COLUMNS,  News,  Streets Ahead

Streets Ahead Interview: Rowena Modesto

Last week in our Backspaces: Visual Diary segment, we featured “s u p e r s t a r” by Rowena Modesto (ModestOhs.) This week, however, we are extremely pleased and honored to share the thoughts and working process of this New York City Artist. Rowena gracefully navigates the city streets like a true native… giving us genuine glimpses into the normal activities of daily city life… while, at the same time, lending an ethereal mood to them with her post processing techniques.

After reading this interview, please visit the sites below to explore more of Rowena’s work:



© Rowena Modesto

Please share a little bit about yourself….

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? Have you always been interested in photography? Are you (or have you been) involved in any other art medium… such as painting, sculpture, writing, music?

I was born in the Philippines and at 10 years old, my mother and my siblings moved to the upper west side of Manhattan to join my father. I was a professional dancer for over 20 years and my interest in photography was just something that happened from living and working with a professional photographer for the past 13 years. I run our photography studio and do everything but take the photos! I make clients feel comfortable in front of the camera, I edit jobs and that means narrowing down quantity of photos, retouching, color correcting, cropping, designing albums etc…but the interest in taking my own photos never really “took” until I got an iPhone a little over a year ago.

Which Mobile Device?…


© Rowena Modesto, “Chinatown”
Rowena: The gentleman looking right at me breaks my heart each and every time I look at this image. I have all kinds of stories going on about him. One of my favorite streets in Chinatown, there is always something interesting happening on this block.”


Which mobile device do you use to take (and process) your photographs?

The first iPhone I owned was the 3G which was when I discovered Hipstamatic and that was all I used. When I upgraded to the iPhone 4 about a months ago, I had so much difficulty restoring my Hipstamatic lenses+film that I finally gave up on it and started using the phone’s camera and editing my images with Snapseed. (Hello, new addiction…) So in answer to your question, I use the iPhone 4 to take photos and Snapseed for almost all of my edits. I have a one favorite filter from FilterMania2 and I like to use Photo fx to “warp” my images occasionally.

How did it all start?

How did you get involved in mobile street photography? And is this a genre that you predominantly focus on in your work?

It wasn’t intentional…I probably ran out of things to take pictures of at home, and I took to the streets and it sort of just developed from there. I’m interested in people and they are easiest to find and more interesting on the streets.

Street Photography Ethics…


© Rowena Modesto, “Downtown Brooklyn.”
Rowena:My sister works in Brooklyn and one day I met her during her lunch hour. I walked around a bit afterwards and was behind these two women (girl with hoop earrings and lady behind her with glasses) having the liveliest conversation and they were laughing a lot…I love the smile on this woman’s face. I also love the way everyone is dressed–reminds me of a different era.”


There is a general question among some people about the morals and ethics of taking pictures of strangers in a public environment. Many think that this is an infringement of an individual’s rights and privacy. What are your thoughts on this? Has the question about “privacy” been an issue for you in your work? Have you had any negative experiences taking street photographs in your home country or whilst traveling abroad? If so, how did you handle them?

In answer to the first part of your question…well, no matter how you cut it, it IS an infringement of an individual’s rights and privacy. The only way I can make myself feel better about that one is to use the image in a way that is respectful to the subject as much as possible. So far, the question of privacy have not been an issue in my work. People, especially New Yorkers are very vocal in as far as letting me know whether they want their photos taken or not and I take heed. Just this weekend, at a neighborhood parade, a cop asked me not to take his photo and I said, okay, and moved on.

Personal guidelines while in the streets..

Do you have any rules in place when you are on the street photographing? For example: are there certain “things” or situations that you personally feel are “off limits” in your photography? Can you explain why?

Not really. Everything about street photography is instinctual, for me anyway, so I just follow my gut. It’s usually right. But one thing I do know, when and if there’s a crisis, taking photos–is not on my mind…so I am not after catastrophic scenes of any kind. Just not interested.

