From Manila to Manhattan: Martin Romero on shooting celebs, street style in New York

New York is a dynamite city – exciting and unexpected. Photographer Martin Romero can vouch for it.

Case in point: the first time he covered the Met Gala exits was only possible because he had ended up going to the wrong subway station. The third time? He didn’t even plan to go. He was only persuaded the night before by Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships, Eva Chen.

Even after standing outside his gym for a good 40 minutes for this interview, he was still eager to show us the streets of NoHo (North of Houston Street) and downtown Broadway in all of its glory. 

It was hard to not get jealous from my seat at home, over 8,000 miles away. Because in New York, the sun shined just right, the streets were clear, and a face mask didn’t hide Martin’s smile as he showed us his daily sights.

“Honestly, I love the city so much…. We’ve gone through so much in the past two years, it just felt happy that everyone got to do their thing, even if it’s not 100%.”

New York, since May 2021, slowly started reopening itself to events and gatherings – just in time for whirlwind weeks of activity beginning early September with Fashion Week, the Met Gala, and even the United Nations General Assembly.

That’s where you can find Martin, a Filipino street style photographer, snapping pictures of icons like Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Bretman Rock at their best and brightest. When he doesn’t have his camera in hand, you can find him spending his days at the gym or taking care of his plants and cooking.

Martin’s career didn’t begin in the “concrete jungle.” He was born and raised in the Philippines. He graduated with a degree in Communications Technology from Ateneo De Manila University. It was in 2014 when he decided to move to the United States to pursue graduate school and continue his career.

We spoke with Martin about his stand-out moments covering the Met Gala exits, his experiences as a New Yorker, and what else he’s learned since. 

When did you move to New York? What compelled you to stay?

“I moved to New York in 2014. I took my Masters at NYU. It was called Interactive Telecommunications. It was like a mix of art, design, tech, and how you would apply all of those things in whatever field you were in. I was eligible to work here for one to two years, but I was like: “I really love New York, might as well look for a way to stay here.

After college [in the Philippines], I actually got a partial scholarship to study in Spain, but my parents were like, “Don’t study yet. You have to work, you have to gain experience.” At that time, I was pretty bummed out. But looking back, I was glad I listened to them and decided to work for four years before finally studying.”

How old were you when you realized you wanted to pursue photography as a profession?

“I think high school or even college pa lang, I knew I always wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t think I had it in me to pursue it after college. Or I did, but then, I felt like I lost confidence in myself. 

I was always part of the school paper… and all of my extracurricular activities had something to do with documentation. It was when I moved here, I knew I always wanted to be a photographer, it was like ‘go big or go home.’”

Did you always want to focus on street and fashion photography? What about it interests you?

“It’s funny. In a sense, yes. I think it was third year college when I started taking pictures na mala-street style. Because, that was when I found out about Scott Schumann, Garance Doré. After third year college, I was in Spain, Salamanca with friends; it was a study tour under Ateneo. I was just taking pictures of friends, very Sartorialist

I would take pictures of Kryz Uy and Rosenthal Tee, who’s now a fashion designer. I would contribute that to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. At one point, I actually had a street-style vlog with Kix Suarez called Mean Streets Manila. We would go around Ateneo and take pictures of people.”

Were there any memorable moments covering the Met Gala exits?

Super daming (There’s a lot of) incredible moments. 

[My] Top 3 was seeing Kendall Jenner. Actually sa kanya ‘yung favorite photo ko. Parang ang ganda lang ng flow ng dress niya doon sa picture ko.  (Actually hers was my favorite photo. The flow of her dress was beautiful in my picture.)

Top 2 was seeing Alicia Keys. As soon as she exited the hotel, people started singing “Empire State of Mind.” Ang ganda lang na parang everyone was just singing. Ang ganda ng vibes. (It was so wonderful, everyone was just singing. The vibes were amazing.)

 For me, that was the complete New York moment. 

Of course, my favorite moment from the Met Gala was waiting for Rihanna for hours. I was there at 4. The last celebrity before Rihanna, siguro yung gap, one hour. (The gap was around one hour.)

10 minutes before she started to exit, it started raining, the crowd became more and more thick. It was super hard to take pictures. Pero, I lucked out.

I was able to photograph and document Rihanna exiting with ASAP Rocky. The struggle was worth it really.”

How do you approach people?

“Generally, tahimik ako. (Generally, I’m quiet.) I’m an introvert. I don’t really like approaching people. It takes so much time, effort, and energy for me just to do that. But, throughout the years, I gained confidence. 

The first time I started doing street style, I barely knew anyone. I just started taking pictures of the people I found interesting. Whenever I would post, I would really research. I would look at their Instagram, look at Google to find out who they were, and tag them.

For my first ever show, I would just watch how the photographers do it. But since then, since I’ve created relationships with some of them, I’ll approach them. Like Jamie Chong, humble brag. Whenever she sees me, magbe-beso pa yan, parang “Hey man, hey dude!” 

Don’t get me wrong, every now and then I still get starstruck. Like Eva Chen – every time I talk to her, I still mumble and parang, I don’t know what to say.”

How do you make sure you get the perfect shot?

“If you’ve heard of the term “Sinong mag-aadjust?” ako yung mag-aadjust. (If you’ve heard of the term “Who will adjust?” I will be the one to adjust.)

I take it back to my GUIDON and my high school days. Some people, they would bring all their set-ups, all their lights. Most of the time, I only have my lens and my camera, and I will adjust to whatever situation the world brings me. 

Minsan, you only have a few seconds to take a shot of these celebrities walking inside the shows, and you don’t have the time to ask “Hey, can you do that one more time?” If you know how to work your camera, most likely than not you’ll get a great image.”

What’s the best part about what you do? What’s the worst part?

“The best part of what I do is creating connections with all these insane, interesting people. If you told me, five, 10, 15 years ago that I was interacting with all these celebrities, I wouldn’t believe you. 

What I love about Fashion Week is that it feels like a reunion every time. I got to connect with a lot of Filipino influencers here, or Filipinos in the publishing media industry here.

The worst part of my job… I guess people think when they see my pictures, they’re like, “Oh, you’re living such a glamorous life. You’re living the high life. I envy you.” But no, I don’t think people realize there’s a lot of waiting time that happens. 

For example, with Rihanna [at the Met Gala exits], I waited for hours. I honestly wasn’t expecting her to be there. It was mid-way through the wait that she walked in.

With Fashion Week, sometimes my first meal is gonna be at night just because I’m so stressed. During spring and summer, it’s pretty hot. During the winter, it gets really cold and sometimes it snows. Sometimes you haven’t drank for an hour, or sometimes you have to go pee but you can’t. 

But it makes everything fulfilling once you get the shot that you want. 

Even if I’m a street style photographer, people don’t realize the effort that you put into it. [That’s why] I try my best to credit everyone, may it be a make-up artist, hair stylist or stylist. After I take a picture, I also try to research who made the dress and who helped in making that look.”

What keeps you motivated?

“I think it’s because I still have lots of goals I want to achieve here in New York. It’s definitely not a walk in the park, but if you put in the work, you can do it. 

It can get sad every now and then. Sometimes, whenever I see pictures of friends being on the beach, in the Philippines, surfing, diving, it makes me think, “What am I doing here?” But, I have lots of goals still that I want to achieve. 

I want to contribute to the New York Times, Vogue. I want to have campaigns. I want to shoot stuff for Nike, for all these brands. I want my stuff to appear on billboards in Times Square. I want to document all these interesting, creative people who are here.” – Rappler.com