Yukie Sarto: The Bicolano Fashion Photographer

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The Vogue Italia Digital-published fashion photographer talks about his craft and his roots in Buhi.

From the entrance of the cafe I caught a glimpse of him at the back of the room: relaxed and comfortable in his seating while listening to a couple of tracks through his earphones. If I didn’t know him, I’d assume he’d be one of the young, indie artists tolling hours away with friends at Cubao X, and not this esteemed, Vogue Italia Online-published fashion photographer who has worked with celebrities, international models and the fashion industry’s brightest. He sat there, quietly, swiping through some of his works. Yukie Sarto is sitting far from the maddening crowd.

Yet, he always knew that the maddening crowd is what kept him on his toes.

Yukie is only one of the hundreds, even thousands, of the young fashion photographers, whose panache for the humble camera has fueled a passion to capture editorial images presenting narratives, selling visions, strong silhouettes and framing certain streaks of light. Yet, a resourceful class of his own making, he managed to draw the line between photography as an art and as a business (worth his early two-year stint with a fifty-millimeter SLR.). Now, years into the industry that is Fashion Photography and with an enviable portfolio under his belt, he ponders on what made the son of a Buhinon-Tigaonon marriage reach this far—far from a crowd that is mad, but holding on to a view of the bigger picture.

Paolo: You’re one of the best young photographers we have right now. What makes a fashion photographer good or bad?

Yukie: I think consistency is important. Also, you’d be good if you’re working with what limited resources you have, and working around them is perhaps the most challenging. It excites me to know that people think I own fancy equipment when I really don’t. Haha!

P: You’ve been a fixture in the Fashion scene in Manila for a while now. Where were you from?

Y: I was born (here) in Manila. I used to live in Merville in Paranaque but my parents were both Bicolanos. My Mom is from Buhi, and my Dad is from Tigaon (Cam Sur). Of course my closeness to Mom led me to getting to know more of the folks from her side of the family, in Buhi.

P: You know how to speak Rinconada?

Y: Sadly, no. But my Mom does. They (her family) speak to each other in Rinconada when they visit.

Yukie's first outing at Italian Vogue: "Glamorosa," 2011

Cover Stars. Yukie’s work with some of the country’s top publications show his expertise on the importance of cover narrative.

Judy Ann Santos for Celebrity Mom, May 2018. Photography by Yukie Sarto
Angelina King and Joey Mead-King For Lifestyle Asia, December 2017. Photography by Yukie Sarto
P: And you grew up here (in Manila)?

Y: Yes, I studied Nursing in FEU in College, but I didn’t finish. I guess I was being called for a creative venture that time and there were instances of me daydreaming about the Arts, hence I didn’t finish it.

P: That’s when you took Photography classes.

Y: I decided I wanted to sort of make things ‘legitimate’ in me as a budding photographer, so I took some classes at the Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation (FPPF). They’re a team of vets actually. Eventually, I pursued further studies at the Fashion Institute of the Philippines (FIP) under Louie Parinas.

P: The golden question—when was your so-called Fashion epiphany before you went to school?

Y: I was in the call center industry for almost five years. I was hopping from one company to another and I stumbled upon a Preview cover story of Anne Curtis wearing Slim’s iconic pieces from the fifities and sixties. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it for days. It was stunning. I would keep it, put it out again, and just admire the beauty of the series of photographs. I wanted to know the process of creating editorials, how they’re actually being done. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a Fashion Photographer.

Eddie Garcia for Mega Magazine, 2018
Lifestyle Asia, October 2018
"Chasing Avedon" editorial, April 2017
P: And you’ve had a difficult beginning.

Y: Yes—I’ve borrowed cameras from friends during the first two years I began as an amateur! I didn’t invest in buying my own as I wasn’t exactly sure if it’s something I’d do forever.

P: …and your big break?

Y: After FIP, I’ve managed to put together a decent portfolio featuring my best works. I’ve sent it everywhere–sent them to publications, editors-in-chiefs, companies, everyone! Manila Bulletin was the first to reply with a ‘we’d like to have you,’ written all over the email. Surprisingly, the first shoot I did with them (before it became Style Weekend today) was for a holiday issue, and it meant I was to mount a mammoth shoot.

Jolina Magdangal portrait by Yukie Sarto
P: That experience was probably amazing.

Y: It was. I assembled a crew after I got the idea pitches from the MB people. They wanted a shoot setting that evoked a foreign locale. So we got to shoot it (for free) at a log cabin in Tagaytay Highlands. I worked with Rochelle Lacuna for hair and makeup, Lia Contreras with the styling, and we got a Russian model to pose for us. It was one memorable shoot.

P: What happened after that first shoot?

Y: Manila Bulletin took me in, where I shot Fashion Editorials for a year with them, but I was still freelance.

Otuwe (Elite Manila) photographed by Yukie Sarto

Two photographers may shoot the same subject, same lighting, same camera, same styling, same everything but it all boils down to who picks the best photo during selection for presentation.

From 'It's a Man's World," 2013
P: Looking at your body of work, I’ve noticed that skin, light, shadows play very important roles in your body of work. What’s your driving force?

Y: I don’t complicate things. I wanted them to be simple. Although I like looking at them, I’m not really into piling on accessories over accessories nor avant garde silhouettes for my own shoots. Clean lines, minimal styling, I prefer natural lighting over studio. These are perhaps my answers.

