“I’m an island boy. I’ve always been a proud island boy. ”
Warm, aware, intuitive. These words best describe the work and spirit of Akron, OH based photographer, Junell Tanio (Joo-nel Tan-yo). His essence is calm and he works with intentions. We see his work, when he feels its ready. He does not bargain for clout nor yields to time. He works imaginatively and patiently, producing work that exudes motion and speculation, that we’ve only seen a window to his potential.
Tanio is a dream-maker as much as he is a dream-chaser. Like the beginning of most immigrant stories, Tanio, moved to America for it’s advertised “pursuit of happiness” and work opportunities. From Philippines’ Cebu island to Tucson, Arizona, Tanio, transitioned from a self-proclaimed island boy to a desert flower.
It’s a chilled, cold, wet, but typical, April evening in Cleveland, OH when I spoke with Tanio about his photography, following his passion and establishing his own American dream:
Tell us about your photography. How and when did this all come about?
JT: So, when I was in Arizona i wasn’t interested in doing anything. I had my first ever iPhone when I came to Ohio and started taking photos through that. One day I took a photo of my friend using my iPhone. I don’t want to sound cliche but, I’ll always remember this day. Out of nowhere I realized I wanted to take more photos, and bought a camera. I had my friends take pictures and model and I would post them on Facebook. Then one, it got like 1000 likes and I was like ‘Oh shit, I got something.’ After that every weekend I’d do it if I had time. I’ve been doing this about 2 years, since i got my first camera.
CJ: You’re originally from the Philippines, when did you come to America?
JT: I’ve been living in Cleveland for 6 ½ years for now. I was living in Arizona the first 3 months I first got in the states. I moved to Cleveland because my aunt lives here. She is a doctor. I’m actually a registered nurse here. She brought me here to help me find jobs in healthcare. I just became an American citizen.
CJ: How was Arizona?
JT: I lived in Tucson, Arizona. Basically a really small city, it’s like Kent State but, a little bit smaller and little bit newer and it’s harder to find jobs. I’m an island boy. I love wearing shorts slippers and sandals. That would be my day. But here (laughs) I’ve been here for a while and I’m still not used to the winters. I hate the winters here. I grew up in the Philippines, right before I was 21. I was living my whole life in the Philippines. It’s a tropical country. Rain and heat. It’s basically two seasons.
CJ: No, I feel you. I grew up here and I hate the fact the winters last so long. You’re probably excited for Spring then.
JT: Yes and at the same time I am not. I hate Spring (laughs). But I love the weather. I love it when it’s changing like this but, springtime is like allergy season. Other than that I have no complaints about it. I just hate allergy pills.
CJ: I want to circle back to your career. There’s always been this strange, almost tribal, opinion that people should either commit to their 9 to 5 or their passions full time. As if time management can’t be applied in your personal life. You’re a registered nurse turned full-time photographer. Where are you working now?
JT: I basically just stopped working as a registered nurse. I am working full time as a photographer. I am following my passion. I work at sneaker company in Akron called, Kicks Lounge. We have three stores in Ohio. I run their photography content. I am their senior photographer. I do everything related to photography. I do shoots all over. I am really thankful to have that opportunity.
CJ: Were you always interested in fashion photography?
JT: I love shoes. Ever since I was young, I loved shoes in the Philippines but I couldn’t afford it. When I got here me and my friends would buy shoes and sell them. There is this one dude, Eugene, Korean dude, and we talked and became really good friends. One day, I was at work and really not happy about it so I texted him I was like ‘Yo if you ever need a photographer for social media I will do it.’ So, he got me to meet the owner and when I met him I didn’t even know it was an interview. I walked in with like a hoodie and sneakers. Then the manager told me who he was and I was like ‘Oh, shit why I did just come here in this hoodie’ (laughs). After that I left nursing and been doing this full-time with them and for myself.
CJ: I love hearing about people quitting their day jobs.
JT: It’s more relatable to do things that I love. It just came natural. I never expected for this to work out. I’m not “there” yet, but at least I got the opportunity. I get to take photos instead of going to work and complaining about working. The work I’m doing is working through my passions there is nothing to complain about. I’m so grateful for that.
CJ: I have to say, I appreciate how grateful you are. You’ve got to have great since awareness to always be in a state of gratitude.
JT: What I have now I couldn’t afford in the Philippines. So that makes me grateful. All the time. Ever since I got here, I’ve always been grateful.
CJ: You’ve got a keen eye on capturing people in their best moments. I feel like some of your photographs look like stills from films and I like that you are not afraid of color. Where do you pull your inspiration from?
JT: People always ask me that question and I always say I don’t know. I usually edit [photos] the way I want it to look, and not really (pauses) I don’t know what my inspiration is. I just drive around the city and get inspired. I do like colors but I like dressing monotone. White T-shirt, black pants. I cant answer it.
CJ: It’s difficult- explaining why you are the way that you are.
JT: Yes. But the thing is I love fashion. The main reason in the first place, way before anything else, I’ve been really into fashion. Attracted to how people dress or put looks together. I never considered myself as a good photographer I just have good taste and aesthetic (laughs). I just know what looks good. I always stretch my taste. I never really (pauses) I’ve never been confident in anything except my aesthetic and taste.
JT: Aesthetic is kind of cliche I don’t like using it but i guess its the proper term. It just makes me happy looking at how people dress. Like how they did, what inspired them stuff like that.
CJ: Who’s your favorite designer?
