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Filipino Artist Ricardo Yan Looks Back to His Childhood Gay Awakening Through Photographs

by James Tana
Oct 30, 2022

( With curious eyes, then seven-year-old Ricardo Yan found himself looking at and browsing through undergarment packaging in the men's section of the department store. On Sundays, he had the same view of half-naked men in an all-male group popularly called "The Hunks," who were once part of a noontime variety show on television. Yan was fascinated by the sight of the male figure. He found them both beautiful and interesting to look at, but at the same time, he was fluttered and confused as to why he had to feel such admiration secretly and in private.

"I did that project because I wanted to say to my younger gay self that whatever I did or whatever I felt back then was perfectly [okay] and [there’s] nothing to be ashamed [of]. Everyone has desires and everyone is attracted to something whatever your gender is," Yan says in an interview with Yan refers to his photo book Innocent Desire, a recreation of this particular childhood memory.

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Cover of Innocent Desire
Book cover of Innocent Desire
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist

Filipino Photographer Ricardo Yan on Photographing the Male Body

Yan’s interest in pictures can be traced back to the sixth grade when he photographed his friends for a school project and compiled them into a scrapbook. Of course, he was unaware that years later he would be doing something similar for his photo book. Eventually, he journaled his thoughts and emotions through words and images, which became the early studies of Innocent Desire. The photo book normalizes the fascination and sensation he felt as a child while coming to terms with his sexuality.

By putting words and images together to represent his experience growing up as a gay child, he understood and discovered more about himself. Throughout the process, the small details in his life complete the bigger picture of his personal story.

"To me, the male body is beautiful and it’s like a living sculpture. Like [what] art critic John Berger said, the difference [between] nude and naked is when in the nude, you're viewing the body as a sculpture but when you say the body is naked, he/she/they is simply without clothes," Yan explains as he addresses the tendency to objectify subjects when photographing.

Innocent Desire book
Inside pages of Innocent Desire
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist
innocent desire
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist
Innocent Desire photo book
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist

"I don't think I can get away [from it by] saying that I don't objectify the male body because I do. And I don't think that's always a bad way to view it [from that perspective] but I always try to be tasteful when I do it," he adds.

Yan’s statement proves the point of the entire project—to offer a sense of normalcy in expressing one’s desire in a creative and harmless manner with the absence of guilt or shame and moralistic judgments as if confronting and comforting his younger self.

Innocent Desire original studies
Studies for Innocent Desire
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist
Innocent Desire scrapbook
PHOTO Courtesy of the artist

The series of photographs are portraits of a male model with emphasis on the body scapes such as the limbs and torso as well as details of skin and veins. These are all magnified through focus and close-up shots to give a more tangible visualization of his childhood desires.

"That project had made my inner child peaceful. That seven-year-old chubby kid is happy and feels accepted and unashamed anymore. He knows he’s gay and it’s alright. My younger self has found itself, it has healed," says Yan.

Carnal (2017, Mono8 Gallery) PHOTO: Courtesy of the artist

Making Peace With One's Self Through Photography

In 2020, Yan graduated from a pioneering college in the country that offered photography as a degree and was mentored by seasoned Filipino photographer, Jay Javier. He recounts that Javier helped him develop his artistic and photographic potential in shooting portraits when the latter included him in a group exhibition Carnal at Mono8 Gallery in 2017.

"I explored shooting nude with a professional nude model where I had a concept called Memories. I emulated images of intimate moments of [a] lover in bed with a polaroid camera. The polaroid camera was integral since it created a record or a remembrance of intimate moments without a third party," he explains.

As a professional, he has been involved in projects close to his lived experience. In 2017, he was commissioned to shoot for Adobo Magazine’s maiden issue, one that tackled gender.

"In high school, I realized that photography can be my hobby after my mother bought me a bridge digital camera that had manual controls but had [fixed] lens. It did give me some freedom to experiment with it [and] with portraits using a shallower depth of field."

the elephant party photo
The Elephant Party is a safe space created by queer people for queer people.
PHOTO BY Ricardo Yan
the elephant party
PHOTO BY Ricardo Yan
Scenes from the queer nightlife scene  of Blitz World Tour 
PHOTO BY Ricardo Yan
PHOTO BY Ricardo Yan

Yan, who is fully aware that his practice is entwined with his personal life, further explored shooting portraits by capturing the shared energies and raw moments and interactions among the queer community within the nightlife scene of The Elephant Party and Blitz World Tour. He often uses a manual camera with black and white film and scans them for uploading on his Instagram which becomes a repository of "pure moments" as Yan would describe the stills.

ricardo yan
Ricardo Yan with his 1956 Alpa Reflex 50mm
PHOTO BY Courtesy of the artist

Over the years, he acquired 20 camera units such as the 1956 Alpa Reflex 50mm 1.8 Kern Switar model, which he considers to be the most valuable piece in his collection. Through the camera, Yan offers his own perspective, making the camera lens his personal way of looking at his subjects. It also allows him to understand his individuality, in the same way that a camera becomes an extension of the self.

He shares that "a camera is a tool to record images and it demands presence. It is not discrete, what makes it discrete is how it is used and how it disappears as an extension of you as a photographer."

"Whatever comes out of it is authored by the one who pressed the shutter release. But the real camera isn't the camera, it’s the mind of the one who presses the shutter."

At present, Yan is a professional freelancer and continues to photograph people and their portraits. This time around those curious eyes are behind the camera lens photographing the same sight of half-naked models but not in secret nor in private, fascinated but unapologetic.

All photos courtesy of Ricardo Yan.


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