November 27th, 2017

Interview: Emma Noelle

Chances are you’ve heard of Barnard sophomore and photographer Emma Noelle. Her work, which has appeared in Ratrock Magazine, Sukeban Magazine, Mythos Magazine, and more, often consists of portraits that are at once intense and dreamy. Apart from all of that, she’s also trying to create a photography major at Barnard. Hoot reached out to find out more about Emma, her art, and her love for the Hungarian Pastry Shop, among other things. You can find more of her on Instagram, and online at

When/how/why did you get into photography?

I first got into photography when I was 15. I did a photo book called “Visions of Manila” in which I juxtaposed Bob Dylan’s lyrics with photographs of scenes and people around Manila. The whole project made me fall in love with street and documentary photography. I picked up photography again in my senior year of high school, because I was applying to a couple of art schools and needed material for my portfolio. And that’s when I fell in love with portraiture. I’d say that most of my work now falls under portraiture and documentary photography. I just do it because I need to – it’s my way of connecting with the people around me and creating a tangible record of what happens to me day in and day out.

What/who are some of your biggest influences? How was it meeting Patti Smith recently??

Nan Goldin! Aside from Nan, some of my favorite photographers (at the moment – because I’m always finding new ones) are David Armstrong, Angel Franco, Tommy Hafalla, and Arlene Gottfried. And Patti is a life influence I guess, I just love her and everything she does! I think Patti has such a beautiful soul and I loved meeting her at one of her book signings in September, exactly one month ago. I got her to sign my copy of her newest book Devotion, and a copy of Early Work from the Columbia stacks. The event guidelines said “no photos allowed,” but when it was my turn to get my books signed, I told Patti I had one more photograph left on my roll of film and I asked if I could photograph her. She said yes, so I took a picture! And I was so nervous about developing that roll of film afterwards because I didn’t want to lose that single picture. I’m trying to give her a print I made of the photograph somehow, so if anyone reads this and knows how I can get it to Patti, let me know!

What did you do this summer?

I was back in Manila with my family. I worked at the Ayala Museum for a while, and I interned at a print and web-based art magazine called Scout. I loved the opportunity to constantly be around Filipino art at the Ayala museum, and I got to work on a fashion shoot (something I’m don’t usually do) for Scout. I got to meet and work with so many creatives in Manila, and I loved being able to immerse myself in the art scene back home for a few months. So mainly I was photographing.


You work primarily in film — why? How does working in film versus digital photography change the nature of your work? Do you develop it yourself?

I like the tactile nature of film, and oddly enough I love how long the whole process of film photography takes. You can’t see the photographs immediately after you take them, and that pushes you to really be present and in the moment while you’re photographing. And there’s a lot of distance between the time you take the photographs and the time you get to see them show up in a contact sheet, or as prints, or as scans. It just takes a little longer before you get to see your images. So in that way, the process really enables you to re-experience the moment you were capturing, and the time you spent with the people in the photograph. I think film pushes me to be more deliberate about every frame I capture. I only want to make photographs that I know I’ll have the patience to select on a contact sheet, make the test strips and prints for, and scan onto a computer. For now I work mostly with black and white, but I love color film as well. I started developing my own black and white film around one month ago, and I just fell in love with the darkroom! I’m obsessed – I’ll go in and just forget that the outside world exists. Once I spent 7 hours in there, and I didn’t even notice the time passing by. I love making prints for my friends, and I think there’s something special about being responsible for your images every step of the way, no matter how difficult the medium can be at times.

Anyone who follows you knows that you have an undying love for New York City, which is a muse in and of itself. How do the different locations of New York and Manila influence you/your photography, either in the process or the end product?

I’m so lucky to have experienced life in Manila and in New York City, and I think it’s such a gift to have been shaped by two completely different worlds. The difference between my work in Manila and my work in New York lies in subject matter mostly, but there are a lot of similarities too. I still shoot film when I’m back in Manila, and regardless of where I am, I’m just documenting what’s around me and the people I interact and engage with on a daily basis. In Manila, my lens is always turned towards my family, and in New York I’m always photographing my friends.

On your instagram @artbyemmanoelle, your description is simply “filipina photographer.” Why mention “filipina”?

