‘I’m just a regular person who appreciates women and imagery a lot.’ Mike Tang and Cristina Pilo let us in on Ohrangutang and the art of photography
In life, there are always exceptions to the rule. If you haven’t come across Mike Tang, you’re about to find out that sometimes, the grass really is greener on the other side. The Miami born, Venezuelan photographer spends most of his time doing something that most men would be envious of: taking photographs of beautiful women for a living. Slowly and patiently, Tang has used his passion for photography and his talent to visualise an image to build the positive reputation and presence of the Ohrangutang brand. An average day? ‘We wake up, have a breakfast. First model arrives and we shoot, second model arrives and we shoot. Then we have lunch and I sit down to edit the rest of the day. Or errands, depending on the day.’ Greener on the other side for sure.
What’s even more impressive about Tang’s growing success and profile is that he appears to have kept firmly grounded and maintained a good work life balance. In his own words, he is ‘just a regular person that appreciates women and imagery a lot’ and whilst the Ohrangutang brand takes its inspiration from a time where ‘my uncles used to call me and my other cousins Orangu just to mess with us,’ Tang is keen to stress that Ohrangutang is more than just a Mike Tang project. Ohrangutang is ‘practically a family run company’ in which Tang works with his wife Cristina Pilo, her sister Valentina and Valentina’s husband Cesar. Tang’s assistant Jelly is ‘the only person that has been with me from the beginning.’
Tang is also quick to point out that his wife, Cristina Pilo ‘is the key to the team.’ The two met and worked together for a short period of time before establishing the beginnings of what would turn out be a successful personal and business relationship. Things weren’t so obvious at the start though. At the time, Pilo explains that she was ‘just looking to build a portfolio and make some money before moving away. He (Tang) was the first to call it and it freaked me out a little bit. But he was right and we ended up getting married like he said.’
A short time into their relationship Pilo relocated to Spain for a year, leaving Tang to work with other hair and makeup artists. Pilo also broadened her portfolio, working with other artists and production companies but she explains that ‘Ohrangutang is our company and we both work full time to make it what it is today.’
Before Ohrangutang’s inception, Tang worked as a graphic designer and web developer. ‘I got the opportunity to get my own camera and started doing it professionally. There was a point where I was frustrated with work and was only doing it for money, so me and my wife decided to create this project (Ohrangutang) where basically we were going to be able to focus on the work we like.’
Its clear that the teamwork and the dynamic between Tang and Pilo is the cornerstone of Ohrangutang’s success. Both have creative input when trying to achieve a look for a particular model and as Pilo explains ‘Mike definitely has a specific style and I work to make his vision come to life, but I have my own vision. The challenge is to achieve both. It has taken us a few years, but I think we are pretty in sync right now.’
Whilst more reserved than his partner, Tang exudes a quiet confidence that has been one of the key drivers behind Ohrangutang’s success. One might assume that as a new photographer, Tang would struggle to find subjects for his shoots but ‘thankfully I’ve always been surrounded by women, so I started shooting them and their friends.’ Far from recruiting models being a challenge, for Tang, ‘the biggest challenge for me was actually discovering my true self, since I come from a Latin background and a very conservative society.’
Perhaps it is no surprise that Tang is so self-assured. By his own admission, he comes from a ‘dysfunctional family. My mum wasn’t around when I was growing up and my Dad was always busy so I spent a lot of time by myself.’ This imposed self-reliance and independence from such a young age has clearly set Tang in good stead. Nowadays he describes himself as a ‘very confident person and I always believe whatever I set out to do I am going to achieve.’
Pilo’s personal and professional background contrasts starkly with her husband’s. ‘As a girl and teenager I was always into makeup, but it never occurred to me that it could be my career. I come from a country where you have to go to college no matter what you end up doing.’ Pilo’s mother was the one who suggested the pursuit of a more creative career but by her own admission Pilo felt the need to prove to herself that she was able to graduate. Following this, she found herself in an all-too-familiar scenario, working in a job that she had little passion for. ‘I was working as a Human Resources Analyst for DHL and hated being in the office all day and that’s when I started considering makeup as a full-time career.’ Her mother signed her up for a makeup class and Pilo ‘loved it so much.’
