Sean Armenta: Behind the fashion lens

Victoria Herrera
Meet the photographer of Top Model Philippines

MODEL, PHOTOGRAPHER, JUDGE. Sean Armenta is ready for this next adventure. Photo courtesy of Sean Armenta

SINGAPORE – Top Model Philippines is one of the most anticipated shows launching in 2013. Based on the reality show America’s Next Top Model created and hosted by Tyra Banks, this version will also discover, train, and produce a model deemed to have “Top Model qualities.” 

Rappler talks to photographer Sean Armenta who will be judging the show alongside host Sarah Meier, model mentor Rissa Mananquil Trillo, and former America’s Next Top Model producer Mike Carandang.

Sean shares with us his love for photography, tell us about his inspirations, and gives some advice for aspiring models and photographers.

What keeps you busy in California right now?

Well, working as much as I can. I’m very much a workaholic, and since I basically live, eat, and breathe photography, I’m perfectly happy being totally consumed in my work, whether it be shooting or retouching, or planning the next great project! I’ve been shooting a lot of editorials lately, peppered with some lookbooks, catalogs, and campaigns. I’ve also been doing a lot of personal work which helps me re-evaluate what I’m doing now and bring it to new directions.

You’re flying back to Manila soon to judge on Top Model Philippines. How did you get the gig?

I can’t even begin to express my excitement about this new adventure. It’s so crazy because I’ve been a fan of America’s Next Top Model ever since cycle one when it aired here in 2003, which was a little bit after I started my career as a photographer. I feel as though I’ve kind of grown up with the show! I recall thinking how cool it would be if I ended up being a guest photographer on the show. 

Last fall, a good friend of mine moved back to the Philippines from California. He used to be one of my photography assistants and had set up shop in Manila. Apparently, he was good friends with Mike Carandang, who as you know is not only the producer but will also be on the panel of judges on TMP. They were at dinner one night, and Mike expressed his concern that they were still trying to cast the role of the resident photographer/judge. After hearing what the requirements were, my friend suggested me for the role, and showed Mike my work. I guess, as they say, the rest is history.  

I heard you used to model in Asia. How was this experience for you?

I used to model many moons ago — mostly in the Philippines, but I also got to travel throughout Southeast Asia. It was such an amazing experience for me, honestly. It enabled me to encounter different cultures and discover things you would only get to see while traveling overseas. Most importantly though, it introduced me to the industry that I have fallen in love with and now work in! Working as a model also prepared me for my career as a photographer, because many of the same things apply: putting a portfolio together, approaching clients, marketing yourself, and basically hustling!

When did you decide to pick up a camera and be behind the lens? 

I learned photography from my mom, actually. Photography was her hobby, and she used to take wonderful portraits of me and my cousins. I think I was around 5 when I first became fascinated with all her camera equipment… She taught me the basics of operating a manual 35mm camera.

Photography was something I grew up with. The only formal training I received was a black and white film developing and printing class in high school which I absolutely loved. Other than that I’m completely self-taught. 

I ended up moving to Manila to continue my education. Serendipitously, I fell into modeling and was exposed to a completely different type of photography that completely captivated me. After a number of years, my mom passed away quite unexpectedly. I had to drop everything and fly back to the US to take care of her affairs. Once things started to somewhat stabilize for me, I had found that I was at a crossroads in my life — I had to decide between becoming a doctor or doing something I truly had a passion for. Not knowing what that was just yet, I somehow fell back into photography shooting events for nightclubs.

After about a month or two of doing that, I literally woke up one day and decided I wanted to become a fashion photographer. It was not only a way to make a living doing something I loved, but also a way of honoring the memory of my mom and her gift of photography to me.  

What are your favorite types of shoots to do?

I love shooting beauty and fashion the most, without a doubt. There’s something about working in a collaborative environment with artists of other disciplines towards a common goal that I absolutely love. It’s what makes beauty and fashion photography unique from any other types of photography.

Aside from the photographer, there is a makeup artist, a hairstylist, a wardrobe stylist, and a model all contributing their respective talents in order to produce a beauty or fashion photograph. Together, you create something out of nothing, perhaps just an idea or a notion. You are limited only by your own imagination, and you are able to create a completely fantastical environment through the use of makeup, clothing, and lighting. 

Oddly enough, ever since they’ve been able to put high resolution cameras on phones, I’ve just used my iPhone for travel photos and other snapshot types of situations. Technology is ridiculous right now. 

