Gabby Cantero is the first name that comes to mind for most when talking about high quality food photography. Photo from @studiocantero on Facebook
Culture Spotlight

How this food photographer strikes a balance between work and escape in the time of COVID

Gabby Cantero talks about how the pandemic is spilling into everything—from the F&B industry to the mood of each day. By JAM PASCUAL
ANCX | Jul 07 2020

I have personally witnessed how Gabby Cantero—the sought-after food photographer and head honcho of Studio Cantero — controls a room. She’s fastidious, commands many moving parts, instructs with the authority of an army officer, and shoots like she’s threading a needle. She’s formidable. I’ve always considered Gabby to be the kind of creative who never backs down from a challenge.

But COVID-19 has tempered us all. This pandemic has changed the way even the hardest of hustlers think about work. Gabby knew this, which is why she helped organized Creative Conversations, a series of online videocasts where she got creatives from different industries together to talk about how to move forward, despite how the curve seems to be only flattening vertically.

Gigs and rackets that weren’t around in March are coming in now. There is no other choice but to adapt. I spoke to Gabby about how quarantine has put the status quo of creative work into perspective, and the little escapes that help her keep sane. Like Animal Crossing.


J: How are you doing Gabby?

G: I’m okay. We finished Creative Conversations yesterday, we did our finale episode. So at least we can breathe again. Just preparing for next week. I have four shoots next week, and then one tomorrow.


J: I wanted to ask you as well how Studio Cantero is doing. You’re getting shoots. I know that at the start of quarantine most of the photographers were having a sort of raket dry spell. When shoots started coming in, what was that like?

G: Generally I’m still very careful with the shoots that I pick. One, of course, I have to prioritize my safety, and the team’s safety, and everyone’s safety in general. My biggest worry next week is all the shoots are on location. So that’s a big thing. Of course, you’re constantly paranoid that you might get [COVID-19]. I was actually talking to Martina Bautista about this. She’s also been shooting this week. And we were discussing, parang, oh crap, is today the day we might get the virus? She’s a prop stylist, so she has to source. I don’t have to do that. I literally just have to go to the location and then shoot. Pero siyempre, during the shoot, I have to sanitize every hour, I have to sanitize the equipment as well, sanitize the surfaces. I’m mentally preparing myself to shoot, to calm the paranoia of possibly getting the virus. You never know.


How many of these could you eat? @gabbycantero_ photographs an appetizer spread beautifully styled by @katherinejao.

A post shared by Studio Cantero (@studio__cantero) on

J: What kind of precautions are you taking? How drastic have the changes been?

G: Usually a one-day shoot turns into a two-day shoot, hence four days of shooting next week. Sometimes, we’re packing in so many layouts in one day because we only wanna shoot for one day. We also have a time limit now because not everybody has the same curfew yet. I have to be done, latest, 6pm ‘cause the curfew in Taguig is still 8pm. We’re not yet at 10. So these are certain things to consider. The more time that you’re exposed to other people, the higher risk of you possibly getting the virus, for everybody else getting the virus. We also have to limit the time.

Tomorrow—I was surprised when they said like, ang aga ng call time namin. They wanted to shoot till like 5, and I was like, huh? I feel like we can be done by 3 or like 4. The faster that we shoot but still being able to provide the same quality of work is one of the biggest challenges right now. Siyempre, there’s also a certain quality and brand that we’re upholding as Studio Cantero.


J: You were partially involved in organising Creative Conversations, which is sort of a video cast that you did with [writer] Gabbie Tatad, where you spoke with creatives from different industries, all asking them the basic question: what now? Can you tell me about how Creative Conversations came about basically, and what the value was to having those kinds of conversations?

G: I came from a panel. This was with a bunch of photographers. At some point, they were just talking about gear. And I was like… aren’t there more pressing matters that we should be discussing? And this was pre-announcement to MECQ, so shoots were slowly being allowed na. And none of them tackled it! No one brought it up. And I was like, oh my god. I can’t even think about buying new equipment at this point, ‘cause there’s also no point! I was hoping the panel would talk about what are you doing now, how are you going to function, what are your protocols—and no one brought it up. I was so discouraged by it, ‘cause these are photographers who like—they’re very respected in the industry. They’re of an older batch as well. And they’re all mostly in advertising. I guess they have it locked in, they figured it out already. But not everybody has it figured out yet.

And I know a lot of people didn’t know yet how to go about shooting again. Even you, even if you can do your interviews via Zoom or Google Meet, it’s still different when you’re in the same room together. It’s the same for us. Our work demands us to be physically present for anything to happen. Nobody discussed how to go about the process of shooting. Ang dami lang na hindi na-tackle.

So I brought it up with [Gabbie Tatad]. “You wanna do like, a panel?” Not even a panel, just like a conversation with a bunch of creatives on how the hell do we move forward. Right now, sobrang ‘ano na?’ ang buhay natin. After that panel, that was the first time I actually felt like, oh my god, I might not have a job for the rest of the year.

