Photojournalist Lester Ledesma: 20 Years of Traveling and Dreaming

Travel photojournalist Lester Ledesma of Skylight Images and Phototreks epitomizes how far your pursuit of passion—and a hefty dose of humility—can take you. By Shai Lagarde

Photojournalist Lester Ledesma

“Imagine a job where they send you somewhere with a shoot list, and a pile of money, and they tell you, ‘Do your thing and come back after a month.’ That’s the dream.” The way Lester Ledesma gushes about his chosen career, eyes twinkling and a smile punctuating each sentence, he might come across as a novice excited for his first assignment rather than an award-winning travel photojournalist who has been at it since 1998.

It is a cloudy afternoon in BGC. The air is cool enough to warrant enjoying coffee al fresco at one of High Street’s cafés. Lester, who has been based in Singapore since 2003, is back in town after five years for the turnover of his Avida unit. Despite the tight schedule, he offered to do this interview in person. Fortuitous timing, as it turns out: email wouldn’t have been able to reveal an easygoing, genuinely warm demeanor that’s both refreshing and familiar.

Refreshing, in a time and industry where it’s almost unexpected of someone so successful. After all, Lester’s work is hard to miss. If you’ve ever gotten on a plane or read travel magazines in the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen a spread or ten in MabuhaySmileHemispheresCondé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, or Asian Geographic. The photos vary greatly in theme and composition, but all bear Lester’s distinctive style: subjects captured at their most dynamic and revealing moments.

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Familiar, perhaps because of these, and certainly because interviewing him feels more like hanging out with an old friend. Here’s a glimpse at Lester’s journey so far, in his own words:

Bhutan, by Lester Ledesma
Bhutan, in the Eastern Himalayas. By Lester Ledesma

When I was a kid, I used to borrow my mother’s camera and take pictures of birds or trees or whatever. In 1995, I got money to buy a laptop but I decided, screw the laptop, I’ll buy a camera. From there, I started learning whatever I could.

I didn’t take up photography in college, but I was part of the school paper. I actually took up Computer Science in De La Salle University, then shifted to Business Administration in CSB. But really, it was just a way to get a diploma. I knew I just wanted to take pictures.

I then became an assistant of [the late] John K. Chua for a few months. I learned to think like a photographer. How to handle myself in front of clients, how to think about money, how to shoot with a client, with an art director. After college, I was gonna work for him, but John said, “You’re just gonna be a photographer if you work for me. Try to be a writer-photographer. If you don’t make it, call me and I’ll take you in.” Thankfully, I kinda made it, so I didn’t have to [be just a photographer].

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I got my first big break inMabuhay magazine, February 1998 issue. I entered the media industry writing for them. I submitted some of my school paper stories and [the editor] asked me to write about cockfighting. I had to look for people to interview and get myself inside the cockpit. I took pictures while doing my research, kasama yun when I submitted. When it came out, there was this big double-page spread! Dalawang manok, nag-aaway. They published five pictures… It was my first pictures ever published. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.

Bhutan by Lester Ledesma
Locals in Bhutan, getting ready for the Talo Tshechu festival. By Lester Ledesma

I’ve got two memorable assignments: Bhutan for CNN Travel. Since my assignment, I’ve gone back every year. A place like that is the reason you become a photographer. It’s a National Geographic kind of place. It’s everything you imagine an exotic place would be.

Myanmar by Lester Ledesma
Monks in Myanmar. By Lester Ledesma

Then there’s Myanmar. After Cyclone Nargis in 2008, they wanted the media to promote the place. From out of nowhere I get this invitation to go there. The locals had never seen a Filipino before; they were asking [me] if we had kings. Yangon is the kind of place that sticks with you.

