Out of Print

Gio Panlilio Speaks to Dandelions

by Gian Lao
Photos courtesy of Gio Panlilio.

Exploring the practice of photography and its place in memory through the works of Gio Panlilio.

The morning after I interviewed photographer Gio Panlilio, I woke up with an urge to write about all the important things I’ve failed to remember: bank account numbers, credit card details, the names of people who might be pivotal to my next promotion. The only satisfying rationale for these failures of memory was that the hard drive in my head was overflowing with the strange and the unstrategic: a prom date’s birthday,  a conspiracy theory claiming that Rivers Cuomo and Kurt Cobain are the same person, an old friend’s long defunct landline number.

These days, I forget more and more of my dreams. I could only trace this train of thought as far back as Gio saying that his entire appreciation of photography might be influenced by “how people process and store it in their memory.” He told me about something he read: how “you can look at an image for hours and hours and it will never stay in your head, but you can see an image for a split second and it will stick with you for the rest of your life.”

“I guess you know right away,” he said.

Of course, I worried about that too. Do we truly know right away? Is there some quick emotional calculus that the brain does, or does it operate in complete entropy? Is there a boardroom in our skulls that selects, say, the exact time and place of the first time you held your wife’s hand over an artistic photo of a cow in a field?

The more I thought about it, the more important it seemed. After all, isn’t this the entirety of who we are? What we remember and forget? Isn’t this why it’s so terrifying to grow sick and forget those we hold most dear? Photography, from Gio Panlilio’s perspective, appeals directly to the memory. It attempts to replicate the circumstances that help us remember. At its highest levels, it infiltrates our stagnant memory banks and imprints itself in our hippocampi. It manages to remind us about who we really are.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been obsessing over Gio’s work. How Bright is the Sun is a collection of black and white photographs that evoke something that keeps eluding me. The pictures feature the familiar and the everyday: An old gate in the middle of a monsoon, a man wading through water, pillows on a monobloc chair drying under sunlight.

Photographs from Gio Panlilio’s How Bright is the Sun.

“What’s really special about the photo community is everyone is so open and down to collaborate.”

On the surface, nothing ties these images together apart from the default auras of grayscale photos: bleakness, nostalgia, and the anguish that has regrettably become commonplace during the quarantine. But it seems like there’s always something less knowable, french exiting from each photo before you can find the words for it. It reminds me of memory. More specifically, it reminds me of the stasis of childhood. How there wasn’t much going on. How I would look through the windows for hours when my family would visit our grandmother in the province. How I had to direct my own attention—reading my uncle’s dusty books, looking at the trees and the grass, taking in the scent of burning diesel from the terminal across the street. These photos last hours in my head.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” I tell Gio on our call. And he responds: “I don’t really know how to talk about it either,” and we share a laugh. He talks about his evolving relationship with dread, but that’s about it. It was the emotional equivalent of saying: “Oh, it’s somewhere in Quezon City.” Such confusion, I’ve convinced myself, is important. “As if a deck inside us has been shuffled,” says Stephen Dunn in one of his poems. As if this sequence of relatively common images—dogs, cats, and birds, deprived of color—were a password to unlock an emotion that deserves even more unlocking. An emotion you can’t find a word for. As if you have to tell a story, or muse pretentiously about memory, to even approximate what it’s about. If you’re not at a loss for words describing it, how good could it really be?

From How Bright is the Sun courtesy of Gio Panlilio. For more informaton on Gio’s work, visit giopanlilio.com.

“I was really boring before I got into photography,” says Gio Panlilio, 26 years old. “There’s nothing to talk about. I played basketball a lot growing up—through high school and college. I guess I’m obsessive in a way. My second year of college, I tore my ACL, and I couldn’t play basketball for a year, so I was kind of sitting on my ass, thinking, oh shit, I have nothing to be interested in. I have nothing interesting to talk about! That was a turning point for me.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola found God while recuperating from a cannonball to the leg. One of the only books he could find in his family’s tower house was about the lives of saints, and by the time he recovered, he had resolved to outdo their service to the Lord Almighty. Gio Panlilio might not be on the path to sainthood, and a torn ACL may be a far cry from a cannonball, but I can’t help but notice the parallelism. He injured his knee in a game while attending college in New York, recovered for a year, and found his calling. Perhaps boredom can be a good incubator, and maybe also blowing out a knee.

