Interview: Geloy Concepcion & The Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did11 Share Tweet
Raw confessions handwritten on old photographs, the faces blurred out to conceal identity, and still the anonymity only serves to connect more intimately with the reader. There’s no room for formalities in these photos. Each frame gets down to business – revealing long-held secrets and finally voicing out the heaviest thoughts in one’s mind.
Whether you're into film photography or not, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across one of these images that are part of US-based Filipino artist Geloy Concepcion’s widespread Instagram project, aptly called the Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did.
Taking its roots in vandalism, photographer and former street artist Geloy birthed the idea out of his own struggles as an immigrant worker in the US, and out of a deep interest in his surroundings, more importantly in people and their stories.
We had the opportunity to chat with Geloy about his work as a full-time artist, and his personal life as a husband and father. We also talked about the role of film in propelling the project, as well as the many ways he intends to expand the project beyond Instagram and into physical spaces.
Hi, Geloy! First off, how did you get started with photography?
I started in 2011 when we had a photography subject in my second year in college. At that time I was even joking about film, that it’s just for acting. That was before, when I was new to it. I was saying, “why do we have to do film when digital already exists?”
I started as a street artist and we used to go to different places. We’d interact with people and eventually I had this idea–I wanted photography to be my medium for interacting with people since it was more intimate than painting.
So you’ve been into arts even before film photography?
Yes! I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I didn’t plan to become a photographer, to be honest. I wanted to become an illustrator or a tattoo artist, anything that had to do with drawing and creating with my hands. But photography’s intensive, and once you get hooked into it, it becomes deeply ingrained into you.
But I still draw and I can explore anything right now [as a full-time artist]. I can make films, since that’s also one of my dreams. After I created the project Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did, I haven’t limited myself to one medium. But my main thing is still photography and up until now I have a camera with me everyday. It’s like the camera has become an extension of my body.
Speaking of your project Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did, can you talk about how that started?
After I arrived here in the US, I didn’t get to work for three years because of a delay in my immigration papers. I was just at home, so I felt like even before the whole world got isolated, I already was. I stayed home to take care of my daughter Narra, unlike in the Philippines where I worked as a photographer.
Eventually though, I started having these thoughts. I realized, if I was having these thoughts then surely other people were too. So I posted that question on my Instagram story, “what are the things you wanted to say but never did?” That was in November 2019. People replied but I did nothing with the replies at first, I just read them. It was in February the following year that I had the idea of doing something with it.
And you also used old film photos to accompany the text submissions for the project?
Yes. What happened was, at that time I was starting to think of quitting photography. When I finally got my work permit I felt really hopeful, but then the pandemic started. So it’s like, okay I really can’t work [as a photographer]. I was so frustrated and I told my wife Bea I was just going to sell my cameras. I’ll work as a gasoline boy or a dishwasher instead, since I’ve already worked as a dishwasher.
When I was having these thoughts I started to look at my old photos, and I felt sentimental looking at my older works. Then I saw this folder of unusable photos and I thought, how can I use these?
I was inspired by vandalism in the Philippines. Vandalism on walls that say “mahal pa rin kita" (I still love you). Those were my main inspiration. Imagine it, someone was able to express something like that. It was so raw.
So I started [using the photos with the submissions], I was thinking maybe 40 images would do. Ten per post so a total of four posts and then I was done, but I was shocked by how many submissions came after that first post. It still wasn’t anonymous so I received maybe around 30 again, then I had the idea of using Google Forms for anonymity and that’s when it really took off. I got about 80 responses in a week. I told my wife, “I think I started something.” Now I receive about 1,000 to 2,000 submissions weekly.
How do you manage your time, considering the project, and now that you can work more freely as a photographer? Do you still shoot events?
I’m a full-time artist now. Events, yes, but most of the time I sell merch. I will also be releasing a book in June about Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did. It will be a photo book and a journal, so it’s interactive. It will feature photos related to the project but will also have spaces where people can write.
Going back to the project, you get pretty intense anonymous submissions. How do you approach it, being the only person who manages the whole project and having to read all these raw confessions?
The submissions that I post on Instagram are just the Instagram-safe ones. There are many more letters that involve heavier themes. There’s really a lot, and I’m thinking of ways to get them out in public, maybe through Patreon or a website, even without an image, just the submission, just so it’s out there.
Before I read them I make sure I’m feeling well myself. I think it helps that I had a good childhood, so in a way even if I read them I won’t get triggered, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do the project. We weren’t rich, but I had wonderful childhood experiences. Some people get shocked too when they meet me and find out I’m pretty humorous, because they think I’m a serious person.
Regarding your format, do you plan to stick to film?
About film, I started in 2014 because I really liked the process. I’m a slow shooter, even with portraits, so it fits me. I use film for the project and it’s always going to be film.
We went to a thrift shop before and I saw old slide films from the 1940s and I’ve been using them, too. I look for abandoned photos, so you’ll notice the background photos look like they came from different eras, like the 40s or 60s. There are a lot of abandoned photos in the world and I want to give them a new life.
Do you think projects like yours are one of the things that keep film alive?
I think it’s good for younger people to know how to shoot with film, and also to create personal works with it. They should also find out what they wanted to say through it. For the project I think yes, because they’re able to see the beauty of film. So maybe that’s the start, but they should also go past that, because some get boxed into just shooting anything as long as it’s film.
How has the project affected your life? Has it had tangible impacts?
I think I’m the poorest person with the most followers! But the reach has helped me get work and sell merchandise like shirts since I work on it full-time to be able to pay our bills.
