Special Reportage
“Sack Tap” – Photo Essay by James Lontoc Delves Into The Ballsy Topic of Tumor & Masculinity
A participant of SEA’s longest-running international photography event, the 18th Angkor Photo Festival & Workshop, James’ bold approach to his work erects prolonged attention amongst festival-goers
Angkor Photo Festival & Workshop
February 2023

In January 2023, COMMON AFFAIRS had a chance to take a trip to one of Southeast Asia’s longest-running international photography events, the Angkor Photo Festival & Workshop (APFW). 

The event is an annual international photography festival that takes place in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was conceived in 2005 and showcases the work of established and up-and-coming photographers from around the world, focusing on Asia and its rich cultures. Featuring exhibitions, projections, talks, and workshops aimed at promoting cultural exchange and raising awareness about social and environmental issues through photography, the festival also aims to support the development of the local photography scene in Cambodia and provide a platform for young Cambodian and photographers from around the region to showcase their work. 

For this 18th Edition, a group of 15 selected participants from all over the world, collectively led by three tutors as well as alumni facilitators, were expected to submit a project idea as part of their application. This can be a new body of work, or a continuation of an ongoing project.

Some of the world-class photographers like Veejay Villafranca, Katrin Koenning, Antoine D’agata, Sean Lee, Uma Bista, Mien-Thuy Tran were also present at Siem Reap to guide the participants and be involved in interactive discussions with guests as panel.

Out of 15 photo essays project that were presented at the Angkor Photo Festival & Workshop, one participant piqued our interest – James Lontoc. 

Meet James Lontoc a Manila-based visual artist


Photo by James Lontoc

James Lontoc is a Manila-based visual artist who practices personal documentary (diaristic), portraiture, fashion, and commercial photography. He’s also a writer, a speciality-coffee enthusiast, and a co-founder of the creative group, NoReds.

For this 18th Angkor Photo Festival photo essay project, he presents “Sack Tap” – a story about James’ experience dealing with topics deemed sensitive and not to be discussed openly, especially in an Asian community. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 22 and has since been questioning himself what it means to be a man. “I came to Siem Reap searching for ferocity, aggression, and toxic masculinity, yet instead uncovered tender violence and quiet strength behind men”, says James in the festival programme.

COMMON AFFAIRS goes deeper into the subject.

CA: First of all congratulations on your graduation at the 18th Angkor Photo Festival James Lontoc. We were truly amazed by your projection document titled “SACK TAP” at the Angkor photo workshop and it was a very BALLSY move you did there, kudos to you! Care telling our readers what drives you to create that photo-story?

JL: I had testicular cancer when I was 22. I wasn’t a photographer at the time and didn’t understand the value of pictures, so I deleted everything related to the experience as part of me “moving on”. When I started taking photos, I realised how big of a mistake erasing those pictures was. I wanted to talk about the experience of dealing with testicular cancer, but all photographic evidence was gone. I had to work with what was left (medical records) and be creative in making new images. The result was the original version of Sack Tap, or as I would call it, volume 1. It’s a 10-year-old story.

Radical orchiectomy: removal of a malignant testicle.

Photo by James Lontoc

In Siem Reap particularly, I wanted to focus on creating a branch of the original work, which tackled questions about masculinity. These are questions I’ve had in the past, coming from the perspective of having lost a testicle. Some of these questions are already answered, while others are still being figured out. The important thing was going through the process and communicating it to the audience.

CA: What makes you want to participate in the Angkor Photo Festival Workshop in Cambodia and why?

JL: Being part of the Angkor Photo Festival has always been aspirational to someone like me who wants to tell stories. Especially because the Philippines always had participants, and many of them I look up to. I applied in 2016 but was not ready for it. The work I submitted wasn’t ripe, or better said in Tagalog, it was “hilaw”. I didn’t make it then and I knew that I had to prepare for it.

Over the years, I became friends with the Festival’s alumni, two of which have closely mentored me. I’ve been very blessed to have access to critique and guidance; which unironically is the core of the Angkor Photo Workshop.

