April 29, 2021
In 2016, freshly laid off from his job, photographer Noah Asanias had a camera, a single lens, and $3,000 in his bank account. Just a few short years earlier, he’d arrived from the Philippines on a student visa and traded his work for studio time.
"One of my mentors told me in the beginning of my photography to survive the first two years," the Vancouver-based portrait and fashion photographer recalls. "I didn't know what the two years meant until they had [passed] ... One thing that I learned from that was you just have to keep going, no matter what."
At the time, Asanias was living off $2.50 pizza slices. Today, the founder of Ark Studio, Asanias has worked with the likes of Lululemon, AllSaints, and Best Buy, and has photographed a wide array of film and television personalities, from Leah Lewis (The Half of It), to Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), to Metta World Peace (Los Angeles Lakers).
In an industry that can be notoriously hard to crack, Asanias has built a reputation for his billboard-worthy style and knack for capturing the best of his subjects — all while blazing a trail for other Filipino creatives.
"I want [my subjects] to relax; I want to be able to laugh with them, to cry with them if needed. To get that unguarded moment," he says.
Listen to the podcast and read the full interview below. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity:
NA: I love that [laughs]. I’m from the Philippines — I was born and raised [there]. I moved to Vancouver about eight years ago. Mabuhay means “long live,” or “have a prosperous life,” basically. And that’s something that we typically say when we’re addressing somebody, or when we’re [giving] a speech, we open with “Mabuhay” and we close with “Mabuhay” as well.
NA: I grew up about five hours north of Manila [in] a very small town. It’s by the beach — five minutes from the beach. I’d go off with my surfboard, and that was kind of my day growing up. I wasn’t really thinking about photography or any arts at the time.
Growing up in a small town, all I could think of professionally was doctors, lawyers, fishermen, or farmers. I grew up with a family of doctors. Basically everyone in my family is in the medical field except for me — and I’ve always been afraid of blood, so I guess I didn’t have any future in that [laughs]. I faint when I see blood; I still do. But luckily, my dad saw the potential in me and put me in fine arts for university.
Funny enough, I actually didn’t know I was in the fine art school. I thought I was in business advertising. I only found out two weeks after being in fine arts advertising, because we didn’t do anything but draw. I asked my instructor, “when are we going to learn about the business part of advertising?” And he said, “not until two years from now.” That’s when I realized I was fine arts advertising.
NA: I was a photojournalist and illustrator [for] my high school newspaper. And that kind of started all this. I didn’t have a camera until I was eighteen — I was just borrowing my dad’s digital camera, which was a 2 megapixel camera at the time, and that’s what I was using for the school paper. And I’m pretty sure I only got in the school paper because I had access to a camera — it wasn’t [because] I was skilled or anything like that.
But that piqued my interest in photography, because there were a few photo competitions within [my] region that I was stubborn enough to join, and [I was] lucky to win one of the awards. I was maybe fifteen at the time. But I still [wasn’t taking] it seriously; it was just something I did as a hobby.
But I think for me, what excited me was having access to the backstage. I’ve always wanted that in my life, and holding a camera back then, I got to be backstage, see who’s performing. It [wasn’t anyone famous]; it was usually my classmates, but I just always wanted to be backstage.
NA: It is. It is.
NA: I started learning surfing maybe around fifteen. There was a time, every weekend, I would go to the surf [spots] and spend my whole weekend there. And aside from that, I was a drummer. I [would hang] with my bandmates, practicing from 9:00 am until our neighbours would knock on our door, basically. We were doing emo/punk rock. I still wear skinny jeans, so I guess it’s stayed with me [laughs].
NA: [One of the big] differences between being in North America compared to the Philippines [is that] in the Philippines, we don’t really take a gap year. There’s kind of this shame [and stigma] when you quit university or decide to change studies — it’s what kept me going to finish my fine art degree. Because of my ego, I just stayed with it, and I actually started liking it.
It’s funny, because the reason I got accepted to that university was they lost my drawing [for the application]. Of all the people, they lost [mine]. And I didn’t know how to draw at the time. I was okay, but nothing compared to my classmates. But I kept going with it, I learned a few tricks in sketching and painting, but I was never really good at it until I hit the third year which is when we started digital [art]: 3D rendering, Photoshop, Illustrator.
I had a photography class, [but] I never really took it seriously. I didn’t have a camera, so I was just borrowing my classmate’s camera at the time, or I was asking for extra images that they [weren’t] submitting to the instructor. At the time, I was very focused on my advertising career; I thought that’s what I wanted to do, so I focused more on the marketing side: market research, knowing your demographic, customer journey mapping… because I was always intrigued by how someone would purchase an item, or how you could create brand loyalty.