Studio Cantero co-organized Creative Conversations with Gabbie Tatad, speaking with creatives from different industries about how COVID-19 changed the racket status quo. Photo from @studiocantero on Facebook

We were discussing, who do we wanna talk to, especially the first episode? Let’s make it an opener na, let’s get a bunch of creatives from different industries first, before—if ever we do make this series, before we dive into different industries talaga. 

So it was basically a brain fart. [laughs] I mean, I attended a bunch of talks also, but I haven’t been in one where it’s just talking about, how do we move forward in our respective industries? It’s an open conversation. We created a safe space for everybody where we could just discuss how we feel, our opinions, what’s our plan of action, if you do have one. That first episode was basically a discussion among friends, because we all knew each other. We all basically started together. The comments section was blowing up also, we had so many people joining the conversation.


J: Your last episode for Creative Conversations was about Pride Month which was very interesting. I mean—there’s so much to talk about especially considering Pride in this context. We don’t have a Pride Parade for one thing, and there’s a stunning but refreshing lack of rainbow capitalism that I’m seeing? Like, I don’t see brands anymore just slapping rainbows on their products. Can you tell me about how that’s been changing? Considering the fact that you and I both know that the LGBT community makes up a large part of the Manila creative industry.

G: The creative industry is probably the most accepting and inclusive already of the LGBTQIA+ community. Of course there’s still judgments, we’ll still get the looks, we can’t change that in a day. It’s the same as any—not naman any conversation or any panel that’s incorporated with Pride. Our questions were also like, how are we coming out, how do you feel about representation of the LGBT community in the industry in terms of film, stereotypes, it’s more things like that.

When we did the pre-show, I told Gab, it’s so hard to, like… in my industry, in photography and commercial directing, it’s actually male-dominated. So, being a female photographer and director, and on top of that, I’m also gay—ang dami mong pinaglalaban. Talking about the LGBTQI+ community in the creative industry, we wanted to tie those two things together. We both showed how it’s not any different, whatever your preference, your orientation. You’re still a creative. You’re still going through the same things as everybody else, as what every other creative is feeling now. It’s still the very core of pride, which is visibility, acceptance, equality. It’s basically tying that up, just in a more creative platform, and also as being a creative here in the Philippines.


J: As a photographer, when you were having these conversations and gigs weren’t coming easy, how were you keeping your artistic senses sharp? Were you shooting around the house or anything like that?

G: Friends who started new businesses would send over their products and I would shoot some. I did make kind of like a special package for businesses that were small and [run] from home. It’s not at my usual rate, because I still wanted to shoot, and a lot of these small businesses deserve it. Actually, y’know what? Everybody deserves quality content, especially at-home businesses. “This is a family recipe,” alam mo yun? That business is born from necessity. It’s also being able to help tell someone’s story, which is basically the very, very core of Studio Cantero. We are brand storytellers and creative solutions.

Prior to Creative Conversations, we put up Pa-Deliver Please, which is like a directory for food, for groceries, for restaurants. Pa-Deliver Please came about because I wanted to help my clients. These were mostly restaurants. Deliveries were all over the place and you didn’t have one place to just look at if you wanted to order. And this was during the ECQ, so at the start, deliveries were having a hard time going from one city to the other. So the way that we did that was it was grouped per city, so it would be easier for people to order. Other than that, I was always looking for meat delivery, for vegetable, for eggs, for groceries. If I’m having trouble finding this, what more for everybody else, for a lot of people who aren’t very tech savvy? That’s where it came about.

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Also we’re also not pressuring ourselves so much. At some point, I told Mikee [Fernando, assistant], “If you need to take a day to just not do anything, it’s fine. It’s absolutely fine. You just have to tell me.” At some point during the ECQ, I was just like, “I’m just gonna play Animal Crossing.” [laughs]


J: Can you tell me about how Animal Crossing has been keeping you sane?

G: I kinda stopped playing. I think Reggie Belmonte said this in one of her interviews about it, it’s the same way with me. Oh, I miss going to coffee shops, I’ll build a coffee shop. I miss being in a Chinese restaurant, I’ll build a Chinese restaurant. AC was a way to cope. It was a way to escape. And you were with your friends and you were having fun and you would do group quests together? Eventually you guys would share things. For me it was a great escape from reality, and as well as realizing—oh eventually, within my island, I got to put the brands that I worked for, so that was fun.


J: Back to what you were saying earlier, I heard over the course of quarantine, people are always like “Oh, we have more time now, we should be more productive,” which is a notion that I disagree with, this obligation to be productive and to be constantly doing something, even though we’re in a national crisis. What are your thoughts on that?

G: Uh, yeah, I didn’t do much. [laughs] I was balancing my days. An ECQ day back then would be: in the morning I’d work out, and then I would do a bunch of stuff for Pa-Deliver Please, and then the rest of the day I would just play Animal Crossing. No pressure to like, join a talk, to go to a workshop, or finish a masterclass, not really. 

At some point, maybe two or three weeks into the ECQ, I just surrendered to it. I can’t fight it. The more that I fight it, the more that I’ll just feel like my anxiety’s gonna be bad, I’m not gonna feel good about this. I might as well just surrender to it and do what I feel like for the day, versus trying to keep all these goals and not being able to achieve it.