Meet Photographer Ezekiel Santos

Words by Iman K

Join us as we meet 21-year-old Ezekiel Santos, the Filipino, London-based photographer emerging from the capital’s new generation of creatives. We speak to the artist to find out more about his practice and discuss concepts surrounding what it means to be a new-generation queer POC artist within London’s creative industry, the value of self-portraiture and how today’s social and political climate affects the new-generation creatives. 

When did you start getting into photography?

Around the age of 12, my parents handed down their old Minolta semi-auto film camera to me, that’s when I started having an interest in photography. This camera came on family holidays and days out with my friends. Then during my teen years, it came to house parties with me. But it was at the age of 16, when I began studying photography, that I realised that this is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. 

Why do you choose to shoot film?

Film photography is what I was introduced to, so it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with. There is also an undeniable authenticity that is just not possible with digital photography. The fact that there’s a limitation to the number of shots means that you genuinely consider what you include in each Frame. There’s also that excitement of processing and getting your negatives back, the physicality of film photography is a lot more rewarding. 

How would you describe your work?

Gritty, unpolished, hyper-saturated and intimate. My world is full of tasteful nudity, and every one has a great tan. 

Ezekiel Santos, from ‘Holiday Diary’ 2017

Are there any creatives which inspire your work?

Tough question. I am always inspired by the creative friends around me; the drive and ambition these young creatives have are so awe-inspiring, and being amongst that is remarkable. Regarding my work right now, I take a lot of inspiration from artists like James Bidgood and Luciano Castelli, who have profoundly influenced the use of self-portraiture in my latest work. Female artists such as Lea Colombo, Harley Weir and Jo Spence are also considerable influences for me right now, specifically in my work which involve women. 

Your work explores issues surrounding identity – what does identity mean to you? 

Identity to me is a complicated subject. There are so many different factors that come into defining one’s identity; from your country of birth, upbringing, sexuality and gender, there is no right way of defining your identity. But I think that it’s important to remember that we are not fixed beings, we are continually changing, evolving and growing. The fact that we can identify as multiple things is great to me, it creates more depth to life, it makes us human. 

Can you discuss the issues you explore in your work and why? 

A lot of my work explores issues surrounding the female experience. When you spend a lot of your childhood and teen years around girls & women, you really notice the trials and tribulations your female friends face; from micro-aggressions to casual sexism, there is an array of injustices you witness and are told about. A lot of people will say that what I do is unfair or inaccurate because I’ve never lived life as a female, and I completely understand that. Which is why a lot of the research I do before creating a new project involves interviewing women on their personal experiences, and also referencing female artists who create work that is relevant to my chosen subject matter; it’s crucial for me to understand their point of view before creating any work. 

Ezekiel Santos, ‘Diary of Self Love’ 2017 – Present 

You recently had your first solo exhibition, ‘Archive’. What was the concept behind this exhibition, and what series’ of work was exhibited? 

My first solo exhibition pretty much celebrated/acknowledged the evolution of my personal style and the maturing of the subject matter in which I choose to photograph; it focuses on self-reflection and how I have grown as an artist. The exhibition derives from my sentimental and nostalgic personality, It very much channels my need to let go of my ‘past self’ and transition in to ‘adulthood’. 
In my earlier work, you see a young man exploring his photographic identity and style, who shoots intimate portraits of close friends through their most formative years; and simply trying to find his path in the creative world. As you get closer to present day, you notice a developed working style and a maturing aura of sensuality, which likely stems from coming to terms with my own sexuality and desires; there’s definitely a conscious sense of reflection and self-awareness when looking at my latest work. 

Your series ‘Diary of Self Love’, which was featured in the exhibition, features self-portraits. Can you tell us about the use of self-portraiture in your work? 

Body image has been an ongoing issue I’ve faced most of my life. During my late childhood, I was chubby. Then I lost loads of weight exceptionally quick and spent most of my teen years very skinny. The past few years have seen me being more conscious of my health and looking after my body’s needs; which in turn has strengthened me mentally.

Now I’m in a relatively good place emotionally, mentally and physically; I wanted to document my progress, document how far I’ve come in terms of loving not only my body but my soul. As a queer POC who emanates both masculine and feminine traits, it is vital for me to never forget how incredible I am, although the world may sometimes not agree. I’m definitely going through the phase of looking inwards as a source of inspiration and becoming more confident in trusting my own artistic intuition. Also, I’m in, what some would say, my ‘prime’; this is not going to last forever… so I better get to it (haha). 

Ezekiel Santos, ‘Diary of Self Love’ 2017 – Present 

In the age of social media and the rise of ‘The Selfie Culture’ – do you think this has altered the value of self-portraiture? 

