Interview with Rollence Patugan

This essay appears as part of the exhibition Rollence Patugan: Be Like Water. April 14 - May 11, 2019


What drives your passion for photographing people and is there a connection to where you grew up, your childhood and these portraits?

There is definitely a connection between my photography and where I grew up. Coming from the small, but diverse town of Baldwin Park in the San Gabriel Valley within Los Angeles County, I grew up in the 80’s without seeing “me” or my Latino friends on popular media such as television or print. Being an Asian-American of Filipino and Chinese descent and not being seen in government, sports, entertainment, or the arts felt like we didn’t exist. And the few times that I did see myself resulted in a two-dimensional character as a foreigner which is actually more harmful than no representation at all.  My passion to photograph people stems from my desire, since childhood to be seen. And I extend that to underrepresented and marginalized people and place them in “normal” situations whether it is fashion or fine art. We are here and we are Americans, too.

I have been to Montana twice and there is an abundance of beauty in its landscape. And at the same time with each visit, I’ve been questioned about my identity without the possibility of being an American as an answer. In 2010, I was asked if I spoke English in a hotel elevator in Bozeman. I was caught off guard for a second. I thought to myself, “Am I wearing my Shaolin Monk uniform in public? That must be why he’s confused.” Unfortunately, I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. In 2017, after revealing I was from Los Angeles and my wife being originally from Chicago,  the local wanted to know “Where we were really from. You know, the old country. You don’t look like someone from Chicago.” We should have been wearing our fedoras and pinstripe suits selling prohibition alcohol, maybe? I know to a certain extent that possibly there was no intention for insult in both instances, but if it’s acceptable to ask those questions in the name of curiosity (which I am for), then why are people of color labeled as overly-sensitive or hostile if we were to ask the same questions back? Because that’s privilege. I couldn’t quite qualify these types of interactions that have occurred throughout my life until I  heard of that term, and how the media can play into and supporting that privilege by pushing stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

I just realized while writing this, that my parents (unbeknownst to them) played into it as well. Filipinos have used the term “Amerikano” to describe someone who is from America and who was white. Growing up, I would hear them say this word repeatedly in conversation to friends and family and I knew what type of person they were describing. It was not necessarily derogatory but just a descriptor. I just came to the discovery that part of my struggle to find my identity was the fact that I could never be an American in their eyes because it was a limited definition. Throughout my childhood, I wanted to identify as being an American, however, the image in the mirror didn’t match that definition. It was an obvious choice to pursue and create The Danes series.

While some of this drives my art, I use these experiences to find ways on how others and I can fit in this beautiful country of ours.

The other relationship within your work that I’m curious about is between you and water. How and why does it become a part of your concept?

“Be like water,” Bruce Lee said in an interview in 1971 with Pierre Berton. Water in its liquid form has the ability to adapt to its surroundings. While it can be contained, if there is any weakness, then water will find a way to escape. It also can change the shape and surface of whatever it encounters. Water is a metaphor for me in my ability to adapt and find a path through life’s challenges. I have had a few changes in direction in terms of careers and passions throughout my life with each offering their own obstacles. I guess I was able to find a way to navigate in each of those chapters so far. I don’t necessarily start a new project by choosing water as the subject matter, but subconsciously I must be gravitating towards it.

How does your commercial work influence your artwork and vice versa? What are the differences in your processes?

When approaching my personal work, there is an autopilot in the back of my head guiding me to compose, direct, and visually illustrate my concept and message in a clear manner. I look for details in making the image as clean and simple as possible in camera meaning correcting things on set or location to avoid major post production. This can simply be removing objects that distract or cleaning up a certain area. The main goal is expression (whether it is clear or purposely vague) and how to effectively communicate that.

For commercial work I ask myself, “How can this be shot differently?” That opens up a can of worms into how the same subject can be captured by changing the point of view, focal length, aperture, shutter, etc. “Are the results still within the scope and direction of the client, but with a  fresh and interesting approach?”

I would not mind if some of my work blurred the lines between both the commercial and art worlds. For me, the work of Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon have seamlessly crossed over between the two worlds.

I see photographers making this distinction between their “commercial” and “fine art” work and even for yourself, you have two different websites. Learning about the difference in the process is helpful and I understand they are for productive and probably necessary reasons, but I imagine blurring those lines would be really interesting. What’s your opinion on why this distinction exists and is it really necessary?    

For me,  the distinction is born out of necessity based on the nature of the work. The commercial work is the “making a living” type of work and often times (at this stage in my career) the work in this category is not fine art such as corporate headshots, product, fashion, etc. The necessity comes into play when potential clients are considering to hire me for a specific job where I have an online commercial portfolio they can review. This works the same way in the art world where If I wanted a gallery or curator to see my work, then the separation would be necessary.

Late last year, I received a commission from Robertson’s Ready Mix cement company to photograph selected plants and quarries to create artwork to be displayed in their new lobby, interior offices, and their Angel Stadium suite. This is where the lines have blurred for me in terms of commercial vs fine art. There is definitely a fine line between the worlds in each photograph. I designed how the work was to be displayed and selected the materials. Their lobby was minimal and to match the industrial nature of their industry, I produced the prints on metal. You can see some installation shots here.

I have to say that this job has been one of the most interesting assignments to date. I am open to following in the direction where the line between the two worlds is not easily distinguishable.

With that said, are you working toward two separate goals in your career, commercial and fine art? Possibly three if we include your teaching experience? Which has the most potential for you?

I see myself more in the fine art world and in education as well. In the last few years, these paths have felt right.  I started the year curating and producing the show “The Five Elements” for Art Share LA and continue to do so as a new advisor for Pasadena Photography Arts curating their “Open Show Pasadena/East LA” programs. So curating would be another avenue where I can expand on my abilities and grow as an artist. Coming out of college with a technical degree in information technology, I may only have dreamt of being where I am today. Staying open to change and possibilities have been beneficial to me. I want to “be like water.”

You brought that back to Bruce Lee so well I won’t mess it up by asking another question. Thanks so much for being a part of Sanguine and sharing your work and ideas with us. It’s been a pleasure working with you.

The questions were insightful forcing me to be introspective which is a great method to find the path you are on.  Thank you for your interest in my work and promoting emerging artists.