Defying family and still succeeding anyway

Cover art Samantha Gonzales

Words by

Digital Reporter

It’s a classic tale: the direction your family wants for you doesn’t align with yours. For Miguel Sy, owner of 361 Degrees Photography studio at Eastwood City, the challenge was convincing his family that he won’t join the family business because he wanted to take photos for a living. “I come from a Filipino‑Chinese family,” he said with a small smile. “It’s expected of us to work in the family business.”

See, for Mr. Sy, photography was not just some whim that he had picked up in his young adult years. He did not grow up with Facebook and Instagram, which inspired everyone with a mobile device to at least dabble in photography. Listen up, post‑millennials. Before digital cameras and smart phones were accessible to everyone, owning a personal camera was an investment. “I first held a camera when I was eight years old,” Mr. Sy recalled. The joy of snapping his first pictures was an unforgettable feeling that he will take with him for the rest of his growing years.

It’s not that he didn’t try to comply to his parents wishes. “My first course was in the humanities, then I shifted to architecture,” he narrated. “But in the end, I really wanted to study photography.” And after shifting from two courses, knowing that his heart really wasn’t into it, what else can his parents do but agree?

“Of course my family was hesitant to let me pursue photography. They were concerned about my financial situation, if I’ll be able to take care of myself,” he said. “I had to prove to them constantly that I can make a life out of this.”

It was during his photography subjects that Mr. Sy met his wife, Kat. Together they founded 361 Degrees Photography. Their first studio isn’t the crisp, modern studio that they have today at Eastwood. When he and his wife started, they lived in the same place where they shoot. They would take pictures on one side of the room, eat and sleep on another side. “I’ve been doing (professional photography) for eight years now. Now we have a house and we were able to save up to build this studio.”

The bread and butter of 361 Degrees comes from taking advertising and product photos. Their clients include San Miguel Purefoods, Nestle Carnation, Tapa King and Wendy’s, to name a few. And food photography is not something that should be belittled. “It’s very hard,” Mr. Sy said when asked about the process of taking enticing, appetizing photos of food. “You don’t just set a scene up and then take a picture. Every element in the shot plays an important role. You have to know not just how good you are as a photographer but also how good you are as a person who can communicate a certain feeling to the viewers.”

Photo Miguel Sy

While taking photos for advertisements are Mr. Sy’s bread and butter, his passion is in documentary photography. “I do work for the German Cultural Commission—the Goethe‑Institut, to document stories on gated communities. Once a year we fly to different countries.” In his photos for the Building Walls Around Us exhibit, one can see the great disparity between the lives of those who chose to live in wealthy subdivisions, and those who these communities have kept out. For this project, Mr. Sy not only took photos in Metro Manila, but also flew to Laos and Nigeria. This is a continuing project of the Goethe‑Institut, and next year he is expected to fly to Bogota, Colombia.

“It’s a great experience,” Mr. Sy said. “It was very broadening in terms of perspective towards life here in Manila, and it’s always nice to see the culture and characters of different cities.”

Photo Miguel Sy

Mr. Sy had his first solo exhibit this year about his alma matter of De La Salle University. In Path to Glory, he sought to show the hardships that student athletes go through to achieve victory at their respective sports. “I wanted to show what athletes go through to get towards their goals. We only see them after their victory, but it’s while they train where they push themselves to their limits.” The exhibit was displayed from January to March at the School of Design and Arts Campus of the De La Salle‑College of Saint Benilde.

And what does his parents think of his achievements as a photographer? “Slowly they realized that through my work, the awards that I’ve won, and through certain jobs that I’ve taken that I can make a living out of photography. I can provide a decent life for my family.”

Photo Miguel Sy

We asked Mr. Sy for his advice to the youth who might be facing he same challenges that he did—having parents who are hard to convince about where you want to be in life—and his advice was not lofty. “Don’t follow with passion, follow with reason. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you want to do. The reason behind it is more powerful than passion.”

And what’s his reason for going through with his passion, his main strength and inspiration? “My wife and child,” he said. Because while Mr. Sy might have struggled with his own parents in convincing them about his passion, he too cares about his family like his parents cares for him, just in a different way.