No not at all, how exactly do you value self-portraiture? In my opinion, the accessibility of social media for nearly everyone has been a great thing. You have people from the lowest social/ economic backgrounds being able to document their lives, create art and enjoy a medium that was once highly dominated by the white middle-class. ‘Selfie Culture’ to me, is exciting; people can shoot self-portraits in the most creative ways. There’s also an irony to it that I love because ‘Selfie Culture’ is often considered narcissistic by older generations, the younger generation tends not to take it too seriously, and plays on that idea.

The concept of self-love has also been emphasised through it, people who don’t necessarily fit the conventional standards of beauty are now learning to love their body types and their flaws; we now have an array of ‘unconventional’ models being signed to renowned agencies and plastered all over beauty campaigns, I definitely don’t see a problem with that. 

Is there a particular message(s) you’re trying to convey through your work? 

I’ve always gone by the notion that art is not necessarily only meant to look good; it’s meant to make you feel something. Empathy is an underlying theme which runs through a lot of my work, often used as a tool to engage an audience; I want people to feel how I feel, or how the chosen subject matter felt in that moment. 

The use of colour is a key element of your work – can you talk us through how you incorporate colour into your work? 

Well, my main influences in photography came from people like Ryan McGinley & Larry Sultan, documentary photographs who incorporate highly saturated palettes within their work. Living in the Philippines during my early life also played a significant role in how to incorporate colour, I was always surrounded by blue skies and green palm trees. My grandmother’s house was full of deep browns and red furniture, along with yellow walls; a very Mediterranean/ Latin American influenced home. So I guess my use of colour must stem from a longing of being back in that environment, I tend to see the world through a sun-kissed lens, although it can be hard here in gloomy London.

Ezekiel Santos, ‘At church with Mum’, 2016

Your latest piece of work, ‘A Wet Nightmare’ you’ve described as inspired by the homoerotic subtext of the 80’s horror genre – can you discuss this further?

For my short fashion film ‘A Wet Nightmare’, I collaborated with designer Chema Diaz who creates custom leather pieces as well as irreverent t-shirts, which often reference Queer nightlife and pop-culture. During the summer of 2017, I spent a day binge-watching 80’s horror films and clocked on to the incredibly homoerotic undertones that these films incorporate; after doing some research, I realised that a lot of vintage horrors tends to do this.

There’s a theory that a lot of Queer kids enjoy horror films because they often identify and empathise with the antagonists- the outsiders/ loners who don’t necessarily fit into their community; which is why directors purposefully include these subtexts. I pretty much put two and two together, and realised that along with my personal aesthetic and clothing by the designer; a mix of these influences would work well in a fashion film… and so ‘A Wet Nightmare’ was born. 

As a Queer POC within the creative industry – what’s your opinion on the current state of the industry in terms of representation of POC/LGBTQ+ creatives? Do you see this shifting? 

In my opinion, representation has gotten a lot better, but it some ways it has also become a trend; brands pretty much do it for the sake of it and not because they want to. I’ve even heard of countless stories where friends and models have purposefully not been cast for something because they already have a “Chinese one” or a south-east Asian in the cast; which is disheartening to hear. POC models & artists are still tokenised or used to be disposed of, so I don’t think we can be fully satisfied until POC are in the positions of power, amongst the creative directors and editors; amongst the elites which are still predominantly white. 

Ezekiel Santos, ‘Empathy’ 2018 – ongoing 

What does expression mean to you?

To me, the word expression means unapologetically being your authentic self. New-gen artists are using their practice as an outlet for not only self-expression but political/ cultural expression – what are you trying to communicate with your voice? And why do you think it’s important? 
Art has always been political, but right now especially during this social/political climate; it’s more prominent than ever; which I really admire.

My work definitely has a political undertone to it, me being alive, as a Queer POC artist is political in its self. In my work, I often try and a shine a light on the world through my point of view, whether it be feminist or racially related. It’s important because there are people out there who will never understand our POV, who have never experienced life in the same way that myself or you have. So my work tries to portray a POV that they can understand and maybe make them realise that they don’t necessarily face the same privileges or equality as the next person, in hopes of making them actively change this. I think these conversations are highly important, especially during this era of ‘Call out Culture’, where people are so quick to put each other down; when in fact patience and a reasonable conversation can help everyone understand each other a little better. 

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

Right now, I’m trying to work on printing my first zine. For my on-going project ‘Cry For Me’, which focuses on a mental health issue amongst young men; specifically exploring the struggle for male youth to create in-depth/ substantial relationships with one another- due to the negative, sexist and often homophobic associations that come along with this. I’m hoping on working towards another solo exhibition by the end of the year, this exhibition will be titled ‘Empathy’ and focuses on how I document the spectrum of human emotion; from love, lust to loneliness. 

I’d also love to bring my ‘Archive’ exhibition to my hometown of Brighton. All these upcoming projects are highly ambitious and will only be possible if my bank account lets me, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.