Arts advocate, photographer, and LoveYourself co-founder Ian Felix Alquiros shares how his journey with the organization started, and how art helps the advocacy.
By Gian Geronimo
Ian Felix Alquiros, one of LoveYourself 's co-founders and the organization's VP of Partnerships, never in his wildest dreams thought he would be involved in an organization such as LoveYourself. "When I was younger, I never thought I would even come out to my family and to the public, much less join something as big as LoveYourself," Ian, a project manager in the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), says.
But as he got older, he became more exposed to the issues the gay community faced, particularly the issues concerning the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Thus, it was inevitable that he would be involved in a cause in the future.
"My membership in LoveYourself was spontaneous," Ian, now 40, says. "We were very concerned with the HIV situation in the gay community, so when the opportunity came to start something to help out, we all gave our best effort to make sure we succeeded."
Ian, a seasoned photographer, met LoveYourself CEO and President Vinn Pagtakhan in 2011 at Fashion Week. "Vinn was introduced to me as the recent winner of the Twitter Nurse of the Year, so I was immediately impressed with his recent achievement," Ian shares. "That same afternoon, Vinn already expressed the idea of creating an NGO group that would address the rising numbers of HIV cases in the Philippines."
That year, Ian was a full-time photographer running a studio in Quezon City. He specialized mostly on male modeling portfolios and most of his clientele comprised of male modeling agencies and different LGBT and men who have sex with men (MSM) organizations.
"I was very aware of what has been happening in the MSM community because of my work and… I knew of a couple of personal acquaintances who have suddenly died of unknown causes," Ian notes.
"At the back of our minds, [my friends and I] were already worrying about what was happening, but we didn't know where to start," he also says. And so, when Vinn proposed his plans to create what would become LoveYourself at a birthday celebration where Ian was also in attendance, this event would set Ian off on a path to spreading awareness about the group's advocacy.
"Meeting Vinn was the answer to my prayers, and Chris (Lagman, also a LoveYourself co-founder) joining us during the consultation is a blessing," Ian says. "Without them, the organization would not have been successful."
Through his lens
But Ian has had his own major contributions to the organization, too. In fact, LoveYourself's first testing activity wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Ian's photography. "It just so happened that I knew the admin of a known website involving online sex workers because some of them were my photography clients," Ian notes.
In line with this, LoveYourself's first testing project, along with the help of the Quezon City Health Department, was conceptualized. In 2011, the organization successfully held "A Day With the Boys," which was held at Replay Spa.
But how did Ian's love for photography start? "When I was borrowing my friend's camera, that friend told me that I could take good shots and that I should really start taking my photography seriously," he says. "And so I bought my own camera and started travel photography. I eventually ventured into portraits and started to specialize in male model photography.
His photography would also play a role in other LoveYourself activities. "I started gaining a lot of clients, which made decide to quit my BPO job to open up my own studio (theROOM Photography Studio) in Quezon City, which became the first hide-out of LoveYourself for events, trainings and parties."
Being a member of LoveYourself wasn't always a walk in the park before, though, shares Ian. "It took time before local and national government agencies took LoveYourself seriously, especially since when we were just starting, we had no achievements to speak of," he says. "We also found it difficult to operate without funds; we really had to think of creative ways to generate funding."
Eventually, he says, they gained the trust of relevant stakeholders and increased the number of their supporters through other testing events, among other initiatives.
"All our succeeding testing events were very successful in terms of generating the number of attendees, something that no other previous advocacy or LGU group was able to do," Ian notes. "That's why we got immediate attention. Even though there were detractors, which cannot be avoided, we still succeeded."
Ian also says: "The partnership with RITM and the management of the LoveYourself Hub in Malate [which has now been replaced by LoveYourself Uni in Pasay] were the turning points. We took off from there.”.
Art and advocacy
Ian's passion for the arts is undeniable, and seemingly insatiable. He currently works for the National Commission for Culture and Arts' (NCCA) International Affairs Office as a project manager.
"We deal mainly with foreign governments and embassies as long as it’s about culture and arts," he shares. "Art has always been my first love, and events management came as an acquired skill due to my long exposure to this job. I enjoy every minute of my work."
Aside from his work with the NCCA, he is also involved in a multitude of arts-related initiatives. "Aside from travel photography, videography, and blogging, I used to do a lot of fire (poi) dancing. I also recently started enjoying the art of calligraphy and adult coloring books, mainly as stress reliever to my sometimes stressful job," Ian shares.
Does he think art can do something to promote HIV awareness? "Sometimes, HIV and AIDS are hard to digest. Art is universal, and the general public can understand something more if it's done through the arts," Ian notes.
"Sometimes, arts can be a bigger influence because they elicit emotions that are otherwise difficult through conventional lectures. We really have to be creative on how we explore all avenues including the arts to reach a wider audience."
As one of LoveYourself's founders, Ian is just so proud of what the organization has done, though he knows the fight is far from over.
In May 2016, there were 739 new HIV cases reported to the HIV/AIDS & Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) Registry of the Philippines, the official record of the total number of laboratory-confirmed HIV positive individuals. Out of that number, 106 developed into AIDS cases. Since the first AIDS case was reported in the Philippines in 1984, there have been 34,158 HIV cases in the country, including 3,070 AIDS cases.
"I really hope we still get bigger and more known. We still need a lot of support, especially from the national government," Ian says. "I wish the government will make HIV awareness a primary agenda, and that even the Catholic Church would join our advocacy. We cannot do this alone, we need to do more until we really get their attention and support."
Ian also acknowledges the organization's victories. "Every year, when I attend LoveYourself 's anniversary celebrations, I always feel so proud of our achievements as a group," says Ian. "We are now leading the HIV advocacy in the country, and it's not that difficult anymore to solicit funds."
He continues: "We have come a long, long way in such a short span of time, and I cherish every moment of our growth. I can only imagine how big we are as an organization five years from now."
Ian is well aware of how far LoveYourself has come from the organization's initial birthing pains in 2011. "When the group first started, counselling and education were our only priorities," he says. "Now we are already doing testing on our own, we have treatment services, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is upcoming."
Ian concludes: "These are things that we thought would only be possible after more than 10 years. Thanks to all the volunteers and the leaders of the group, these are now realities."
Photos: Ian Felix Alquiros
Photo Editing: Mark Long
LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.
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