How do you create an awesome mood during a shoot? 

Music. You have to have the right music throughout the day. I don’t think there’s any other form of art out there that can change your mood as quickly and efficiently as music can. The right song can make you happy, make you sad, or make you remember experiences from decades ago.

I have a few playlists I’ve put together myself for photo shoots, and I like to play different playlists for prepping and setting up, to actual shooting, to wrapping up for the day. I like to use different types of music to control the energy on set and get everyone through the day. That and coffee.

You’re going to be giving out a lot of advice to aspiring models on the show… To get a head start, what 3 tips can you share with Rappler readers?

Tip #1: Relax

Being on set at a fashion shoot can be a nerve-wracking experience for new models. It’s a lot of pressure being in the spotlight or the hot seat. Not only is the photographer looking at you, you also have a crew of 10 to 20 people waiting for you to do something spectacular.

The key is to let go of your tension and nervousness and just… relax. Breathe. Your mental state, whether you’re nervous, sad, angry, happy, will show up in your photographs. The more relaxed you are, the less tension you hold in your body — the better the outcome of the pictures. 

Tip #2: Listen to the photographer 

The photographer is there to guide you through it. Because there are so many people on set, oftentimes you will hear suggestions of what to do from everyone. This can be very confusing for new models because they’re not sure who to listen to. There are only two people on set you should take direction from: the photographer and the art director. 

Tip 3: Have fun!

I know, it sounds crazy, but sometimes people just forget to have fun with it. Don’t be self-conscious; don’t be afraid to look silly. Believe it or not, the more self-conscious you are, the sillier you will look. Let go of your inhibitions and embrace the role you are given to play. How cool is it to get pampered, play dress up, and have pictures taken of you all day? Enjoy it!

What about advice for aspiring photographers?

The best advice I can give photographers just starting out in their careers is to really have a strong, solid foundation in the basics of photography, practice your craft as much as possible, and don’t try to rush your progress.

It takes years to develop a body of work, and throughout your career you will go through numerous changes in your work and aesthetic. Only by having a strong grasp of the basics will you be able to prepare yourself for your evolution as an artist.

Finish this sentence: A great picture makes you feel __________?


Speaking of inspiration, what inspires you daily? 

Life. Everything. Seriously, inspiration is not hard to find if you just allow yourself to see. I think I just have this weird appreciation for everything, and I can see the beauty in most anything. I’m sure that sounds cliche and pretentious, but I really draw a lot of inspiration from the world around me, whether it be nature, color palettes, movies, music, fine art, literature, song lyrics, objects, textures, fabrics… I could go on and on.

I’m a huge fan of photography and other photographers, so I also get inspired from looking at other people’s work. 

The first thing I check right when I wake up is Instagram. Then I catch up on what I’ve missed on my Tumblr feed. Pinterest is also a recent addiction of mine and it’s great for finding inspiration. I also love sites that upload entire fashion editorials, such as Fashion Gone Rogue and The Fashionisto. Those have saved me thousands of dollars by not having to buy magazines anymore. 

What’s the one picture you’ll keep in your wallet forever?

Aside from the picture on my driver’s license? Do people still keep pictures in their wallets? Isn’t that what iPhones are for? Okay, a picture of my mom. God, I’m such a mama’s boy. I would totally keep a picture of my significant other in my wallet. I know you said one, but I would keep two.

What other projects do you have in store for 2013?

I am looking forward to connecting with clients in Manila and doing a lot of work there. I think that’s what I’m most excited about. I’ve been shooting a lot more celebrity work lately, so that’s something I plan on continuing to do this year. I will be doing a lot more traveling, which is really what I’ve been wanting to do from the start: travel the world doing what I love doing the most.

Here are some of Sean’s fashion editorials:

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta

Courtesy of Sean Armenta



(See more of Sean Armenta’s portfolio on and Twitter: @armenta_photo. Instagram: @seanarmenta.)

Victoria Herrera

Victoria Herrera is a TV and event host, model, and writer. In 2011, she released her first book, “Unscripted,” based on inspiring conversations on her previous radio show. In 2012, she hosted Runway TV Asia where she interviewed international fashion designers and celebrities. Currently based between Manila and Singapore, she continues to explore the world of creativity, design, and fashion as a contributor for several magazines and newspapers.

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