He spent his early career working in a bank in New York. In the mornings, he would wake up early so he could sneak in some photography before work. During lunch, he would grab a sandwich from a nearby deli before documenting the employees walking beneath “the harsh light of lunch time.” As the clock neared 5 p.m., he would begin side-eyeing the windows to see if the light was good. If it was, he would dash out like a student when the bell rings, taking all the time in the world to get home, taking pictures.

After less than a year there, he quit and went home.

“The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want to do banking and finance when I came home,” he says. “I really liked photography, and I was starting to discover that way of looking at things, where it wasn’t so defined, as finance is. I was stuck between two places—not really sure if I wanted to go down the traditional route or if I really wanted to do something in the arts.

“Do you know Sally Mann?” he asks. 

I didn’t, so Gio told me about the life of one of his favorite photographers—how her father was a doctor and a repressed artist who sculpted every chance he could get. A New York Times Magazine article mentions that Mann’s father would do unusual artsy things like place petrified dog shit on their dining table, which is a detail that might encourage many of us to avoid repressing our art.

“She describes his life as him rowing against the current—the current of wanting to be an artist carrying him one way, and him rowing against it and becoming a doctor. I asked myself: Can I imagine sitting at a desk job the rest of my life? I really couldn’t. That’s when I decided to make that leap. That’s how Tarzeer came about.”

Tarzeer Pictures is Gio’s creative agency and gallery, which he founded with his friends Enzo and Dinesh. They began with the intent of documenting Filipino “craftsmanship, culture, and creative spirit,” but quickly widened their scope. Over the past few years, they have found a prominent niche in the photography community, hosting photography exhibits, talks on craft, and portfolio reviews, all while expanding their list of corporate clients. 

“We were really sold to the idea of exclusively focusing on photography,” Gio says about their exhibits. “From the beginning, we thought: This is how we’ll be different. We’ll only show photography from local artists, and really focus on photographers who are still emerging, still trying to find their style, and to give them a platform to show their work.”

“Part of our process is collaboration with the photographers. It’s normally a long process of editing pictures, figuring out how it goes on a wall, choosing the paper to print it on, the framing, the configuration of the gallery. What’s really special about the photo community is everyone is so open and down to collaborate.”

Tarzeer sits down with photographers, sometimes looking through 3,000 pictures “to distill that body of work into something that’s more focused.” “It’s like mining gems out of a stone,” Gio says. This almost obsessive focus on the craftwork, editing, and curation has resulted in so many good projects, but it also seems to have nurtured a similar work ethic in Gio’s own practice of photography, and the results are becoming more and more evident by the year. 

“For me, photography feels closer to poetry than prose, just because the image can be so ambiguous, and can have so many layers.”

In Tokyo, Gio Panlilio was speaking to dandelions. He would tell them to face a certain way, or to show him a particular angle. He would leave his phone in his room and venture out in search of flower patches in Asakusa. He made friends during the journey, he said, though I was unsure whether he meant other photographers or friendly dandelions. He had grown tired of photographing “all that cliché stuff,” he said—the buildings and the trees of Tokyo that show up on our Instagram feeds every so often. Perhaps the Kaminarimon and the rickshaw coolies in the tourist areas. Dozens of tempura restaurants. He looked down at the perfect moment, and saw a dandelion that had sprouted from the concrete, and his fixation began there.

“If you’re not looking for it, you won’t notice, but once you realize it’s there, you can’t help but see the dandelions,” he says.

“What I remember the most was spending hours and hours photographing a patch of dandelions, to the point where I started talking to them, because I felt like I could see emotion in the way they were curving their heads, or in  the way they were interacting with each other. I was like: Oh, that one looks like a mom and dad. That one is a father and a son. That one is the one with crazy hair in the morning.”

“I was sitting on the curb and having everyone pass by, and just lying on the ground and photographing these dandelions in the cold. It’s one of the few instances I can really think of where I felt fully present there, to the point where I had this relationship with the dandelions.”

