sinulat ko. Vinandal ko lang sa photo.

Sa isip ko, gagawin kong series kahit 40 images lang. Tapos nagulat na lang ako na ang daming nag-send sa sumunod kong poll. Parang 180 agad. Sobrang dami ng nag-send. So nung bandang 'yun, naisip ko na iba 'tong nasimulan ko. May something siya sa mga tao.

(Around this time last year, I thought of posting an Instagram story asking people about things they wanted to say but never did. Around 20 people answered I think because it wasn’t anonymous then. Some people might have been shy because I know them. So, I just asked the question and set it aside.

In February, I experienced a personal crisis and I didn’t pick up my camera like I used to. I tried to pitch a project to editors here, but no one replied. I thought I should take a break from photography. At the same time, I also wanted to bring back my excitement, so I began going through the photographs in my hard drive. I removed the ones I consider mundane or unusable and thought of what I could do with them. Then, I remembered the poll I did in November and started writing the notes on those photographs, like I vandalized the photos.

I thought of doing a series of 40 images, but I was surprised to see the number of notes sent to me after another poll on Instagram. I think it’s around 180. By then, I realized that what I started doing has an effect on people.)

Sabi mo ngayon lagpas 1,500 na ‘yung notes na natanggap mo. Kailan kaya dumagsa 'yung mga nag-se-send? (You said you’ve received over 1,500 notes. When did you start receiving an influx of notes?)

Parang na-push din siya ng quarantine. Siguro dahil kapag nasa bahay... Karamihan pa ng demographics kapag tinignan mo sa Instagram ang nag-pa-follow diyan madalas 18 to 24 years old. 'Yan 'yung crucial stage. Crisis talaga. Identity crisis eh. Tapos nasa bahay pa sila. Sa tingin ko nakatulong 'yung project sa kanila para makikonekta sa ibang tao kahit hindi nila kakilala. Nung nahanap ko yung way para gawing anonymous, mas dumami talaga. Naging komportable na siguro kaya dumami na talaga.

Pero may limit 'yung project, available lang siya sa may mga Instagram. Aminado akong hindi ko pa na-ta-touch 'yung ibang area. 'Yung goal ko sa mga susunod pang taon, gusto kong maglagay ng mga drop box sa kunyari home for the aged o sa mga kulungan kasi iba rin 'yung kwento nila. 'Yung ang susunod kong goal.

(I think it was pushed by the quarantine. If you’ll look at the demographics of my Instagram followers, most of them are 18 to 24 years old. That’s a crucial stage of discovering one’s identity. Plus, we’ve been forced to stay inside our houses. I guess the project has helped them to connect with other people even if they are strangers. The number of entries really increased when I found a way to keep the sender anonymous. I guess they became more comfortable in sharing.

But the project has limitations. The people I can reach are only those with Instagram. My goal in the years to come is to put drop boxes in places like prisons or homes for the aged.)

"Ang ending lang naman tatanungin ko ang sarili ko kung ginawa ko ba 'yung gusto ko? Ano ba 'yung ginawa ko?"

You started using photos taken by other people, as the artist what’s your role now in the project?

'Yun nga. Nung ginawa ko 'tong project na 'to, ang natutunan ko talaga is mag-fo-focus ka sa kung saan 'yung tingin mo forte mo. Kumbaga ano ba 'yung mission mo? Natutunan ko na alisin mo 'yung profession — alisin mo 'yung illustrator, 'yung photographer ka — hanapin mo 'yung core mo. Ano ba 'yung core ng gawa mo? Sa case ko, human connections.

Sabi ko nga sa isang tumawag sa akin, feeling ko ngayon para akong radio DJ na may tatawag sa akin na hindi ko naman kilala. Parang magpapa-request siya ng kanta o gusto niya lang ilabas, sasabihin ko lang kung ano 'yun tapos may makikinig. Kumbaga parang ganon. So natuto ako sa project na 'to na talagang mas unahin mo 'yung misyon mo or purpose mo. Susunod na lang 'yung kung paano mo siya gagawin.

'Di ba na-start ko na na hindi na ako kasali pero siyempre kasali pa rin ako kasi sa akin nanggagaling 'yung final product. Ang na-feel ko diyan sa kalagitnaan na. Marami pa akong photos, pwede ko pa rin naman gamitin pero hindi ko ginagamit. Na-feel ko parang hindi na kasi 'to tungkol sa akin. Nung umpisa meron ako na kasali ako. Parang “eto mga picture ko kasali ako, tignan niyo.” Ngayon hindi na. Talagang ibang tao na. So parang channel ka na lang talaga ng mga tao. 'Yung mission mo siyempre nandon ka pa rin, kasali ka pa rin. Para kang middleman.