So I didn’t really take my university days seriously until my third year when the marketing was introduced. And from there, I fell in love with advertising — I pursued it for 4-6 years after university, and it was good until I felt exhausted with the demands [of the work].
NA: I started in accounts, [handling] clients. I’d talk to the client — what they want, what they need — and then we’d do our market research from [there] and work with the creative team to come up with an idea. After a few months, I moved to [what we] called a visualizer — now it’s just called graphic designer. And I really enjoyed that. Eventually, after a year, I became an art director for a big ad agency in the Philippines. [We] handled big international clients, and we were hiring photographers and cinematographers every time.
[Through that, I met a photographer] in the Philippines. This was probably between 2010-2012. He was way younger than me, but he was doing big campaigns, and he was able to make a living [from] it. The only photographers I knew growing up were paparazzi. In the Philippines, when there’s a wedding, we don’t really hire a wedding photographer — at least in the countryside. This photographer in my hometown would come in, take a few shots, and then print them and put them outside the venue for people to buy. That was my only exposure [to] photographers until I met this photographer that I kept hiring for advertising work.
I took him out one time for dinner, because I was intrigued by how he was able to make a living doing what he loves to do. I think that’s what opened my eyes [to the possibility]. It’s very different in the Philippines than in North America, but even in the Philippines, there are a lot of ways to do it. And because of that, my interest in photography just grew and grew. I picked up my camera, went to a lighting workshop, and just became obsessed with studio lighting after that.
NA: I went to Vancouver for my sister’s wedding in 2012. I ended up liking Vancouver and wanted to stay, and to be able to stay in the country, I needed to go to school. Originally my plan was just to be here for a year and maybe go back to the Philippines and continue being an art director. But during my schooling in Vancouver, I met more people doing what I aspired to do: portrait and fashion photography — and through that, they [mentored] me in how the business works, how to develop your portfolio.
After my schooling, I just didn’t want to go home. Because I knew that if I went back, it wouldn’t be the same — my aesthetics for my type of work is [here] in North America. So I stayed.
NA: I didn’t have a work visa at the time, so I could only be in Vancouver for school. After school, there was a shift in immigration where I wasn’t able to get my work visa right away. So I waited for another year with only my visitor’s visa in Vancouver — so I wasn’t able to work. I was eating pizza every single day, because that’s all I could afford. It was $2.50 for two slices and a pop. It was the cheapest food that I could find that would help me survive for the next few years.
But during that time, I met this amazing photographer in town, one of my mentors, who’s a portrait and food photographer. And I asked him if I could assist [on his shoots]. He didn’t have to pay me, because I couldn’t accept payment anyway — all I asked was for access to his studio when he wasn’t using it.
That worked out pretty well, because he let me shoot in his studio pretty much every weekend. And that’s how I built my portfolio. And I remember at the time, a few brands would reach out to me for shoots, but I couldn’t tell them that I couldn’t work in Vancouver — I didn’t want to confuse people. So all I did was hike up my rate really high so that I knew they’d say no to it. But that helped me out later on, because when I was able to get my work permit, everybody was used to my high rate, and some of them were okay with hiring me without any questions.
NA: I was focused on fashion at the time. I really wanted to be a fashion photographer, but to be honest, I didn’t understand anything about fashion. I didn’t even know about couture, for example. All I knew was I wanted to be a photographer for H&M or ZARA.
When [the work visa] came in, I was recruited by a big fashion brand in Vancouver — and this is what jump-started my career. This is 2016. Everything was going well; they had access to the best talent in town and overseas. They were flying models all over the world. I was actually a senior retoucher at the time; I wasn’t a photographer, but I was able to take some photos here and there when the photographers let me. I’d chat with them and learn from them. My studio manager was from France, and he taught me about equipment.
Unfortunately, that career ended in less than a year. I got fired. But it was [also] me being fired that pushed me to get to where I am now. After I was fired, I had only $3,000 in my bank account. I had one camera and one lens. And all I knew was photography — and nobody was hiring at the time.
I bought a few lights with what little I had. I started shooting corporate headshots. And I remember my very first client, I made $5,000 just by doing corporate headshots. I reinvested that back into my business [and] bought better lights — and I just kept doing that. I kept trying to find big projects and used that money to fuel the equipment [and] portfolio that I needed for my photography.
NA: Good question. One of my mentors told me in the beginning of my photography to survive the first two years. And I didn’t know what the two years meant until they had [passed]. What she actually meant was after two years, most likely, the people around you will start to remember your name. They’ll know that I’m a photographer, and by then, I’ve become their go-to photographer.
One thing that I learned from that was you just have to keep going, no matter how hard it is. And if you really like what you’re doing, you have to learn how to make the ends meet. And it’s unfortunate that there were probably five photographer friends that I had — we were all starting at the same time, and none of them are shooting now. And [most] of them were way better than me.