Personal preferences while on a photo shoot …


© Rowena Modesto, “Vesey St., NYC”
Rowena: “I am a sucker for rainy days. Rain brings umbrellas out and all kinds of drama with the light and the streets shines from the water and you can get all kinds of reflection…I love it. “


What kind of situations, characters, and/or environments appeal to you? Why?

People in very ordinary situations, lost in a private moment…most, if not–all of the time, I take my shots on the sly and I just aim for great light and sharpness and the rest is all about editing and making something out of nothing. I love going to Chinatown, I love the vibrancy, the life, the people and the authenticity that still exists in that neighborhood. I love rainy days when there are tons of colorful umbrellas and the streets are wet and glistening. I love catching groups of people during rush hour–their body movements…movement inspires me, but not choreographed movement. Body language fascinates me and something that draws me in constantly.

Women’s perspective in street photography…


© Rowena Modesto, “Downtown, Brooklyn”
Rowena: “I love the positioning of the people in this image. Pure luck, truthfully. I was following the woman with the dreadlocks and this is what I got”.


Do you think that women bring to photography, especially street photography, a certain perspective that is not necessarily shared by many male photographers? If so, can you elaborate on your thoughts?

My natural response is–yes, of course…though I do not know for a fact if I put two photos side by side, if I would be able to tell if an image was taken by a man or a woman. However, with that said, I also know that how a person responds to a person taking a photo of them affect the end result; the degree of access to the emotional and environmental aspects of any situation can bring about a different perspective. Women also navigate streets differently than men which would lead one to think that would produce a different point of view.

Women street photographers who have influenced you…


© Rowena Modesto, “Downtown, NYC”
Rowena: “People often comment on how brave I am when I post photos of cops and construction workers especially when they see that it’s NYC. But cops and construction workers, especially downtown, are so used to having their pictures taken that they almost expect it and don’t really care. I happen to think they love it. I love everyone’s body language in this photo. I was addicted to the filter I used in this one for a while which gives the photo a lot of texture.”


Are there any women street photographers/photo journalists who have inspired you in your work? If so, who are they? And what inspires you about their work?

Someone just told me about Helen Levitt last week and from the little that I’ve seen of her work- I like, a lot and want to know more about her. I do not know of any other female street photographer. I’ve always admired Annie Leibovitz. Her body of work is an impressive collection and proof of her range and talent.

Post processing images…


© Rowena Modesto, “Chinatown, NYC”
Rowena: “Rainy day, umbrellas, Chinatown and delicious glistening streets…what more can I ask for?”


What are your thoughts on post-processing mobile street images? Do you post process your own images? Can you share with us an example of your workflow process?

Post process is my favorite phase of all…I look forward to it like anything therapeutic that puts my mind in a one pointed state of focus.

Yes, I post process my own images…I do everything mostly in Snapseed. I choose the style and make adjustments as I see fit in each of the following filters and the order is as follows:

• Drama
• Grunge
• Retrolux
•Tilt Focus

This is what I usually do but boredom is a great catalyst for trying out new filters and apps or mixing filters with another app which I do as well but I don’t want to bore you with those details! I also notice there are days when I can’t get enough scratches on a photo and other days when I can’t stand them and swear never to use them again…so, it really shifts from day to day but this is what I call my “standard” edit.

Artistic goals and aspirations…


© Rowena Modesto, “Chinatown, NYC”
Rowena: “Rainy day, umbrellas, Chinatown and delicious glistening streets…what more can I ask for?”


What are your artistic goals and aspirations?

I just started taking my own photos a little over a year and taking to the streets just 4 or 5 months ago. I’d like to do something with my photos instead of just having them accumulate on my phone or in my computer. What that is though, I do not know yet…This is definitely a plunge into the unknown for me and I look at it as a vehicle for self discovery more than anything else.