(When I started this project, I learned to look past my being an artist. To remove my designation as a photographer, an artist, an illustrator and find the core of my work. In my case, it’s human connections.

Right now, I feel like a radio DJ who receives calls from people I don’t know. It’s like they’re requesting songs or phoning in to tell whatever they have in mind, and somewhere out there someone’s listening. It’s like that. This project taught me to put the purpose or mission of my work.

At the beginning of this project, my involvement is somewhat more direct as the photographs came from me. I’m still involved now because the final product still comes from me. What’s changed somewhere in the middle is the realization that this is not about me, so I stopped using my own photographs. I’m more of a channel now. I’m like a middleman.)

So, hindi mo siya i-fa-file as a work under your art practice? (Would you file this under your art practice?)

Ang tingin ko ang tawag sa kanya para siyang collaboration ng strangers. Gusto ko 'yung tawag sa kanya. Ang madaya lang dun kilala nila ako pero lahat sila hindi ko sila kilala. Wala akong kilala na kahit sino. Para siyang collaboration ng mga stranger. Siguro ako lang nag-publish. Parang publisher.

Parang channel lang. Pero siyempre kanino mo 'yun i-[attribute] 'yung technicalities? Siyempre sayo mapupunta 'yung pangalan na 'yun. Ikaw ang ituturo kasi sayo lumalabas ang product. Pero para sa akin, collaboration ng mga strangers.

(I want to call it a collaboration between strangers. That’s what I want to call it. The downside is they know my name but I don’t know them. I guess you can say that I’m the publisher or, like I said earlier, the channel. But of course, to whom do you attribute the technicalities? It goes to me. But ultimately, I see it as a collaboration between strangers.)

The project started before the quarantine. America is somewhat still a new space for you. How did that affect your process?

Kunyari noon ang madalas kong work galing labas di ba? Editorial, mga magazine, ganon. Nung dumating ako dito hindi ako agad naka-work kasi na-delay 'yung immigration process. Ibig sabihin hindi ka pwede magtrabaho, hindi ka pwedeng kumuha ng assignment. Parang na-focus ako sa loob, sa akin mismo. Naging personal ulit 'yung photography. 'Yung una kong ginawa tungkol sa pamilya. So para siyang balik-loob sa personal na photography ko.

Tapos tungkol sa mga taong nakakasalamuha ko kapag naglalakad ako sa labas. Kapag tinignan mo 'yung work ko pagdating ko rito, street photography pa rin kasi pinag-aaralan ko pa kung paano mag-English pati paano makipag-communicate sa mga tao. Ang point of view ko nung una sa mga shini-share ko malayo.

Malaking epekto niya kasi nag-iba rin 'yung work ko. Pati 'yung tone nag-iba. Dati parang punk rock na galit. Tapos ngayon nag-iba.

(Back in the Philippines, my work focused on what’s outside of me. I did editorials for magazines, for example. When I got here, I wasn’t able to work right away because of the delay with my papers. Because I can’t take any assignment, my work turned inward and became more personal. The first one I did involved my family. So, it was like a return to my personal photography.

The next one included people I encountered during walks. If you’d look at those photos, they were mostly street photography because I’m still learning how to communicate with people here. The point of view is always from afar.

I guess even the tone of my work has changed. Before, it was punk rock and full of angst. Now, it’s different.)

"May mga taong magaling sa art pero hindi nila afford na tumambay lang sa bahay at magpaka-inspired. Marami sa mga marginalized na mga area o sa mga probinsya ang nasasantabi na lang 'yung idea na gumawa ng art sila."

Pero paano ka nga ba napunta sa photography? (Going back, how did you get into photography?)

Nag-street art ako noon. Nakulangan ako sa street art sa pagkukuwento. Parang mas gusto ko na mas personal. Kasi ang street art, nakikipag-usap ka sa general public. Kapag photography, may kausap ka talaga na tao o na community. Parang nag-crave ako na maghanap ng ibang medium. Eh ang photography bigla ka na lang nanakawin sa ginagawa mo.

Nagka-photography class kami noon tapos ako pa huling nagkaroon ng camera kasi mahal. Nung binili namin, two years namin binayaran. Grabe, 'yun na 'yung pinakamahal na gamit na nahawakan ko sa buhay ko. [Dahil mahal] parang dapat bigyan ng justice.

(I was doing street art back then, but I felt the need to look for another way of storytelling. I wanted something more personal. With street art, you’re dealing with the general public. When you use photography as a medium, it’s really meant to communicate with a specific audience or community. And photography will suddenly take you away from what you’re doing.

