It would seem that rock photography has no place for the cute and the tiny. But here Niña Sandejas is taking her place. She’s one of the biggest rock photographers in the country and below, Niña tells us how she stumbled upon it.
Can you tell us how photographing concerts and musicians came about?
It started back when Kitchie Nadal was still the lead singer of Mojofly and we’d go shopping together. Back then, I was in fashion school and I religiously followed designer Paul Smith; he’s worked with and is inspired by British rock n’ roll. I was reading his book ‘You Can Find Inspiration in Everything’ and in it, he says that one of the ways he gets his ideas is by taking a camera [with you] and shooting anything.
So I grabbed one of my family’s instamatic film cameras, went to Greenbelt to go and buy film and batteries, when I bumped into Kitchie. She said she had a gig there and that I should stay. While we were there, I took photos, random shots of us in a make-up store, her writing her setlist while we were in a bar, and the pictures turned out great!
She recommended me to Rico Blanco, who happened to be her cousin. Rico then hired me as a stylist for Rivermaya. He saw my photos and encouraged me to take pictures while I was working for them.
I didn’t really think about becoming a photographer then. Most of my photos were for my fashion portfolio. I soon upgraded cameras because I couldn’t’ get good shots of musicians with what I had.
Obviously, being a rock photographer wasn’t a life goal.
I think my only life goal was to find something that would constantly inspire me. Photography wasn’t something I initially considered. I’d get into anything that would be an instant racket; I sold pastries in high school. I made shirts in college. I even asked my classmates to pay me to make poems for them in Lit class, ha ha. In the end, it boiled down to two things: I either style the artists or I photograph them. I chose photography.
Can you tell me about the moment when you decided to go for it?
I think I fully felt that I was meant to be a photographer when I was sent to Hong Kong to cover Muse in 2007. Record labels would fly journalists to write about events back then and I’ve flown a few times before. But to photograph international bands in a foreign land was something I think I was the first to do. It was such an honor and I would never take that opportunity for granted.
How about fears and hesitations?
How am I going to earn from this? Ha ha, no but honestly, the thought that ran through my head was: can I really pull this off? Do I deserve calling myself a photographer?
Music photography we imagine, needs you to deal with big burly men and weave through intense mosh pit situations. How did you handle that?
In the beginning I was up against the typical old school macho male event photographers with their big lenses and beltbags and there I was a small girl wearing British Flag Doc Martens and a hoodie. They even tried to push me out of the concert scene by badmouthing me saying, she just bought a camera and now she’s here, with us? I knew about this because one of the men there accidentally told a friend of mine what he thought of me, and they were just right across me in the photo pit.
Little did they know I’ve been documenting the music scene, the local artists. I didn’t expect them to know who I was, but I was probably the only one there who was shooting for an online blog—my blog. This experience led me to teach other photographers about this field, to educate them. There are still “official” photographers of local indie festivals out there who block other up and coming photographers from getting access, because apparently it’s a social media battle these days. You’re special if you get the image out there first. I hate that and what they do, it defeats the purpose of this genre.
How about hardships? Anything that almost broke you and made you retract on your decision?
What was difficult was that I don’t think anyone ever really earned from it. I grew up with a working mother who sustained my siblings and I, so if I was going to dive into this, I better make it work, right?
At first people didn’t really understand what it was that I was doing. My ENT doctor was baffled by music photography. “Is that even a job,” he asked.
One of the most difficult moments was when I was really broke. The thing that kept me going was that I knew what I was doing this for: to help bands, to promote them, and to document history. I know someday these photos will be priceless. I was crossing the street in Makati ranting to a friend about how tired I was that I keep giving and giving and I never get anything in return. Bands didn’t have budget for a gig photographer back then.
The only time I think I earned from it was when I printed a few photos for a portfolio and I was going to ambush Rivermaya’s Lizza Nakpil to convince her to let me tour with Rivermaya in Singapore. It was at an event and Raimund Marasigan looked at the album and saw a few of his photos. He had three 5R shots of himself and he asked me how much I was going to sell it for. Parang yung mga random photographer sa debut lang eh. I told him P500, and he bought them for me right then and there. I almost fainted. I was ecstatic but I felt like I ripped him off because it only cost me P10 to print a photo, but I was happy to be P470 richer.
How did you get through being broke?
To sustain my passion, I lived off on writing these press releases for popstars, you know those album release two paragraph snippets you see on the edge of the newspaper? “Available at all leading record stores!” Even that wasn’t a regular thing.
I told myself that I’m really tired to keep calling this an investment. It was all about investing, investing, investing. For what? I felt like I had to keep on because I knew that there’s a reason why I’m constantly in the path of musicians. So I kept on. My first bank account had closed then, but after that, the one I reopened is still the one I have today. Thank God.
What kept me going was the thought that before all this, at the lowest point in my life, I listened to music and it saved me. I would hear these similar stories from the fans themselves, how were inspired, how music helps them get through their issues. So it stops being about you. If an image can remind someone about the music then ‘pat on the back’ job well done.
What is life like being a rock photographer?
The only best part about it is how close you can get to your heroes when they’re performing, but when you work with them constantly you see two sides of everything: Who they are as regular people and who they are as performers.
Sometimes they become annoying, but only because I think they’ve set a certain standard for themselves, which explains why they’re great musicians. I don’t expect them to act like normal people because they’re not. What makes them different is what makes them great. As for what really happens to me in a show, you’re not a star, you’re really just part of the production crew trying to make the show successful.
Perks? I think not lining up for a show or not paying for tickets. Backstage isn’t like how American movies perceive it. You eat out of styro boxes with a meal described by Greyhoundz as “Breaded buto.” Haha.
What makes it worth it?
When you’re watching mid-set and you feel something from the performance. You are reminded why you’re taking pictures of a certain band in the first place. Then you look at your images when you get home and if you get a good shot, you feel lucky to have captured it. It’s like thank you to the musicians for bearing their soul out to the audience otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to get a good shot. You realize how much they give, and it’s your job to take so it wouldn’t go to waste.
Advice for people who dream of pursuing something as off-the-wall as becoming a rock photographer?
Start small. I think when you appreciate the little achievements that come with growing as an artist, it will remind you of how difficult it is for artists to become somebody. So every time you look in the viewfinder, you’re going to know why you’re doing this, not to make you famous, but to make you great.
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