The dandelion photos show up in an intimate looking collection on his site, called Bursting at the Seams.

Photo from Gio Panlilio’s Bursting at the Seams.

The dandelions are sprouting up in one of the world’s densest cities, where the sunlight is scarce and the foot traffic is always heavy. The space afforded them is important, especially in contrast to the world that must have passed by as the photographer was looking through the lens. One can imagine Tokyo’s light pollution, its salarymen in suits, the few windows on an office building illuminated by a light inside. The Tokyo Sky Tree is visible from Asakusa. It feels like the first time anyone has paid this much attention to these particular flowers. They look tender and desolate, frail and beautiful, hopeful and hopeless. They are bursting at the seams.


How does one even look at a photograph anyway, beyond the initial “I like it / I don’t like it?” This is a question I often ask myself, untrained in lighting and composition—who has tried at least ten times to understand what aperture really means. It helps that Gio compares photography to poetry.

“For me, photography feels closer to poetry than prose, just because the image can be so ambiguous, and can have so many layers,” says Gio. “You don’t really know what’s going on. It becomes this object, almost.”

A panelist in a poetry workshop once told me: “Kung nagbago buhay mo, maganda ‘yung tula.” My personal take is also driven by a visceral response. I’ll say right after reading whether I like the poem or not, and spend the rest of the time figuring out why. What I am trying to say is: I knew from the very first time I saw them that I liked Gio Panlilio’s photos, and this is all just figuring out why.

How Bright arranges the photos in a manner that almost disregards the subjects, accounting only for the arrangements, angles, or directions of shadow. One thinks: Is the objective here to diminish the subjects by casting them as mere forms of light and shadow? Are we humans this insignificant? Should my existence as a mere bag of atoms disturb me? Or should it comfort me that none of this truly matters, and the world will spin on and receive light for millions of years, even without us?

I am reminded of two lines from two different poems by the late Mary Oliver. The first one asks: “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And the second one provides one of many possible good answers: “You do not have to be good… You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

“I think my relationship to that feeling [of dread] has changed in the last few years,” says Gio. “It used to hang over me and kind of dictate decisions I would make because I was worried something terrible would happen.”

“I think for How Bright is the Sun, it was this reflection of this feeling of dread,” says Gio. “It really started during Taal this year, where there was that weird in-between where you’re not sure if the volcano’s going to erupt. And then it’s this similar feeling with Covid. You can’t really see what the threat is, but all of a sudden, someone you know might have it. Even when I was a kid, I was kind of a worrier. I think my relationship to that feeling [of dread] has changed in the last few years. It used to hang over me and kind of dictate decisions I would make because I was worried something terrible would happen. Now I can be in a place where I can observe it for what it is.”

Gio is eloquent, but he hedges a lot when he speaks. His sentences often teem with words like “kinda” and “maybe” and “I guess.” I didn’t notice this until he disagreed with my praise for how decisive I thought he was. I mentioned how he just kept doing things since his time in New York: quitting his job, moving back home, starting Tarzeer, and holding exhibits. It sounded like the resumé of a 30 under 30 candidate.

But he responds humbly. “More often than not, I’m hesitating, really. It’s a challenge to get back to a place where I can fully trust or listen to my intuition, which is why taking pictures is a refreshing exercise, where I allow my intuition to take over for a while.”

Photography, for Gio, was actually a pathway to a deeper conviction, and not a manifestation of conviction that was already present. Maybe that’s what was missing in my appreciation for How Bright is the Sun. That underneath the boldness of the project, there was this sense of aspiration—this sense of “this is where I want to be.” The collection of photos looks dread in the eye because the artist wishes to be able to look dread in the eye.

There is a piece of rhetoric that is often deployed in writing workshops: If you can say something with one sentence, then why do you need a paragraph? If you already know what you want to say, why would you write a poem, and not an opinion piece? This feels like it applies: If you can Google any photo of any place, why even carry cameras around?

Maybe it’s unfair to ask an artist to provide an elegant explanation for their work. If they could have done that from the beginning, the piece wouldn’t exist. How Bright makes me feel like a forensics team, drawing white chalk around a giant corpse, trying to perceive the shape of the body.  To continue making art in the digital age is to acknowledge that some things can only be explained in part. It calls for a form of religiousness or faith—something you can talk around forever, never fully figuring it out.


