One afternoon in November 2019, I visited a show at the Ateneo Art Gallery called Not Visual Noise, a powerful display that gathered over 30 artists from the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora who engaged with photography. I remember spending three hours alone within the dark grey walls of the physical exhibition space, savouring the rare chance to encounter these images outside the noise of the online world. Images of dazed children in sepia-toned pictures of a mountain city in rubble from the Second World War haunted me. Chilling life-size photographs of the Philippine war on drugs — a family weeping around a child’s coffin, for instance — left me cold and heavy.
But the image that still stays with me two years later, quietly imprinted in my memory like a lullaby, is this: a mother and her baby lying together in a fetal position, sleeping.
A pale pink blanket cocoons them. They are surrounded by a fort of pillows, temporarily shielded from the unkindness of the wider world. In the context of the show, and in the context of the country’s fraught, painful history, the picture felt as grounding as a deep breath. It reminded me that visuals documenting the tenderness of our homes; the comforts of a deep, heavenly sleep; and the familiar positions of the ones we love, safe in our presence, were no less powerful.
The photographer behind the shot is Geloy Concepcion. He was born and raised in Pandacan, Manila, where his dream as a young boy was to be “the best illustrator or tattoo artist in our town”.
He thought photography was for those who travelled, and those from his small town were expected to spend their lives within Manila. Nevertheless, he was drawn to the rough beauty of his hometown. He started out as a street artist, painting murals around the city and growing fascinated with the stories of people he would meet along the way.
Eventually, he longed for deeper ways to engage with people, finding the best channel to do so through photography. It took his parents over two years to pay off his first camera, and he never took that purchase for granted. Today, he calls his camera his best friend — caring for it the way his mother always told him to.
It’s a care he gives not only his tool but also his subjects. His early work ranges from visceral black-and-white shots of the Black Nazarene, capturing the exhausted faces of Catholic devotees longing to touch a centuries-old icon of Jesus in a 22 hour-long procession; to dignified portraits immortalising the vibrant, indomitable spirits of the Manila Golden Gays, elderly members of the LGBTQ community who were forced to leave the home that was built to keep them safe.
Geloy eventually became recognised for his portraits, earning a Special Mention at the 2016 Pride Photo Awards and shooting for publications like VICE, Esquire, and CNN Philippines. But in 2017, just as his photography career was starting to take off in Manila, Geloy migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area to be with his new wife, Bea. Their daughter, Narra, had just been born.
“When I arrived here, I expected to have the life of a typical father. You work, then you go home. It’s like that, right?” Geloy tells me over a Zoom call.
The reality that met him in the United States (US) was far from what he imagined. For his first two years in the US, he was not allowed to seek work due to delays in the immigration process. While his wife worked at a local cafe during the day, he was left at home to care for their child, leaving him with little time to go outside and shoot. Yet he never stopped taking pictures. His family inevitably became his main muse, and small, intimate scenes of domestic life the objects of his empathic gaze.
Geloy had always photographed his wife, ever since she was his girlfriend. “Sometimes even while she was mad,” he says, laughing.
Yet how he framed her in his pictures changed after he moved to the US. “When I got here, (the photographs) were no longer just about my partner. They also became about me and what I was going through,” he shares.
“I figured there are a lot of people like me here. Immigrants who thought that they would have a smooth transition. A lot of people think that when you arrive in America, it will be easy. Then you realise it’s not.”
As time went by, Geloy began to reveal more of himself in his pictures – something that he hadn’t done before. Sometimes, he appears as a shadow on their bedroom wall:
Other times, his presence is stronger, photographing himself in front of a mirror as he carries his daughter.
But perhaps the image that most evocatively paints a portrait of a young, immigrant family in America is one where Bea bathes Narra, still a baby, on a bathroom sink:
Geloy is behind them, with his camera covering most of his face as he photographs the scene through the mirror. On the left half of a picture, inches away from Narra’s face, is a reflection of the street outside: cars, street lights, and strangers walking in cool weather clothes.
The image instantly transports me outside tropical Philippines. It makes me ponder the courage it takes to raise a baby without one’s community; to build a warm home in a cold, unfamiliar land.