JT: It would be, VISVIM, and then, obviously, Comme de Garcons. That is the main one. I’ve been a big fan on Rae. I’ve been looking at her collection and honestly when I first got in the states, Edison Mane, when he was with Dior in ‘07. I loved that collection.
CJ: So when are we shooting their editorials?
JT: I know right. I was in Paris for Fashion Week, two months ago. It was like an experience. They [Kicks Lounge] flew me out to take photos for them. It was such an opportunity. When I was in high school I always knew I would end up in Paris. I always had this vision I would go to Paris but, I just didn’t know the reason. Five, seven years later I am in Paris doing photography and I am very grateful. What a great thing for my passion to be what brought me there. All of this is pretty new to me. I am an island boy, so I’ve never experience stuff like this.
CJ: That’s beautiful. 2019 is showing to be very fruitful for a lot of people. I feel that a lot here in Cleveland as well. It’s like a good fortune cloud has cascaded over the city. Do you enjoy being part of the art scene here?
JT: Am I part of it? (laughs) I don’t really consider myself apart of it. Do you?
CJ: Duh! Yes, of course.
JT: Oh, okay. Thank you. If I work on something I try to keep it to myself. I don’t mind what other people are doing I kind of focus on myself. I do feel people are coming out due to Fashionhaus and also Cleveland is finally catching up to fashion. Also the Internet is a huge help. You can catch the rarest things on the Internet. But I do believe, it’s because of the upcoming Cleveland artists that are pushing it, which I am really thankful. Really never had that kind of scene before. Cleveland has always been late with almost everything (laughs). What Will in doing, what Stanworth is doing. I see a lot of people coming up. I always support local as long as it’s quality. That’s the most important thing.
CJ: “Representation Matters” is a topic that is becoming popularized in everyday conversation. It’s an essential piece in our dialogue, specifically when it comes to art and pop culture, however, it’s truly a demand for accurate visibility. As an artist, do you feel responsible for representing Asian-Americans. Has that ever been an agenda for you?
JT: When I was in the Philippines I’ve never had to think about that. We don’t have to explain to people how we look. When I came to the states I understood what it means to be Asian. I always try to tell people ‘I am Filipino and I am proud about it. And I will always be proud of being Asian. You dont see alot of Asians in pop culture, doing photography, street wear. If you’re Asian, you have be a doctor, lawyer, and nurse. Being an artist is never an option. I feel 100% I am representing. Whatever influence I have right now I am going to use to represent Asian-Americans. Being Asian and being an artist. Never forget your roots that’s the most important thing.
CJ: I love that. As a Black American, I am in a way jealous of immigrants. They’ve got a place of origin to return to for support and understanding of who they are. I often believe that the reason why Black Americans are so innovative and big contributors to American culture because we have to invent our own self. That right to origin was stolen and diluted. And it keeps being stolen and diluted. But that’s our own journey and perhaps what connects us. I’ve recently had a friend visit Vietnam, her father’s native country and it was beautiful to witness how that trip transformed her. There is a sense of being a whole, like, ‘ Okay this is who I am. I’m not making this up.’
JT: Right. And going off of that, I think it’s important to go to where you’re from. I always tell people to experience their culture. You’ll never know how beautiful it is without knowing. It made me become prouder coming to the states. I get to realize how beautiful that culture is.
CJ: How do you select your projects?
JT: If I am doing a personal project I’ll contact models. I am very picky with who I choose and what they wear. I have to be heavily involved. I have to know everything. I don’t want to say nothing insulting, whatever is in my head I want to execute it as close as possible. I don’t want to be shooting someone and I hate the outfit. I never want drive 2 hours and be unhappy with the shoot. I rather do all of that than wasting 1 or 2 hours, ya know. I think it’s important to be with people that understand your creative cravings. For me that’s how i describe it. “Creative Cravings.” (laughs) Sometimes you like want to shoot something so bad, like for example I had a shoot but I had to cancel because it was snowing. Whatever is in my head. I don’t want to rush it. It has to be me. I will never post something to get followers or clout on the Internet. I actually love what I am doing. It’s not for the Instagram. I like to be patient in what I am doing. You have to marinate it. Like a good barbeque, you’ve got to take time and let the meat marinate.
CJ: We do nothing for the clout.
JT: I don’t want to be relevant. I don’t want to rush anything to be relevant. I want to release a photo when I like it, not when people want it. I take photos for me and not for them. It is what it is. Basically quality over quantity. That’s how the Japanese do it. I learned it from the Japanese people.
CJ: The Internet and Social Media give such a false sense of time. Things appear to be moving much faster than you believe, it’s like a rat race that the gun never shot off to. It’s not real. We aren’t competitors. Everything is a projection. You never feel pressure to “keep up”?
JT: Instagram is not representative of time. Social media gives the impression of speed. I think most people rush to post things just to post. They are just rushing everything. With no thought of what they want to do in the photos. I take pride from it. I put in the time.
CJ: Where do you want your photography to take you? Let’s talk goals.
JT: By the end of the year I am trying to get published. I am trying to shoot more again to get to my goal by the end of the year. (Pauses) Man if I’m gonna dream, I’ll dream big. I’ ll say GQ, Complex, Harpers Bazaar, Vogue. I’m dreaming. I’ll put it into the world they might hear me. Jim Carrey, said put it into the world, they might hear you.
Here’s to putting it into the world.
Stay caught up with Junell on Instagram!