You may have seen BJ Pascual's work before. The fashion photographer and creative director has been shooting commercial and editorial photos for 13 years now, working with the country’s biggest brands, titles, and names in the fashion and showbiz industry.
But behind all this experience is a young creative who is grateful to not only perform his passion for a living, but also be a voice for the LGBTQ+ community in the fast-paced industry. "I’ll be honest, though–I’m still not used to it. Every day I wake up in awe that this is my reality," he tells Preview.
BJ Pascual for Preview.ph June 2021
By being his authentic self, BJ was able to find success in the fashion industry and is now one of the most in-demand photographers in the country. But before this, he was a shy, quiet kid from Cavite who learned how to navigate his creative side after years of hiding this part of himself. And in this exclusive feature with Preview, BJ tells us the story of how he got to where he is today and the moment he realized he can use his influence in the industry to become a voice for the LGBTQ+ community.
I always tell people that I am fortunate to be working in a field where the LGBTQ+ community is accepted—celebrated, even. This is an industry where so much of it rests on the shoulders of talented LGBTQ+ folk who have paved the way for great ideas and even greater creations. For the first half of my career, I got cozy and wrapped myself in this little fashion industry bubble that never really spoke out about intersectional LGBTQIA+ issues that so many of our brothers and sisters outside the industry face. I felt so accepted by my own circles that I forgot about my own struggles that I had gone through as a kid.
Looking back, I’ve always enjoyed creative pursuits, even when I was little. I loved to draw and to take photos, but when you belong to a family of doctors and lawyers, creative professions didn’t seem like a possibility. Being creative was a distraction–a hobby at best, not a valid career choice.
Top and g-string, BLACKCODE MANILA. Pants, DIOR. Rings, SUKI JEWELRY and LUNA BY DRAKE. Anklet, LOUIS VUITTON. Pride All Over Flip-Flops, HAVAIANAS.
I was always concealing a part of myself, one way or another, for fear of disapproval. I remember having to hide my notebook filled with Sailor Moon drawings because my uncles found them “too girly.” Whenever I would visit my mom in Makati, I would tear pages from her Versace catalogues and sneak them home. People around me would point out that I was “too soft”—because of the things that I liked, the way I talked, the way I moved. Everything that I did was different, felt different.
Face mask worn as g-string, TOQA TV. Pants and rings, LOUIS VUITTON. Rings and necklace, SUKI JEWELRY and LUNA BY DRAKE. Pride All Over Flip-Flops, HAVAIANAS.
I did somewhat manage to escape that scrutiny in high school, thanks to a new interest I picked up: web design. As a teen, I would spend hours in front of my computer learning how to code and design graphics. I would take photos of Christina Aguilera from the web, or take photos using my early smartphone—with a VGA camera—and manipulate them in Photoshop.
Unlike my illustrator dreams, no one seemed to mind my new hobby this time around—I guess they thought computers were less “girly.” There were summers when I would stay in my room all day just designing websites. It came to a point where my dad would tell me, “Kumusta naman ang bakasyon mo sa World Wide Web?”
I relished this newfound freedom where I wasn’t being bothered or nitpicked at, and the liberty I found online. The internet was my gateway to the world outside Cavite, and for the first time, I saw a wide future of possibilities beyond my present. Through the websites I created, I met people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds, opening my view on a lot of things, including my sexuality. I would even receive commissions from clients abroad to design their websites for them. That was the first time I started to entertain the idea that I could do something creative professionally.
Top, DRIES VAN NOTEN. Pants, WALES BONNER. Gold ring, LOUIS VUITTON. Gold dainty rings, gold bracelet, and gold chains, SUKI JEWELRY. Multi-colored rings and cross necklace, LUNA BY DRAKE. Pride All Over Flip-Flops, HAVAIANAS.
So when it was time for college applications, I applied for a Computer Science degree at De La Salle University. Long story short, it didn’t take long before I realized it wasn’t for me. As I was getting my GPA up to shift courses, I took up common courses before the big move. I joined all the media-related organizations there were, and I ended up meeting a lot of like-minded individuals. This eventually led me and a group of friends to start a T-shirt business. I ended up shooting the shirts we made, and this is where my love of fashion photography began.
Growing up that way felt like I was under a microscope, constantly being examined and dissected for the slightest movement. So for much of my early years, I kept to myself–my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions. I didn’t talk too much for fear of being called out, whether it was about what I said or how I said it.