As Geloy’s subject matter evolved, so did his style. Without photography assignments, he was no longer pressured to see and upload his photos right away. He let go of digital photography and began exploring film.
“Before, I didn’t know how to process my own film. Sometimes it would take me four months to see the pictures,” he says. “I switched to film because I had time.”
Consequently, many of his images in the US are washed in the soft, hazy glow of film, colouring every image of his family, no matter how recent, with a shade of nostalgia. The effect was a drastic change from his gritty black and white shots of streets in Manila, “full of rage and angst”.
“Everything started to change in 2017 when my daughter Narra was born,” he writes in one Instagram post. Fatherhood, he shares, changed his photography. He noticed how he became drawn to imagery that brought him peace: flowers, clouds, and vast empty spaces, like a sprawling road or sea.
Long hours spent with his daughter allowed him to inhabit her world, photographing details as minute as the strawberries and blueberries she would have for breakfast.
And because he had been photographing her since she was an infant, Narra was never shy in front of a camera, allowing Geloy to capture her most natural self. In one close-up shot of her, now a toddler, her mouth is wide open as if she is playfully showing him a tongue trick.
“I noticed she doesn’t know how to pose,” says Geloy. “For example, when we’re at a party, and we say, ‘Look here, smile!’ She doesn’t know how to do that. She just keeps doing whatever she’s doing.”
The documentation of his child candidly growing up follows the tradition of another photographer he mentions in our interview, Sally Mann. “Do you know her?” he asks me, taking out a book of her photographs sitting on a table beside him.
Mann’s haunting black-and-white pictures of her children playing amidst a lush, southern Virginia landscape earned both praise and controversy in the early 1990s. In some images, her children are naked, stirring debates surrounding consent and censorship in photography. Geloy stresses that having such close access to his subjects who trust him completely comes with a sense of responsibility.
He explains, “Before I show these pictures to the public, I ask my wife, ‘Do you think this is okay?’ Of course, Narra is not only my child. It’s both of us who have this child.”
Geloy repeats the word responsibility throughout the interview, and it feels like a theme that underpins not only his artistic process but also his larger life in America. “My story here is getting longer and deeper,” he writes in a poignant letter to his mother that was displayed alongside his photographs in Not Visual Noise.
“I already know how to cook a dish, wash clothes, and change a baby’s diaper. There is still so much I can learn here.” In another interview, he reflects on how the years he’s lived in America mirrors his daughter’s age. “It’s like we were born together.”
It was in America, too, where Geloy wrestled with his identity as an artist. When he finally got his work permit, he tirelessly pitched projects to magazine editors. He received no response, leaving him disheartened. He thought maybe he could be a cook or a dishwasher instead.
“This is where I really had to think, if I’m no longer getting paid (for photography), do I still like to do this?” he reflects. “But I kept on creating and creating. So I thought, okay, I really am a photographer.”
At the onset of the pandemic, a project he launched on his Instagram began to gain traction. He asked his followers to send him things they wanted to say but never did, because they lacked the courage, or because they were afraid of hurting someone. He mined old film images he once deemed unusable, then scribbled on them the painfully honest, anonymous notes he would receive from strangers.
In between posting images from this project, he would slowly share personal photographs of his family, writing snippets about their life in America in his captions. His following grew by the thousands. Unwittingly, he had created a platform, a community, where people were safe to be vulnerable — himself included.
As I scrolled through Geloy’s Instagram feed, I stumbled on a photo he posted of Bea and Narra wearing thick winter clothes, amidst a landscape filled with snow. It was their last getaway before the pandemic.
“This was a perfect day,” he writes in the caption.
At once, memories of vacations with my own family flashed in my mind. I remembered my dad, who would follow us wherever we wished to go – from libraries to museums to glamorous shopping malls. In my family, he never has a say in the itinerary. His only wish, he insists, is for us to let him take as many pictures as he can, bringing a tripod with him everywhere we go.
When I was a child, my cheeks would get tired from smiling for his pictures and I would complain.
“You have to understand,” my dad would tell me. “When I get old, this is all I’ll have.”
All images are credited to Geloy Concepcion. Learn more about submitting to Geloy’s project here. The interview was conducted in Filipino and translated into English by the writer.