LOS ANGELES—Who among the stars are a joy to photograph on the red carpet? Who are the least cooperative? Sthanlee B. Mirador, pioneering Filipino-American photographer in Hollywood, dished the answers to us (and more) in this Q&A.
You’ve probably seen Sthanlee’s photos of the biggest Hollywood celebrities on the covers of popular magazines, from People to US Weekly; in the inside pages of Rolling Stone and InStyle; or on such TV shows as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood.” Sthanlee has been covering major red carpet events for 17 years now, but he has remained the quiet, unassuming guy we’ve come to know and appreciate over the years.
Sthanlee is the top photographer at the Shooting Star International Photo Agency. He co-owns Pacific Rim Photo Press with Peterson Gonzaga.
The maverick photographer whose parents, Armando and Edna Mirador, hail from Alaminos, Pangasinan, started seriously pursuing photography in his freshman year at UC Irvine back in 1996. He shot pictures of campus events and the activities of Kababayan, the Filipino student club that he joined. He also photographed Kababayan’s hip-hop dance group, Kaba Modern.
“That’s where my passion for photographing dance and dance events started,” said Sthanlee, who continues to cover dance events when he’s not working hot-ticket Hollywood happenings.
While his first Tinseltown premiere coverage was the “Star Wars (Remastered Version)” premiere in 1997, Sthanlee considers being signed by Shooting Star in 2003 as one of his big breaks.
“We were shooting film at the time,” he recalled. “I was quickly moving my way to the top of the agency because I knew digital photography and I was assigned the big events. My first major photo published was that of Beyoncé—a full-page in US weekly. From then on, [my photos have been] published in many magazines almost every week. Another big break was in 2007, when my photos were used in ‘The List’ episode of ‘South Park.’”
An interesting trivia about Sthanlee is that he started as an aspiring actor. He hung around movie sets and played bit parts.
Who among the stars are always a pleasure to shoot on the red carpet and why?
My all-time favorites on the red carpet are Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Jessica Alba, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Cruise. These celebrities are never in a rush when being photographed. They give you what you want and they make sure everyone gets a shot.
Who are the most challenging to shoot and why?
Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, to name two. Julia tops my list. For me, she just doesn’t pose well. You can tell she doesn’t like to be on the red carpet. She hardly gives you eye contact and she’s always in a hurry. I can say the same of other female talents. You’ve been there for hours waiting for them, and they rush on the carpet.
Who are the most photogenic?
My top two are Jennifer Lopez and Angelina Jolie.
Which ones always look sharp, fashion-wise?
Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Lawrence, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Angelina Jolie.
If you could give stars tips on how to enjoy the red carpet experience, what would you tell them?
Be like Tom Cruise and Samuel L. Jackson—just stand there. Be still and look at every camera; make sure everyone gets the shot.
Can you cite five photos that are memorable to you and why?
Michael Jackson’s kids—the closest I ever got to photographing Michael Jackson.
Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with Martin Scorsese and his Oscar trophy backstage at the Oscars press room in 2007—I watched all those four directors’ films as a kid. To photograph all four of them together was a dream come true.
Madonna with husband Guy Richie back in 2001 at the “Snatch” premiere—it was their first time in public in Hollywood as a married couple. And it was my first time to see and photograph an icon. She wore a jacket that said “Mrs. Richie” on the back.
Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint getting their hand and footprints at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was just so cool to photograph and witness a piece of Hollywood history as the three lead actors of the “Harry Potter” film franchise were immortalized at the Grauman’s.
Victoria’s Secret models as they got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame right in front of the Kodak Theater. How often do you get to photograph many of Victoria’s Secret models in Hollywood? They’re mostly based in New York.
Oh man, there’s more—Anna Nicole Smith’s Halloween party before she passed away… Hollywood legends Elizabeth Taylor, George Burns, Gregory Peck and Shirley Temple Black, to name a few… music legends like Prince, Bono, Sir Paul McCartney, Cher, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Elton John.
If you had to choose one photograph to define your career, which one would that be and why?
It has to be that shot of the four legendary filmmakers—
Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas at the Oscars. These are the filmmakers I’ve always admired and looked up to. They were a big inspiration for me to get into the entertainment industry. To be at the Academy Awards, actually working, is always surreal to me. I’ve been covering the Oscars for nine years.
Do you still get a kick when you see your photos on the covers or inside top magazines?
Of course, I do. It’s like winning the lotto! Cha-ching cha-ching! To this day, it still feels good to know that these major magazines know my work and use my photos, considering that the competition is very tough.
What are your funny experiences?
Not really funny, but memorable experiences. Like George Lopez giving away $20 each to the photogs in the press room. Rapper Gucci Mane throwing money on the red carpet and into the photographers’ pen. Being in an elevator with Elizabeth Taylor in her wheelchair. Anna Nicole Smith drunk in the press room at the American Music Awards. There’s a lot. I can’t remember all of them at the moment.
You also make it a point to cover Filipino-American events whenever you can. Why is that important to you?