Success came with many challenges for Pilo. Not only was she entering a highly competitive and saturated market, but she ‘started younger but also looked younger, so it was hard for people to trust me. The language was definitely a barrier when I started in the American market.’ Whereas Tang’s ambitions were single minded, Pilo is more pragmatic. ‘If I wasn’t doing makeup I would love to do interior design or acting. And if I had a tiny bit of rhythm, I would love to be a dancer.’ Given the notoriously competitive nature of hair and makeup, Pilo tries to differentiate herself by continuously trying to improve her skills. ‘I concentrate on getting better. I keep the focus on me and no-one else. If I get better every day, I’ll be more competitive in the market.’
Pilo’s work has been influenced heavily by the work of Dany Sanz, creator and artistic director of Makeup Forever. ‘She (Sanz) is not only an amazing makeup artist, but her vision is what put the brand where it is today.’ Like Sanz, Pilo is quite clear that the pair work to improve the profile of Ohrangutang without losing sight of their reason for work. ‘Everything we are doing, all the work we do is to be able to help everyone around us.’
Tang’s description of his average day is deceptively blasé. It is patently clear that the pair, together with the rest of the Ohrangutang team, work relentlessly and tirelessly to increase the presence of the brand. By his own admission, Tang is ‘always exhausted but happy to be creating. Even when I’m not working my mind never stops.’ Whilst the business may lead the pair to work in exotic destinations, the last time Pilo remembers them ‘travelling for pleasure only was in 2012 when we went on a cruise after our honeymoon – one year after we got married. But ever since the Ohrangutang project started we don’t have a lot of time, so we travel and work. We usually take a few days off but then we go straight to work.’
Michael Tang really is a man just doing what he loves with the people he loves. At present, the team are working on OhrangutangTV which in the very near future will act as a hub for all of Ohrangutang’s ventures. In the past, the team developed limited runs of projects entitled The Conservatives and Ryder Colors. Whilst each profiled Tang’s artistic and photographic talents and Pilo’s makeup artistry, Tang is clear that ‘there is no specific vision, we just enjoy the road. We like to build short term goals.’ This attitude might seem counter-intuitive to many in the business world who subscribe to the ‘think long-term only’ doctrine but Tang has used it to great success, amassing a following of over 2 million on Instagram and cementing his reputation as one of the most sought-after photographers in the industry.
One of Tang’s long term goals is to make films. There are several online examples of Ohrangutang branching out into producing short films but for now Tang continues to keep his focus on the short term goals and remains pre-occupied with the launch and development of OhrangutangTV.
Another factor that underpins the success of Ohrangutang is the exposure that social media can bring. Whilst others may see this as a burden, increasing competition and potentially diverting audiences, Pilo is more optimistic. ‘For me, social media is a blessing, you have access to virtually everyone. You can reach out to brands that were only a name before and now they answer you back on a post. Artists that were once unreachable now share their life on social media. Yes, there is more competition, but that means you learn more and faster and that makes you a better professional.’
Tang agrees. The growth on social media has only served to increase Ohrangutang’s competitive advantage. ‘Thanks to the exposure that we have, the models come to us. When I have the need to shoot someone, thanks to social media I have the opportunity to ask them. If they don’t reply I guess they don’t want to shoot.’ Rejection doesn’t deter Tang, who only continues to see the positives in any situation. ‘I get very motivated every time someone says so, so every no means I’m growing.’ Whilst Ohrangutang are likely to be inundated with offers from prospective models, Tang is also flexible with whom he works. ‘We don’t have time to be picky or to plan too much. We go with the flow with each model, the priority for us is that we all have fun.’ It is this open-mindedness that is further testament to Tang’s photographic talent and his ability to turn individuals of all shapes and sizes into works of art through the camera lens.
Alongside OhrangutangTV, Pilo is also working on her YouTube channel which to date has 9 video uploads. Watching each clip clearly shows her intent to stay firmly away from launching a hair and makeup tutorial channel. Instead, ‘I want to show the behind the scenes, what it takes to achieve a look, what my life and our life together is like. The travels, the hard times and the good times. We have a lot of fun doing what we do but also work our behinds off and I want to show that.’ Like all work associated with Ohrangutang, there is an artistry to each upload. Watching immerses the viewer into a day in the life of those who work at Ohrangutang. Tang may have come from a dysfunctional family but watching the uploads shows that Ohrangutang have something that a thriving business cannot put a price on – family spirit.