I mention “Filipina” because I always want people to know where I come from and where I grew up. I have made a lot of friends within the Manila art scene, and even if I’m based in New York now, that description is a way for me to signal to other Filipino and Manila-based creatives that I want to collaborate and I want to connect. I only go back to Manila over the summer, and it’s so great to already have people to work with and reunite with whenever I’m back. I love all of the people I’ve met and gotten to work with because of photography, and this holds true in both Manila and New York.


You’ve taken so many beautiful photographs of individuals in the Barnumbia community. Do you prefer photographing peers/friends to strangers? When you take portraits, what are you trying to capture?

I definitely prefer photographing friends because there’s already that element of trust, and it’s easier for me to make more personal and intimate photographs of people I know and have formed relationships with over time. There’s such a mind-blowing difference between the first few photographs I’ll take of a new friend, and the more personal photographs I’ll take once we’ve gotten closer and more time has passed. I did take a class at the ICP recently about photographing strangers, and even if I love the process and am comfortable with asking strangers for photographs, I still prefer working with people I am close to. This is very cheesy and dramatic, but when I take portraits, I’m really trying to capture someone’s soul! It doesn’t always happen, because it’s very difficult, but sometimes I’ll get lucky and it shows up in the pictures.

Your bedroom series is an intimate look at people in the spaces they create for themselves. Here on the Hoot blog, we also photograph individuals in their rooms, for our fashion series CU Closets. Why do you think we gravitate towards showing people in this very personal space  — what is the connection between our rooms and our inner selves?

I think it’s such a gift to be able to curate your own space. Not everyone has that opportunity growing up, and college is a time when people do get to have more liberty and freedom as to what they can put on their walls and how they can use their living space as a medium for self-expression. I think rooms are spaces where people can go to be comfortable in their own solitude, and in the company of those whom they share their living space with. Rooms are just so intimate and I think you can tell a lot about a person based on how they decorate their living space… kind of a combination of how they see themselves and how they want other people to see them once they start allowing other people into that space.


Your photography often blurs the line between fashion photography and portraiture — what do you consider the role of fashion/clothing/styling to be in these pictures? Does fashion photography interest you in terms of formally pursuing it?

For now, I know for sure that I don’t want to pursue fashion photography. I used to do a bit of it when I was younger, but now I’m more interested in portraiture and documentary photography. The fashion and styling show up in my portraits, but not always intentionally – usually they’re just a result of how my subjects dress or style themselves on their own. If anything, I’m more interested in capturing how people use clothing to present themselves to the world. I’m not too interested in shooting editorials or anything that’s heavily directed at the moment.


You are an unapologetic supporter of the movement to get artists paid, based on the premise that creative labor is labor, and should be valued as such. Can you tell us about these ideas and why they’re important to you?

I think some people just don’t take creative work as seriously as they should! There’s a lot of work that goes into making art that involves not only the time and money the artist spent on making a certain piece, but also years of training and the development of one’s artistic taste. I used to do a lot of work for free, but now I’m more assertive particularly because I use film and do most of the work myself, from shooting and developing to scanning and curating. Everything costs money and takes a lot of time. I spend a lot of money on film, printing paper, and storage/archival materials, and there’s no way I can even afford to do work for other people for free. I think it’s just a matter of respecting artists, and recognizing that making art also involves a lot of emotional labor for the artist.

I feel like you’re in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 112th & Amsterdam more often than not. What makes this place so special?

I like the dim lighting, the constant smell of coffee and freshly baked pastries, and the people who are there. A lot of my friends are also patrons of the cafe. It’s a great place to be alone, and to connect with people. I love that there’s no WiFi or outlets even. In some ways it really encourages you to be present, whether you’re sitting alone and reading a book or having a conversation with a friend.  


What projects are you currently excited about??

At the moment I’m focusing on documenting my life and the people in it. Nothing too elaborate – at the end of my four years here, I’m hoping to make a book and/or a slideshow, compiling all the photographs I’ve taken of my friends from my freshman year all the way to my senior year. Like my version of my favorite monograph by Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I have yet to find out what the project will be called, or what exactly it will be about, but as of now I’m focusing on being present and attentive and capturing my world the way it is.


By Alexandra Lozada.