P: On what level is photography a work or an art for you?

Y: Well, it becomes work if everything is controlled in terms of photo selection. I mean, satisfying the client is very important. It’s difficult when you’ve worked so hard on a shoot yet they end up choosing a photograph which I felt wasn’t good enough. On the other hand, it’s an art when I’m free to do anything I want on the task—from conceptualization, assembling the team, styling, location, down to photo selection. I’m very hands-on when I work—even pull outs from designers!

P: It seems you are very passionate about the other fields related to your work—styling, make up, etc, but who are you if you weren’t a photographer today?

Y: (A long pause) I’d probably be an animator/illustrator. It’s still the same level of creativity I guess.

P: You’ve mentioned that photo selection is perhaps the gatekeeper of one’s success in the industry. Why is that so?

Y: Selection (and editing in terms of scrapping hundreds of shots to get the best two shots) is something very crucial for me. Two photographers may shoot the same subject, same lighting, same camera, same styling, same everything but it all boils down to who picks the best photo during selection for presentation. That’s where the real genius takes place.

Atom Araullo for Lifestyle Asia, 2017
Charo Santos for Lifestyle Asia, 2017
P: The next question is that of the local industry. Where do you stand on the status of the local Fashion Photography industry? Where is it heading?

Y: It’s definitely growing by the hundreds, especially on high fashion photography. Before it used to be a phase for weddings, now it’s Fashion. I think we have good photographers now because of the availability of inspirations online. 

Paolo: Through social media, we’ve been witnesses to how other countries are dealing with the challenges of this health crisis on many levels. Some are successful, but there’s still an air of uncertainty as to the end of this crisis. What message can you give to the rest of the Filipinos at this time?

Y: I’ve always believed that regulation and professionalization is key. We lack regulatory commissions over Fashion Photography locally. I can perhaps cite that PMAP (Professional Models Association of the Philippines) and FDCP (Fashion Design Council of the Philippines) have done so much in regulating professions within their respective industries. I feel that we need to regulate our talents, manage them well, train them professionally within a set of standards so we can package our talents into something high-end and organized. The problem begins with regulating rates between veterans and rookies. A veteran would have to lower his rates to accommodate versus a competing rookie who can perhaps deliver the same level of expertise at a much lower cost.

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Proportions and grand silhouettes: shown in these editorial for designer Jaggy Glariño in Sohoton, Surigao del Norte
Yukie Sarto's interesting use of space and scale shown in these series of photographs.
Yukie's favorite photographers? Mario Testino, Herb Ritts, and Steven Miesel. Miesel's sense of presence and space--his influence--is apparent in these photographs.
P: That’s a really good point, and I hope so too that the industry gets there with you as one of the members of the council. At this point, I’ll ask a question common to profiles like these—what would you advise to up-and-coming Fashion Photographers?

Y: It’s very crucial to experiment. Experiment and never ever get tired of looking for inspirations everywhere. People may claim a certain concept is original but no, nothing is entirely original, there’d always be a pivotal reference—everything depends on execution. Like I said that’s where the genius of it comes in.

P: How about networks? Is it also important, or is it something secondary?

Y: Well, it’s actually important now. Nobody really knows anyone in the industry very well unless one goes to parties. You mingle with them, you talk to them. We have a lot of fashion parties all over the city and eventually they’d be curious to get to know you and your work. Just get to know one, and show them what you’ve got, and you’ll be penetrating the social circles eventually.

Gerald Anderson by Yukie Sarto
Chantal Videla for Meg Magazine
Bretman Rock by Yukie Sarto
P: That’s also true for the designer-muse relationships we knew before until today—the muses end up getting a lot of buzz into the designer’s body of work through her connections. On the one hand, Fashion Photography in Bicol is only beginning its developmental stages. What would make you pack your belongings instantly and head to Bicol?

Y:I would love to do a workshop there, get to meet young photographers locally and teach them a thing or two from my experiences. I would also go there for the stunning locations. There’s a particular location in my Mom’s hometown in Buhi which I’ve been dreaming of shooting at—a dreamy location along the lake. I want to shoot in locations where nobody ever dared to go.

P: That’s great. If I ask you now what part of you is Bicolano, what’s your answer?

Y:Oh, I love gata! My Mom’s family cooks almost everything in gata and I love it, it’s insane!

P: Okay, if you remember my first question was the makings of a really good Fashion Photographer and you said consistency, resourcefulness and research are crucial characteristics. What then makes him bad?

Y: I believe if a photographer is mum on his thoughts about the shoot, and keeps his opinions to himself, that is when he becomes a bad photographer. As if you’re there to only take photos. That’s really bad. Also, though it’s not entirely bad, but I don’t like heavily photo-shopped works. The more natural it is, the better. It’s important that the goal for every shoot is that what you see on my camera screen is exactly what you’ll get. ■

Check out Yukie Sarto in action:

Featured image and other content images courtesy of the Office of the Vice President. Special thanks to Ben Francis Nasayao for the pitch. Expressing our gratitude to Ms. Sieg Borromeo, Her Excellency Vice President Leni Gerona Robredo and the Office of the Vice President. Truly, the #BestOfBicol.
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