Becoming a Voice for My Community
Falling in love with fashion and photography sparked something in me: even as a kid, I had always been into fashion and photography without even realizing it. Those Sailor Moon outfits that I loved to draw were direct copies of runway looks from iconic houses such as Dior, Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Lacroix. Those Versace catalogues whose pages I tore were shot by Richard Avedon, who is one of my biggest inspirations as a photographer.
And eventually, I did establish myself in the industry. I started working with brands and magazines that I wouldn’t even have dreamt of working with when I was younger. And most importantly to me, I wasn’t hiding my sexuality anymore. I wasn’t scared of appearing “too girly,” and I was able to wholeheartedly embrace my creative side.
My social media was purely for self-promotion back then. At that point, I was only living for myself and my creativity, so I never really expressed my views on the importance of gender equality until much later. My awakening came when I stumbled upon an article about how elderly gay people in the Philippines who languish in neglect—forgotten by their very families that they supported all their lives once they are no longer able to provide for them.
Blazer and Jumpsuit, UNA RICCI. Ruby earring, colored statement rings, butterfly ring, and pearl drop necklace, LUNA BY DRAKE. Gold bracelet, SUKI JEWELRY. Pink and pearl choker, LOUIS VUITTON. Pride All Over Flip-Flops, HAVAIANAS.
That story struck a chord with me. It made me realize that while I was now here, comfortable living my best gay life, for others it’s the opposite. So many young people get disowned by their families or fall victim to violence within their communities for simply being themselves. Some couples, even if they have been together for most of their lives, won’t even receive the right to visit their partner in the hospital in case something bad happens because they are not legally recognized. That to this date, we continue to disregard the rising number of HIV cases as a threat, and the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill keeps getting pushed back are just a few of the real and tangible examples of the struggles our community faces.
I also had to ask myself the question: How many young queer folk aren’t able to express their own creativity or pursue their own passions for fear of being outed and shunned by their families? I couldn’t help but remember that feeling of fear I had when I was a kid. That’s why now, when I’m presented opportunities to help raise awareness for LGBTQIA+ issues, I take them.
If I’m being honest, I really don’t see myself as the voice for my community. But I’m aware of my position in my industry, and I want to use that to amplify the voices of those whose voices are still being suppressed. Some of my favorite advocacy work has included photographing an exhibit of male muses, where the prints were sold for the benefit of LoveYourself, a community of volunteers that provides free HIV testing, screening, and counseling.
We launched the #LoveIsAllWeNeed campaign to help advocate for the SOGIE Equality Bill. This entailed meeting with several senators and lobbying in the Senate.
Our group also partnered with Spark Philippines, where I photographed 23 individuals including Gretchen Diez, the transwoman who was arrested for using the women’s restroom. This was for the “Humanizing SOGIE” exhibit, a national initiative to advocate for SOGIE inclusion and equality in the Philippines.
I cherish all these advocacy projects, and I appreciate working with fashion titles and brands that truly advocate for inclusivity—including my previous project with Preview where we shot an all-transwomen editorial called Trans Revolution. I think this truly shows the progress we've all made in this industry.
Pants, LOUIS VUITTON. Earrings, LUNA BY DRAKE. Pride All Over Flip-Flops, HAVAIANAS.
I also worked extensively with Team Magazine for shoots and events highlighting anything queer. Two of my favorites include the Pia Wurtzbach cover of her wearing a huge red ribbon for HIV awareness, as well as an editorial featuring queer kids from Tondo.
Now, I am proud to be part of Havaianas’ All Love Welcome campaign that champions inclusivity for LGBTQ+ folk worldwide. The brand has always been boldly forward in their support for the community, and they walk that talk: they've recently come out with a Pride collection where a percentage of the sales will be donated to Metro Manila Pride.
Waking up to these realities was a slow process, but what matters is that I got there. I am truly appreciative of the career that I have been blessed with, and now, I dedicate my platform to amplify queer voices that need to be heard and to bring to light the issues that affect them.
It took me 30 years to learn to find and truly accept myself, to trust my own voice—and it’s still a constant process. But once you do, using your artistry to make other people’s voices louder becomes so much more rewarding.
Styled by Joy Bernardo and Jolo Bartolo of Stylized Studio
Photographed by Regine David
Hair and Makeup by Zidjian Paul Floro
Set Design by Alanis Manantan
Sittings Editor Bacs Arcebal
Words by BJ Pascual as told to Sam Beltran