We had a photography class [in UST]. I was the last person in class to have a camera because it was expensive. It took us two years to pay for it in full, and it was the most expensive thing I held in my entire life then. Because of that, I thought I should give it justice.)

Iniisip mo ba 'yung relationship between art and money? (Do you think of the relationship between art and money?)

Siyempre ngayon pangarap ko pa rin ma-sustain ko 'yung pamilya ko using 'tong art ko. Siyempre kasama 'yung pera dun pero hindi ko siya priority. Syempre ginagawa ko lahat 'yan para sa pamilya ko. Pero kahit kailan hindi ako nag-isip na 'yung pera muna. Kasi na-di-dilute. Kumbaga sa noodles dadagdagan mo ng tubig, papangit ang lasa. Okay na ako sa enough lang. Sustain lang. Hindi naman kailangan maging mayaman ako pero kung sabi ni Jesus gusto niya akong yumaman edi pwede. (Laughs) Kung hindi, okay lang sa akin. Ang ending lang naman tatanungin ko ang sarili ko kung ginawa ko ba 'yung gusto ko? Ano ba 'yung ginawa ko?

(Of course, I still dream of sustaining my family through my art. I think of how I can earn through my practice, but it’s not the priority. I do it for my family. When you begin to think of money in art, it dilutes your work. It’s like adding too much water to instant noodles and ending up with something bland. I’m satisfied with just having enough to sustain my family and my practice. I don’t need to be rich, but if Jesus wanted me to, that’s fine too. (Laughs) If not, that’s also fine. In the end, the question I have to ask myself is, Did I do what I want?)

Noong nagsisimula ka ba may struggle ka ba kung paano mo i-pu-pursue ang art? (Did you have that struggle of figuring out how to pursue art when you were just starting?)

Nagkataon din na kahit hindi kami mayaman 'yung nanay ko, 'yung tatay ko hindi nila ako pine-pressure na, ano ka ba maghanap ka ng may SSS tsaka ng trabahong may bayad talaga. Naniniwala sila sa akin. Nung nasa third year college ako, sinabi ko sa nanay ko na hindi muna ako sesweldo kasi gusto ko mag-build ng portfolio. Sabi ko naman sa isip ko, kapag naman naging successful ako rito, magiging trabaho ko rin 'to balang araw.

'Yung nangyayari sa iba natatakot na agad sila o na-pe-pressure din sila na magtrabaho. Hindi mo naman sila masisi kasi malay mo kapos na kapos. Ang art ano rin 'yan commitment talaga. Tsaka privilege din 'yan. May mga taong magaling sa art pero hindi nila afford na tumambay lang sa bahay at magpaka-inspired. Marami sa mga marginalized na mga area o sa mga probinsya ang nasasantabi na lang 'yung idea na gumawa ng art sila.

(Even if we’re not rich, my parents never pressured me to find a job that pays well or one that will get me social security. They believed in me. When I was in third year college, I told my mother that I might not earn properly at first because I wanted to build my portfolio. I told myself that if I were to be successful in this field eventually I can consider this as my profession.

But you can’t blame others for being pressured to take a full-time job that’s not related to their craft. Art really requires commitment, but being able to commit is also some sort of privilege. There are people who are good with art but they can’t afford to just stay home and find inspiration. There are people from marginalized areas who are compelled to set aside the idea of making art [because they don’t have that privilege].)

Are there any misconceptions about your work that you’d like to debunk?

Kapag nagsasabi ako na gawin niyo lang 'yung gusto niyo, sinasabi nila “Hindi pero ikaw magaling ka. O, ikaw binabayaran ka o kumikita ka sa ginagawa mo.” Hindi lang nila alam na marami akong ginawa na kailangan kong gawin kahit ayoko. Nag-shoot kami ng graduation, ng mga class picture. Kailangan talaga ng hard work lalo na kung hindi ka mayaman.

(When I tell people to do what they want to do, some people say, “You can only say that because you’re good and you’re getting paid.” What they don’t know is that I needed to do things I didn’t want to do. We used to shoot graduations and class pictures. Art really requires hard work, especially when you’re not well off.)

Last question: I’m curious. Have you ever thought of writing something you want to say for your current project?

'Yun nga 'yung maganda sa pagiging anonymous [ng project]. Malay mo meron ako dun pero hindi ko sasabihan. Pwedeng ikaw siya, pwedeng lahat siya, or pwedeng wala siya.

(That’s the beauty of keeping the project anonymous. You’ll never know if one of the notes came from me, and I won’t tell. It could be you, it could be all of us, or it could be no one at all.)


Send a note to Geloy Concepcion here.