Guimaras by Lester Ledesma
Sunset over Guimaras island. By Lester Ledesma

Guimaras is also a special place. You’d think, a beach is a beach is a beach, right? Pero nung dumating ako, I rented a motorbike and started going around, it was a 1980s kind of place. Ang beach ngayon, like Boracay, lahat ng tao nakabihis, naka-swimsuit, may bars. This one was like the kind of place my family would visit when I was a kid in Bacolod or IloiloYung meron lang kiosk na Red Horse lang yung binebenta, Chippy, banana cue. People would just sit down with their families and play. Meron lang isang loudspeaker na nagpapatugtog ng Air Supply. Wow, para akong bumalik sa ‘80s! All you needed was the beach and the people close to you.

I’d love to work with National Geographic photographers Sam Abell, Bill Allard, and Jim Stanfield. I’ve always wanted to pick their brains and see how they work. Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, as well. I would love to just see how he breaks the ice with people. Talking to New Yorkers, hindi sila lahat madali kausapin but he pulls it off. He gets them to tell him malalalim na stories.

Kashmir by Lester Ledesma
A flower vendor in Kashmir. By Lester Ledesma

I think my writing and photography feed off each other. You get inspiration to write from what you shoot, and you get inspiration to shoot from your writer’s mind. Writers are always thinking of narratives. You try to package it into a little story. Something understandable, something you can digest. Aside from that, you really let the place come to you. Sometimes, just sipping coffee and looking around helps. You let the place speak to you.

Of course, I have to talk about the tools of the trade. If it’s a big shoot with an art director, say a magazine cover, I use a Canon 7D with the big lenses, flash units, strobes and all. If it’s a solo job na you need to travel extensively and disappear into a place, I use small cameras. Micro Four Thirds, Fuji X20 or X30, kasi pag inangat mo hindi matatakot yung pini-picturan mo. I’d use a red camera with leatherette if it makes me look like a tourist and get people to talk to me.

Myanmar by Lester Ledesma
Monks in Myanmar. By Lester Ledesma

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Lester’s tips for aspiring photographers

1. You really need to love it even if nobody is paying you to do it. I’ve done shoots I financed myself kasi gusto ko lang siya gawinBahala na, benta ko na lang after. So number one is passion.

2. Stay away from negative influence. When I was starting out, people said, “Walang pera diyan.” When I came to Singapore, some said, “Kalagitnaan ng SARS, their economy is crap, freelancer ka pa. Walang magha-hire sayo.” Hindi ko na sila kinausap. I only started talking to them again nung medyo successful na ako. Don’t talk to people who bring you down.

3. It’s your passion, but be realistic about it. It’s gonna be hard. Very hard! Umabot sa point where I had to sell my medium format [camera] to pay for rent. As a freelancer, yung kikitain mo sa job na ‘to, kailangan dumating habang ginagawa mo yung next job. ‘Pag may gap, magugutom ka. So you have to be smart. At tsaka ‘wag magyabang. Hindi porke artist ka, hindi ka na ma-touch. Sumunod ka sa client.

4. Invest in your craft. If you’re running a store, you buy stuff to sell. As a journalist, you invest too, to get your stories done. Sometimes magpapadama ka rin. Like I would get calls from New Yorker, “Hey, do you have stock pictures of this restaurant in Singapore?” Wala, but I’d say yes. Then I’d shoot at the restaurant. Because if you get your name in certain publications, it’s a stepping stone. Or if you do an exhibit, kahit hindi kumita, you can add the exhibits to your portfolio.

5. Get a great partner. The marketing and singil, kaya ko. The finance and business side, not so much! Buti na lang my wife Joanne is good at accounting. Work with someone who complements what you do.

6. Have a strong vision. Madali maging photographer, but to be one na kahit walang byline, alam mong siya yung nag-shoot? Or pag binanggit siya, “Ah, he does this, he’s good at that.” That’s hard. Reputation takes years to build. Without it, sino’ng kukuha sa ‘yo? Your specialty is like your calling card.

Where would I like to go next? I’ve never been to Batanes. Eastern Europe, Western China—I’ve always wanted to see Silk Road countries. Africa. Ang dami pa. Malaki ang mundo.