When the open call for applications for the 18th edition came, I figured that it was a good time to reapply. I was blessed twofold to be accepted.

CA: In your own words, please tell us about yourself, James? 

I grew up in a tight-knit Christian family, and I appreciate that I’ve had a good upbringing. I despised formal education and skipped many classes, but I do have a bachelor’s degree in English. I used to read a lot of literature, but now I mostly read photobooks and Japanese manga.

I’m a simple guy who likes photography, cycling, coffee, and vinyl records. All of which are money pits of hobbies that are funded by a day job in the SEO industry. TL:DR, I’m a corporate slave with expensive hobbies.

A peek into manhood

Photo JL Javier

Sack Tap

Photo Zicky Le

CA: What professional photographers have influenced your work, and how do you incorporate their techniques into your photographs?

JL: Top of mind are Nobuyoshi Araki and Masahisa Fukase, but if I really think about artists who’ve influenced my work… I’d have to say Andrew Jarret, Amanda Jasnowski-Pascual, Aizawa Yoshikazu, and Micheal Schmelling. It would be fair to say that I looked at their work, tried to reverse engineer how the pictures were made, and copied their aesthetic until I slowly developed my own visual identity.

CA: What details do you believe make the best photographs? How do you go about focusing on them in your work?

JL: I try to find something honest or quirky in a photo. Rather than a good-looking or well-composed picture, I’m more interested in what it says, feels, and does or how it fits with a narrative or edit. When I take or make photographs, I try to insert my personality and humour.

A mixed group of men, and even kids, huddled around a table, gambling in the late afternoon

Photo by James Lontoc

CA: As the co-founder of the creative group in the capital city of the Philippines, NoReds. What do you guys pursue other than fashion and creative work?

JL: This takes me back! Our goal was to turn NoReds from a bunch of friends having fun to a full-fledged business with a space and team that could produce advertising, editorial, commercial, and even corporate content. But for a bunch of reasons, things didn’t push through. However, I’ve recently been contemplating on what to do with the brand. We’ll see…

CA: Have you discovered anything new about your photographic practice post Angkor Festival?

JL: More than new discoveries, my experience in Angkor reaffirmed and reinforced things I already knew (as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve been mentored by alumni). It gave me an opportunity to go through the process I’m familiar with (produce, critique, revise, present) in a very compact timeline and with elevated intensity. It was the worst and the best at the same time. I would not trade it for anything else. Participating in the workshop gave me more confidence in my work; in a way, being there was in itself validation.

Pick(led) a ball, any ball

Photo by James Lontoc

Tender violence; an infliction of pain or a desperate embrace?

Photo by James Lontoc

CA: As a journalist and also as a photographer who documents, do you believe in the power of liberating through this line of work? If yes, Why?

JL: Liberation in the form of introspection, self-confrontation and expression, yes. I subscribe to the thinking that photography is a tool to explore questions or conflicts you might have with yourself. A way to communicate how you interact with your surroundings. It’s a means to an end. Beyond this, I don’t have an answer (haha).

CA: This is a two-pronged question. (i) Do you believe that you or anyone from this line of work can make a difference in this polarized world? (polarized meaning contrasting in opinion and beliefs) and (ii) What do you hope the photography community (regional & global) will learn from seeing your work?

JL: Yes, I do believe that it does. The world is full of conflicting information and opinions, so it’s important to create work that makes people think and rethink.

With Sack Tap in particular, I just pose questions about machismo and try to show that there’s strength in being gentle and tender; and that kindness and vulnerability are traits of manliness.

Photo by James Lontoc

CA: Any last words for the rest of the world to know from you, James and how can the people out there follow you on social media?

JL: Putting it out here for accountability purposes that Sack Tap will be self-published as a book. Also, I don’t post much about ongoing projects but please follow @lontoccc on Instagram.

Photo by James Lontoc

CA: Thank you, James and all the best in your future endeavours.

JL: You’re welcome. It is indeed an honour. 

If you like our interview with James Lontoc and want to see more of our exclusive content do click here.

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