4 lessons on storytelling from Shaira Luna

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“I like creating the atmosphere for me to capture something. I really try to set up the whole scene so all the characters need to do is act,” says Shaira Luna. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — One of the meeting rooms at the Philippine International Convention Center was transformed into a bedroom and a living room reminiscent of the 70s — a mishmash of patterns, vintage records, shades of brown and khaki, and furniture with moss-colored cushions.

One might say that it’s a setting straight out of a Shaira Luna photo. Sure enough, this is where Luna, known for injecting stories into her photos, welcomed guests for an intimate gathering for her first book, “Playing Long After Us.”

“I didn't want to do a book, first of all,” said Luna. “[What convinced me was knowing that] someone would write the stories and that it didn't need to be about me. I didn't even want my photo on the book. It's hidden inside but I didn't want it to be the cover and it just so happened na ako nag-shoot.”

Shaira-6792.jpg At the launch of Luna's book, "Playing Long After Us," she invited her guests to pose at the 70s set-ups and took their photos. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Shaira-6804.jpg Vintage details at one of the set-ups in Luna's book launch. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

The photos in the book are indeed made more alive with prose written by Anton Umali and Marla Miniano. Umali, who spoke at the gathering, read the afterword of the book about how she sees Luna and her work not only as a photographer but also as a storyteller. He shared:

“Shaira’s stories don’t deal with beginnings and endings, they live and breathe in the in-betweens. Her tales are born from objects concealing a history or a person with a mysterious past whose fate is yet to be determined. And sometimes, her story might not even be her own, but when told through her lens, it’s given a deeper purpose.”

After the official book launch, Luna shared with CNN Philippines Life the four things that help her relay meaningful stories into photos. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Research, research, research.

“A lot of research goes into [my photos]. I think kaya lang naman ako nahilig mag-shoot ng luma because when I was starting, ‘yung mga pegs ko, 60s, 70s. Hindi pwedeng I just show up at the shoot following pegs. I really research the era, who the personalities there were, kahit ‘yung mga textiles, the prints, the colors, even how they developed film before because each era seems to have a different tint. I really was studying that.

Hindi ko naman sinasadya na lalabas siya na ganon. Parang you just find yourself shooting it na, ‘Ay mukha pala siyang luma,’ na natutuwa ka so you keep doing it and then you keep practicing and then you keep trying to find out, what makes this photo look 90s? Or what makes this photo look 80s? I really enjoy the details.”

Shaira-6810.jpg Luna surprised the guests with a flute performance. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Shaira-6860.jpg IV of Spades performing at the launch. The band is also featured in one of the stories in the book. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Set the mood.

“I like creating the atmosphere for me to capture something. I really try to set up the whole scene so all the characters need to do is act. I really enjoy the directing part. It feels like therapy both for me and the subject. I really try to talk to them, talk them through the scene, and I allow them to create their own stories, ‘yung parang it really feels like everyone's part of the photo. ‘Yung it's not just me trying to direct what I want to capture.

I want nga when they see the photo, it's like, ‘Oh this is what we were doing then. There's that scene we invented or there's that scene we came up with or this is what we imagined.’”

Harness your imagination.

“I think imagination is underrated. It's so powerful but not a lot of people really know how powerful imagination is. Iba ‘yung feeling.

We base what what we do and what we like on a lot of the things we see on our feeds and sometimes, for the sake of likes or recognition, you don't really want to go out of that box and I think I've just always been outside the box. Always. So I always have to use my imagination to create things that aren't there. I have lots of inspiration but I think imagination takes that to another place.”

Shaira-6878.jpg Up Dharma Down's Armi Millare also graced Luna's book launch with her presence. Photo by KENNETH ABALLA  

Don't limit your knowledge to what you see online.

“I have to be able to produce things that people will like and share but [the internet or social media] is not the only thing. There's always a life outside of the corners of your phone, or the square. There are books or old magazines, or stories from your lola, or someone's clothes.

When I read what Sarge [Lacuesta] wrote about me always being in someone else's clothes, I think that was the best thing I've ever read. I didn't realize that something so personal or something a writer like Sarge would notice. Kasi for me, ‘oh I can tell a story with this but who really wore this? Why am I dressing in someone else's clothes?’ Parang that really gets my imagination going. I like playing different characters but since I don't like being in pictures so much, I make other people do it.”