NA: There are different ways I can answer that. One of them is, I believe in investing in the best gear that I can get my hands on. A lot of photographers believe that it doesn’t matter what your equipment is. For me, I believe I need to invest in the top equipment I can get my hands on because of the [clientele I want to work with]. I want to work with the clients that have the funds to pay for [high-end equipment], and unfortunately, that comes with your studio and how you present yourself. Because the client pays for the image [and whole experience] as much as they pay for the end result.
I was fortunate enough that my dad was a businessman in the Philippines, and I learned from him that money shouldn’t be sitting in my bank not doing anything. I have to invest it — either in my business, or in stocks or real estate. And I trusted that I always have to grow my business. So rather than money [from a shoot] sitting in my bank account and making 2% or 1% returns in my savings account, I’d rather put that in my business, which I know can get a higher return. And that has been my logic since I started.
NA: In visual arts, a lot of people will tell you what you should do and how you should do it. But the problem is, you’re the only person who actually knows your business. Like, when I was starting out — and this is a mistake I’ve done in the past — my very first campaign, I only charged $800 for the whole day. And because of that, local photographers in town sat me down and told me it’s not how the business should go — which I’m very grateful for. It’s how I found out how much I should be charging.
But there’s also other photographers that have approached me, or modelling agents, telling me how I should run my business. And the problem with that is, [they may have been giving good advice], but they’re not the one putting a roof over my head or food on my plate. At the end of the day, you just have to trust what you believe is right, but also have the knowledge of what you’re trying to do.
For instance, I know now that I can’t be charging $800 for a shoot. One, my business isn’t going to survive if that’s the only thing I charge. Two, I’m actually destroying the industry I’m trying to join and that I love. And another one is with style — and this is something I’m still working on. In the beginning, every client [would come] to me wanting a certain look. And that’s great in the beginning, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew the technical aspect of it; I could deliver what they wanted, but I [wasn’t finding my own] style.
Everybody would tell you that “the riches are in the niches” — so when it comes to your style, you really have to trust in your gut feeling about what excites you the most. And it’s a constant battle for photographers trying to figure out what their style is, trying to listen to their inner voice, rather than what their roommate or best friend is saying, or what another photographer is saying. But I’d say that is probably the most important part of being a creative: trusting in your gut feeling as an artist — especially when the big clients start coming in.
NA: I have this workshop that I used to run called Style Development. I did this for myself, coming from an art director background. What I did is I collected about 50 images, [and] I printed them all and put them on my wall. And every day, for however long that was, I would write down common themes that I saw [in the images]. I would write down why I liked [a particular] image, or what attracted me to it. And as time went by, every time I would have a shoot, I would print one image and [add] it there if I felt like it [fit] with my style. And over time, I invited other photographers to come in and take a look at the wall, and then let me know what they’re seeing: is it the colour? Is it the mood of the image? That’s basically what I did to find my style.
That being said, I feel like I still don’t know my style; I’m still working on it. But at least it becomes more clear about what type of images attract you and why.
NA: I guess it was different every time, but the most recent one I can think of is when I was hired by a studio for a three-day shoot, and that three-day shoot basically covered my salary for the whole previous year.
And even for me as a portrait and fashion photographer, I never called myself a fashion photographer until I booked my [first] campaign. There’s always this impostor syndrome that goes through creatives. I always thought I was just faking it, but when I booked [that] campaign, I was like, ‘maybe I’m not faking it anymore.’
NA: I don’t know if I can quiet that voice, but [there’s] one thing that I do. I always get nervous, no matter how big or small the shoot is. I love to wear accessories, and there’s this bracelet I’ll wear if I feel like I have to put on a [certain] persona. And it helps me [put that voice aside] and say, ‘this is who I am.’
NA: Funny enough, during the time I was working for this fashion brand [in Vancouver], I was submitting some of my editorials to this magazine in LA. I found out [the editor-in-chief] was in Vancouver at the time. I kept messaging her, asking to take her out for a coffee. Finally, we met — and I wasn’t trying to sell anything; I just wanted to meet her — and at the end of our meeting, she told me she wanted to learn more about photography. So I offered, "how about you come to my studio, I’ll show you how I do lighting, and you can invite a talent that we can photograph?"
I didn't know this, but apparently this editor — she’s a friend of mine now — her husband is an actor, and they’re very connected to the acting industry in Vancouver and LA. So the first person that she brought in was Keenan Tracey (Rogue, The 100, Bates Motel, Polaroid). The next day, she pulled in Emily Bett Rickards (Arrow, The Flash, Brooklyn). After that shoot, we sat down together — I was teaching her how to retouch [images] — and our friendship just kind of grew from there. She’s the one that introduced me to portraiture, because I was struggling with fashion at the time. She told me, “why don’t you do headshots and spec shoots for actors?” I told her, “I don’t really have any connections.” So she started [bringing] more talent my way, and I just kept shooting.