That is where it all started back in 1996—when I first covered Fil-Am events in my college years. I was the guy to hire for Fil-Am events from Los Angeles, to San Diego, to the Bay Area. At that time, my goal was to photograph all Fil-Am artists I came across, met and saw at events and on the red carpet. So I have an extensive photo archive of Fil-Am artists dating back to 1996. That’s the reason I go back. I love being around people of my culture, Fil-Am artists representing us on the world stage, especially in Hollywood.
Where does your interest in dance come from?
I grew up learning dance. I went to a performing arts school in San Diego. That’s where my love and passion for dance came from. In the same way that I photograph Fil-Am artists, I photograph and archive a lot of dancers and choreographers in the community and in the industry.
What are the challenges and tough conditions that the public doesn’t see when you take red-carpet photos?
It’s not as glamorous as it seems. I’d say photographers are treated poorly at events. The writers and video folks are always treated well. Patience is key to what we do in this business. There’s a lot of waiting for celebrities to arrive, or for an event to start.
How do you prepare for events that usually require you to be on your feet for many hours and under the sun? What “survival” secrets have you learned over the years of covering the red carpet and events?
Rest, patience and God! Ask any other photographer I work with on the line. They will tell you that I’m so calm and patient. I hold everything inside and not show it at all. I trust the Lord to help me get through all situations.
After coming from the events, the other work begins—uploading the photos and more. Can you talk about that?
That’s the part I dread most after an event—long hours of uploading, captioning and labeling photos, editing any photos if needed, separating the good ones that are going out to the agency and sending the photos out before deadline so the magazines will receive them early morning. The process and hours depend on how many photos you shoot and how big the event is. I usually work night to morning doing this part of the job.
How do you unwind and relax after all that work is done?
Sleep. Sleep as if I don’t have to work the next day.
How has digital photography changed the game?
Tremendously. We tend to shoot more and edit more. We end up spending more time on post-edits. It’s also become easy for anyone to pick up a camera and call himself a photographer. That means there’s a lot more competition now.
How difficult was it when you were just starting to cover major events? How did you become “one of the boys”?
It wasn’t really that difficult when I started out. I kept to myself. I arrived, shot what I needed to shoot and out I went to start working on the photos. At first, the other photogs were wondering who I was. They started noticing me and respecting me when they realized [my photos were] being published a lot. I never really had any issues with the other photographers. I have a lot of respect for many of the photographers who’ve been shooting in this business for so long.
How crazy and competitive does it get among the photographers on the red carpet? Have there been fights or near-fights?
When I started, the red carpet action was not as competitive and crazy. There weren’t that many photographers. Now, there are too many. Agencies are buying other agencies. Agencies—which I should not name—enter deals with magazines for cheaper rates, which hurts the business of other agencies. It’s not what it used to be. Our photos back then had more worth, so we got bigger paychecks.
Now, photos aren’t worth as much, and are being sold as low as $30. Some of us are still making a good living and others are somewhat struggling. But we get by. There were a couple of times that I saw photogs fight about the light. A lot fight about stupid stuff. It’s like being around children sometimes.
How do you psych yourself up when you don’t feel like covering yet one more event… or when you just don’t have the energy? Do you sometimes wish that you were on the other side, the one being photographed?
I never really liked being in front of the camera. There are times when I just want to be invited to attend and enjoy, for once. It’s rare that I do.
I rarely get recognition for what I do in the Fil-Am community, dance community, or for working in Hollywood. I’m one of the few Fil-Ams, maybe the only one out there, who has been documenting Hollywood via photographs for 17 years now. I’m at every major Hollywood event covering and documenting Hollywood history through award shows, premieres, Hollywood Boulevard hand-and-footprint star ceremonies, landmark openings… At the same time, I do a lot for the dance community, Fil-Am and Asian-Am community. God helps me get through it all; He gives me power to keep going.
You started as an actor. Do you still harbor that passion?
Yes, I did act. I went to a performing arts school when I was growing up. So I was exposed to acting, singing and dancing. A lot of my friends, especially my drama teacher, were on TV and in the movies. That inspired me to go into acting. I did musical theater for four years and did a few stage plays in high school. But as I headed into college, I found my passion for filmmaking. I wanted to become a filmmaker or work in production. Later, I discovered that I liked photography.
I miss acting. I think I’m good in character-type roles. But I don’t think I still have the courage to be on stage, like I used to. And I do want to direct a film someday.
What are the major events that you enjoy covering and why?
I always look forward to the awards season! But the major awards show I most enjoy covering is the Golden Globe Awards night because it’s relaxed, not hectic or chaotic. Also, not that many photographers are accredited for the Globes, so we each get a space to shoot instead of being cramped shoulder to shoulder. Plus, everyone goes to the Golden Globe Awards.
What advice can you give to aspiring photographers?
Work hard! Take advantage of the social media. Put your work out there. If no one sees your work, who will notice and hire you?
What are your dreams and goals?
My dream is to work on a movie set as a still photographer someday. And hopefully, direct a film. Who knows? But my goal is to keep inspiring other Fil-Ams out there.
(E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)