Gio Panlilio may need a break from art. I can’t tell whether he’s tired or frustrated. He is carrying, he says, a burden that rests on the shoulders of many artists during the pandemic. There is so much suffering out there. What is all this even for?

Weeks prior, Gio was in a panel with distinguished photojournalist Eloisa Lopez. He expresses his admiration for her. “She’s doing really important work,” he says. “Not just with COVID, but with the drug war, and many of the social issues going on. I found myself sitting there and thinking about my work. What’s the point of it? I’ve just been reevaluating my motivations.”

“I guess photography can be very self-serving sometimes,” he says. “Like anything, it’s also a tool. It can be used in different ways. So far, how I’ve been using it is to make projects that I think are interesting. But moving forward, maybe I want to explore projects that serve a bigger purpose than just what I find interesting.”

It is a question we’ve both contended with. What can Photography as Fine Art do? What can poetry? How does one appeal to the better angels of those who believe in murder as national policy? How does an artist stem the growth of a nation’s fascist tendencies? How does one instruct a government that seems deafer than dandelions? In our conversation, Gio and I broke no new ground. We mention the few ways artists comfort themselves—that impacting one person deeply is success enough; that we just have to keep producing.

Gio’s most recent work hints at how a more socially conscious tack might look like. During the pandemic, Gio began a project out of what goes on outside his window. The collection includes collages of buildings roofs and perimeters of houses—people exercising, getting some sunlight, or engaging in much-needed human interaction. There are people in the midst of essential work or travel, security guards, construction workers, delivery riders—anonymous Filipinos captured in grainy texture, as if to emphasize how far away we are from each other.

“Rooftop - workout” by Gio Panlilio.

“I didn’t really know what was gonna happen. I would just take time to look out the window, and seeing how people are adjusting to living in smaller spaces, or being limited to certain locations. The distance is really apparent. I super, super cropped the photographs of the people, even though I was on a long lens. It was alienating, and it made me feel more disconnected, because of how far I was from the street or other human beings.”

The project’s driving emotion may not have been political in nature, but all the same, it seems to represent Gio’s current state of mind. What is politics, after all, if not what happens outside our windows? That is, when we bother to look. That is, when we are fortunate enough not to be already suffering. Much like his year of recovery from his ACL injury, he says he took the photos because he had nothing else to do. Only this time, the years of craftwork allowed him to convey his emotional undercurrent, even as he was, at times, hundreds of feet away from his subjects.

While artists in the current political climate might not know exactly what to do, they do have their suspicions, and Gio Panlilio is no different. He talks about the impact that photographs from other moments in history can have on our current moment.

“In the same way that images can bring back certain memories from a personal perspective, I think photographs are really powerful at doing that from a wider historical perspective too,” Gio says. “When you see that photo of that man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, there’s a certain idea behind it, and a feeling that really carries over even to today.”

Art might have no choice but to be political, but it cannot be impatient. One thinks of the literature we often invoke today: Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and the dangers of censorship, or Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and how we might consume so much mindless entertainment we are essentially sedated. It is always possible that you will never see for yourself the full social impact of your art—especially when it’s good. To examine history is to try to possess and wield a memory that is not entirely yours. It is possible that, decades from now, we will look back at Gio Panlilio’s “View” and remember the exact feeling of this pandemic—an expansion of our brain’s hard drives. It is possible that those who never lived through Covid could partake in this particular memory. But that is for future populations to experience.

For artists now, the only work to be done might be work. To point the camera outside the window and click; to tell a dandelion what to do, even if you’re not sure it’s listening. Before my favorite poet Stephen Dunn turned 60, he wrote a poem called Sixty. He talks about wanting to play poker so he could be taken to the cleaners. He talks about the turn of the millennium, which was only about to occur. Then he says something that has kept me going since the first time I read it: “I think I’ll keep on describing things / to ensure they really happened.” ︎

Gian Lao is a poet and freelance writer based in Manila. His book and his zine are free to read at gianlao.com.