Critics of their work would suggest that Ohrangutang’s work does little to empower women, instead objectifying them and reducing their value to aesthetics only, but this argument oversimplifies their work. Its true that the key focus of Ohrangutang’s work is photographing beautiful women in beautiful locations, but the team bring a level of artistry to their work that many have tried and failed to achieve.
To add to this, Pilo is acutely aware of the challenges that women in her industry face. ‘We still live in a society where men are supposedly better than women and a lot of women would rather have a male makeup artist.’ Her opinion however, isn’t just restricted to the viewpoint of the make up artist. Pilo is also able to view life from the opposite side of the lens and sees a positive shift in the diversity of body-types being represented in fashion media. ‘Thanks to social media, there are a lot of ‘different’ types of models making a statement. I was never tall and skinny and I never felt represented in any magazine, now there are a lot of girls like me succeeding in the industry and that makes me super proud.’
Outside of work, Tang cites MMA as one of his main passions and Conor McGregor as one of the three figures past and present who he’d like to photograph – the other two being Michael Jackson and Zoey Deschanel. Pressed about whether McGregor could overturn Mayweather, Tang is quite clear. ‘Yes, his(McGregor’s) self-belief is bigger than how much better Mayweather is than McGregor at boxing.’
That one statement is enough to sum up the attitude of Tang, Pilo and the Ohrangutang team. So much of their appeal is that whilst they continue to grow successful as both individuals and a team, they both maintain the humble and hungry attitude that was first fostered in Venezuela and Miami. From any perspective, Ohrangutang has grown to be one of the most influential and well known photography teams on Instagram and social media but as Tang puts it, ‘I’m not huge at all, it’s just a perception. Our work gets a lot of exposure and we appreciate that, since that’s the way we make our living.’ The modest, honest attitude is one both he and Pilo share and are also keen to impress upon all of those whom they work with. For Pilo, a good make-up artist is not just a talented one but also ‘someone who is on time, fast, has work ethics and some experience.’ By Pilo’s own admission, she is ‘almost never 100% happy with my work and even Tang is happy to admit that he ‘hasn’t found the perfect location yet.’ This constant reflection and insight only serves to add to Ohrangutang’s self-improvement which has served the company so well up to this point.
Tang and Pilo are a living example of the successful immigrant story. Both hail from Venezuela, relocated to America and run a successful business in a competitive industry that takes them around the world. Pilo draws reference from her homeland when talking about the current turbulent political atmosphere in the US. ‘We come from a political mess. Venezuela is completely divided thanks to our former and current presidents. For us it is very scary to see what Donald Trump is doing and the way he is dividing America.’ Based in Miami, the pair feel the effects of the ‘Divide and Conquer’ rhetoric less so than in other states but nonetheless are aware of the current political climate. ‘Fortunately in Miami we don’t feel the impact as much as in other regions, but we read it in the news all the time and it is disturbing.’
Disturbing as it may be, the two continue to meander through their careers taking each day as it comes and looking for positives from each experience. ‘I have no regrets, I am thankful for every experience that I have had,’ says Tang.
Where will they be in 10 years? For someone with short term goals like Tang, the answer is somewhat predictable. ‘Ohrangutang, I don’t know, but Michael Tang hopefully directing movies.’ As for Pilo? ‘I’ll be working, as much or more than today. I’ll probably have more rescue dogs and a bigger yard. But I’ll be working on something fun and creative.’ Whilst their ambitions may be modest, it is clear that this Ohrangutang is thriving in the jungle.
You can check out Mike Tang and Cristina Pilo via Instagram @ Ohrangutang or @ cristinapilo
Find OhrangutangTV on Instagram @ohrangutangtv
Alternatively check out the websites :
Our thanks go to Mike Tang and Cristina Pilo for making this interview happen
Image reproduced with permission from Mike Tang and Cristina Pilo