NA: In a perfect world, where I have half a day with the talent, for example — and I say this because a lot of the jobs, you only have about five minutes with the talent and then they have to go — but in a perfect world, [where] I have a full team, makeup, stylist on set, I value the time that I can get to know the talent. While they’re doing their hair and makeup, I like to talk to them. Or if there’s an opportunity to meet the talent before the shoot, I’ll take that opportunity. Because for me, it’s very important to represent them in one frame — [to capture] who they are aside from their role in film and TV.
I personally love the in-between shots — something where they’re not posting; where their guard is down. I was [watching] a documentary with Peter Lindbergh — an amazing photographer — and in this documentary, he said a lot of the shots that he loves are the shots where the model is taking their cigarette or coffee break, because their guard is down. They’re not tense; they’re not trying to look pretty and cool; they’re just being them. And basically, that has been my approach in portraiture. I want [my subjects] to relax; I want to be able to laugh with them, to cry with them if needed. To get that unguarded moment.
NA: Imagine a room when there’s no light. It’s just black. Once you start putting light behind the subject, you see a little bit of a texture. Once you add more light in front, you can see the person a little bit more. My philosophy, coming from a fine art background, is that photography is literally painting with light — because without light, there’s nothing. If you’re in a dark room with no light, once you turn on [a single] light, you start to see dimensions more. Once you move that light, the dimensions change — and the texture changes. That’s how I approach my lighting.
When you’re shooting food, for example, you want to light the food from behind, not from the front. But when you’re photographing a person, you want to light from the front, because you don’t want to see the texture of the skin.
I’m very traditional when it comes to lighting; I love using [my] light meter. I know a lot of younger or newer photographers don’t use [it] anymore. The reason I like my light meter is I like being precise with my lighting, and for me, it’s a lot faster when I know what the light is reading. My advice is to learn your light meter — and not just light meter in camera, because it can help you a lot in set-ups — especially when you’re doing five to ten light set-ups.
NA: When I started in photography, I really had a hard time connecting with talent and agencies in town. Honestly, I didn’t [give it much thought]; I figured my work just wasn’t there yet — and I’m pretty sure that’s partly true. But ever since the Black Lives Matter movement [shone a spotlight on race], my schedule has gotten so busy. From mid-April, I was booked almost seven days a week. But nothing has really changed in my approach for the last two years, so that’s what really made me question [why people started taking notice].
In Vancouver, for example, I had a hard time connecting with talent and hair and makeup stylists. They always seemed to not want to work with me. [I always] thought it was my style, but it also felt as if I just [wasn’t] cool enough to be part of their crew. That’s the sad part about fashion or working with the stars; there’s always that connotation that you have to be this cool person. If you’re not, then “you can’t sit with us.” And that’s something I’m trying to break for myself.
The funny part is, that’s only happening in Vancouver; that’s not happening in the States. Whenever I go to LA, I work with what I consider one of the top talents in LA. Every time I come back home, it seems like I can’t break this wall, and I still don’t understand why. And late last year, when I started working with talent I really admire, I took a step back and asked myself, “why do I want to work with these people?” Is it just because I want to feel like I’m part of the group, or is it because I think they’re talented? And some of them, I had to get rid of, because I felt like I was just seeking approval more than pursuing what I love to do.
NA: All I know is now I’m happier, and the people I work with, I love working with them. And I’m not chasing this approval — that I felt like I wanted. Now I do it because I want to do it.
NA: That’s a hard question. I chose photography because of the lifestyle it can [provide]. There’s a few downsides in that. Like any profession, when you don’t work, you don’t make money. And I’m going to sound like a lazy person, but in reality, I only want to be working at maximum three days a week. I want to be able to enjoy my life. I’m married; I want to be able to enjoy my time with my wife, and hopefully be able to travel when restrictions [lift]. I want to visit my family in the Philippines whenever I want.
Another thing that attracted me to photography is, I always wanted backstage access. I guess my fascination coming from the Philippines, where I’d only see these [actors] on TV, I always wanted to know them and tell people stories about how the shoot went. And that’s something that I enjoy now. A lot of the talent, I’ve become good friends [with].
NA: I want to do more gallery shoots — basically, the movie posters. I want to be flown somewhere else and shoot a five-day campaign there. And that’s something I’ve been looking for. My favourite photographer is Peter Lindbergh, and I want to be close to where his career [reached]. And I’m not sure if I’ll get there, but even if I don’t get there, I’m pretty happy with where photography has taken me already.