And I also have the project Nice to Meet You My Friend. My aim for that project is to meet the people who follow Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did. I don’t know if they’ve submitted letters themselves but I’d like to meet as many as possible.
I started it in Los Angeles and Utah, but I want to reach out more aggressively. When you meet people there usually has to be an icebreaker because there’s this wall between the two of you, but because of the project it’s like this wall doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why I wanted to meet them.
That’s a really great initiative, also so that the project isn’t just online.
Yes, that’s the next step. I will hunt these people [laughs], because someday, maybe in a few years, Instagram will disappear.
What will your format for these meet-ups be?
I have lots of dreams for the project outside of Instagram, I’m always thinking of ways to do it. Even if social media disappears I want it to still continue. Right now I’m trying physical dropboxes where people can write, and these dropboxes can be everywhere, places where they don’t have internet access, maybe in prisons and homes for the aged. These individuals have lots to say. But of course I also wouldn’t be able to do it without funding, so things like the upcoming book are important.
Growing up, have you always been the kind of person who people confide in or tell things that they can’t tell anyone else?
I don’t know, I don’t want to claim it because it sounds self-serving. I don’t like how it sounds. But even as a kid I’ve always liked talking to people, anyone. I told my mom, I wonder why people tell me these things, or let me take their photos, and she said, “well, they trust you.”
I like exchanging stories with people and I find small talk hard, but not always of course. I just interact better when it’s only me and another person. Good thing it’s alright with my wife Bea that I meet many people for the project. We just exchange stories, that’s how I work.
Aside from the project, what else have you been working on?
I want to reach out more aggressively for Nice to Meet You My Friend. I plan on doing that alongside the Book Tour. So after the Book Launch, maybe the Book Tour.
I have many long-term projects like this one with my daughter, where I take photos of her including a shadow of me. I’ll do that until I’m old. But I also think about not just the project itself but how my family will benefit from it. I think about how, if I create something beautiful enough, surely my daughter will be able to benefit from it in the long run?
I’m not sure yet if I’ll be using Patreon or a Kickstarter to fund some of my planned projects, but people are kind and they do help, it really makes me glad that they trust me to really do it.
What’s your motivation for all of these plans?
The first and main motivation is to create this safe space for people to say things. The Google Form for the project has two questions, the first one being the thing you wanted to say, the second is how the project has affected you. I read those too and whenever I read them I think, I really need to continue this project. People have written really beautiful things there. They thank me for the project, sometimes it can be as overwhelming as “you saved my life” and I feel like I can’t take credit for that, it’s such a huge responsibility.
But I’ve started it and, as long as nothing happens that won’t allow me to do it anymore, it will continue. Maybe it will be passed to someone, people from other countries can form their own, but it’s going to be this big community, basically it’ll be an endless project.
Talking about film photography, do you still shoot digital or purely film?
I shoot digital when I need to for work, but I use film for my personal projects. It’s like making a diary with it. And I like its archival feeling, how tangible it is.
Which cameras do you have now and what's your process like?
I have a Leica M60, and someone gave me a Leica M3. I also had a 120 before, and this Yashica Mat, also a Konica Big Mini. I also have a Sprocket Rocket and I’ve tried the Lomography Color Negative 800. I take photos without restrictions. People on the bus that I’ve talked to, a beautiful table, it’s really like my diary. Then I develop on my own.
Have you found your own style?
For me, it evolves. Maybe next year I won’t like film anymore. I don’t think about it much because I focus on what I want to say. It was different when I was in the Philippines, and it changed when I came here because who I represented changed; who I am, my story as an immigrant. It changes depending on where you are in life, so I focus on the concept first before the appearance.
How are things for you now as an immigrant artist in the US?
Things improved when I got my work permit. The project taking off and reaching many people really helped, because I really was planning on quitting at that time. That’s what I‘ve come to realize, too. It’s not about being the best, it’s about endurance. There are years where great things will be happening in your life, then there are years where nothing is, so how much can you endure? As it turns out, it really is a marathon.
Maybe this project will disappear, it will get old, get corny, maybe I’ll get tired making it. If that happens then I’ll make something else. I’m used to that, and it’s also what I tell [younger] artists. There’s a certain blend to it–some years your work will be in the public eye and some years you won’t be as active, but what should be constant is you creating. Once the artist has come to terms with that, they will create and remain an artist even as they grow old.
Lastly, do you have any other advice for people wanting to start shooting with film?
Shooting film is a privilege, because if you’re shooting on film it means you can afford to buy film, and also to have it processed and scanned. So when we talk about film it shouldn’t just be about the prices or the economy anymore. Because you can shoot digital, but if you want to shoot film, it means you’re ready for the expenses, and if not–if it’s too expensive, you can decide not to.
What’s important is your voice, which you need to find. Once you’ve found it, you can shoot with a webcam, a digital or a cellphone camera, even a potato. So for me I think that’s what they should strive to achieve, aside from the look of film. It’s not just about how you want your work to look, because if it’s only about that then people won’t feel your work. But if you have a voice it’s going to be different.
We thank Geloy for sharing his experiences and images with us! Check out his Instagram or website to learn more about him and his project, browse the confessions under Things You Wanted to Say But Never Did, or even submit your own.
We would also like to thank the many individuals who shared their most vulnerable stories with Geloy and allowed the rest of us to feel less alone.
written by sylvann on 2023-04-16 #culture #people #places #philippines #community #usa #instagram #geloy-concepcion