Social Media Platforms…


© Rowena Modesto, “Portuguese Day Parade in the Ironbound (Newark, NJ,)”
Rowena: “These two kids got away from their parents for a few minutes. They are running towards the street where the parade was coming down. They literally darted from one spot to another. Didn’t ever see them just walking.”


Where do you show your work? What social networks are you on?
Mostly posted in social networks. Instagram, Backspaces, Facebook, Oggl.

On which platforms are you most involved?
Instagram and Backspaces.

Personal tips…


© Rowena Modesto, “Chinatown”
Rowena: These red lanterns were up for Chinese New Year back in February. They were up for a month or so and I was obsessed with these lanterns. Something about them made me happy for no reason. Sunny, rainy, windy…whatever the weather was, I found these things mesmerizing and find myself unable to throw out photos if they have these red lanterns in them.


Do you have any mobile street photography tips or tricks that you’d like to share with us?

Hmmm…you can do a heck of a lot more with a well lit and sharp image? I think that’s more common sense than a tip or trick, though…when I think of a really good one, I’ll tell you.


© Rowena Modesto, “Keansburg Amusement Park”
Rowena: “t was probably the first week of the season this park was open so it wasn’t that busy and everyone working there seemed cranky and resentful to be there including this girl. I couldn’t resist though, she was perfectly perched and I pretended I was taking pictures of the sign and not her so she wouldn’t start throwing darts at me. I was more scared of her than the NYC cops and construction workers! If looks could kill…


Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

This is my first interview and I am loving it, thank you. I also want to say that if it weren’t for social media platforms and people’s support and kindness from all over the world, I wouldn’t know where else I would’ve ever gotten feedback and encouragement. That’s been a huge and impacting part of my process and too important of a piece in my story not to mention.

Links to Apps Mentioned….

JQ's background is in painting and printmaking at the Pratt Institute, she also owned and operated a Books Arts & Textiles Studio in NYC. Three years ago JQ discovered mobile photography and her work has been exhibited in a number of exhibitions around the world.


  • Catherine

    Rowena, your work is absolutely wonderful! What a treat to read this interview and browse through so many beautiful street shots. 😀

    • Rowena Modesto

      Thank you very much, Catherine. Appreciate you taking the time to look at them!

  • stefanie Lp

    its a wonderful thing to hear the voice behind the imagery one is familiar with.
    Rowena a pleasure to get to know you alittle better.
    and so dig the umbrella shots and girl leaping.

    hands clapping here and a heart.

    • Rowena Modesto

      Stef!!! Thanks so much, as always. For someone I have not met, you’ve manage to have me burst out laughing so many times within our comment exchanges. Thanking you for your clapping hands and heart!

  • Tracy Mitchell Griggs

    Very nice gallery. I enjoy being an armchair voyeur on the streets of NYC. I live in a remote, rural area of MD, so in contrast, it’s fun to absorb everything urban through someone else’s lens. I especially like the downtown Brooklyn photo of the group of women on the corner – the motion and energy are great – it’s quite dynamic and involves the viewer in a very direct way. I enjoy images that don’t make you feel that the photographer was being a voyeur – by their nature, a lot of street images make the viewer feel that way – it’s a balance difficult to achieve, I think.

    I can definitely see that your decades of processing and editing have helped your own image making work – look forward to seeing more. Happy i-shooting~Cheers~

    • Rowena Modesto

      Thanks very much, Tracy. Very interesting point you brought up, (how you enjoy viewing images that don’t make you feel that the photographer was being a voyeur). That thought has never crossed my mind and when I think about it, I can understand how you feel..! I’m glad you brought that up…definitely an awareness I’d like to look deeper into.

  • Cara Gallardo Weil

    Really interesting read and nice work Rowena! I’m with you on the umbrella shots… 🙂

    • Rowena Modesto

      Thank you, Cara! Appreciate it and yes, to the umbrella shots, right? with the season change now I’m following beach umbrellas!