The rewards and heartaches of photojournalism: Life behind the lens

By Mike Perez

FLASH REPORT! Tatlo patay…” an announcer blurts out from an AM radio. It’s 8:30 a.m.
Everyone pauses. Their attention is drawn to the radio the way that bits of steel are drawn to a magnet. Conversations stop as they wait for the next words of the announcer.
Someone turns up the radio’s volume. They stop sipping their coffee. Sleepy heads are suddenly awake.
“Flash report! Tatlo patay sa engkuwentro sa Mindanao. (Three dead in Mindanao encounter.)”
With that, the adrenalin rush is suddenly gone. They can’t go to Mindanao; they’re in Quezon City. Everybody goes back to his seat. Back to his coffee.  Back to the interrupted conversation.
Jay Jalbuna, the spunky news photographer of Abante, holds his SLR digital camera and sighs, “Too bad. Three dead. That would have been a banner photo.”

The life
Mornings at the Central Police District in Kamuning, Quezon City, one would find photographers waiting for the news. There is an air-conditioned press office where they can hang out but most of them prefer to sit on a long bench just outside the door.  That way, it’s easier for them to get up and go at the first sign of a breaking story. The heat doesn’t matter; they’re used to that.
On a slow day, they swap stories—stories of their lives.
“Being a news photographer is tough. But it’s also nice,” says Penny Pineda who, at 59, is the oldest in the group.  “Nice because it’s exciting. Something different happens everyday. You don’t get bored.  But it’s tough because you’ll never get rich in this job.”
He adds, “Sometimes we eat a lot; that’s because there are many presscons. Sometimes, we go hungry and that’s because there is no presscon.”
Everybody laughs.

The job
For three decades and six years, Ka Penny has been working as a photojournalist. He has been hit by stones thrown by demonstrators and by truncheons swung by anti-riot policemen. He has inhaled teargas.  He has been punched. Kicked. Sometimes, he looks for trouble. At other times, trouble finds him.
“Getting elbowed is part of the job. We all want to have the best angle,” he says, referring to the fisticuffs that sometimes happen among photographers while positioning themselves during coverage.
Every strand of silver in his hair represents a story he has covered as a photojournalist.
The year was 1989, the administration of Cory Aquino, the time of military coups. Military rebels led by Gringo Honasan attacked Camp Aguinaldo. Bombs were dropped on the camp. There were fears of a civil war.
“At that time, I didn’t know if I’d come out alive,” says Ka Penny. “There’d be gunshots from nowhere and a soldier would suddenly fall. It was total chaos.”
That coup attempt, as well as the others that followed it, failed. Through it all, Ka Penny was in the thick of the action.
Presidents came and went. Ka Penny kept clicking his camera. He was there when policemen were ambushed, when car thieves were caught, when holdup men were arrested. He spent more time on the streets than he did at home. Wherever there was trouble, Ka Penny was there.
“The ghastlier the event, the better,” he says, adding, “It makes for good pictures.”

Shrinking balls
“Oh, yes, he’s brave,” agrees Boy Santos, photographer for The Philippine Star. “I’m brave, too. I’ve got balls, but they shrink sometimes,” he adds.
Everyone laughs again.
Boy is referring to the time when he covered an encounter between soldiers and rebels in Pandi, Bulacan. That was in 2004, the month of the anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (NPA).
The military learned of the NPA plan to attack certain places.  The soldiers tried to outwit the rebels by raiding the latter’s safehouses. A gun battle followed. Casualties were high on both sides. A high-ranking military official was among those killed.
“We could hear the bullets whizzing past us. We (photographers) were lucky not to get hit,” Boy says.
He remembers that incident very well because he was wearing white. He was supposed to cover a formal event but when the encounter broke out, he had to change plans.
“The news over the radio said the military was conducting clean-up operations already. We didn’t know that fighting was still going on,” he says.
He and other photographers also had the misfortune of hitching a ride with the soldiers, not knowing that the vehicle would be used to rescue a wounded military officer. Not surprisingly, the vehicle became the target of rebel gunfire.
Boy could not forget the sight of a wounded soldier gasping for life. He was begging for help but no one could do anything.
“I had lunch with some of those soldiers. By afternoon, they were dead,” he says.
In the middle of the fighting, he remembered praying and telling himself, “I don’t want to die just yet. My children are too young.”

No money
Photojournalists risk their lives everyday just to get the best pictures. But rewards are few and far between.
Ka Penny mockingly scolds his colleagues, “You keep complaining that you don’t have jobs. When you get a job, you complain that you’re not getting paid!”
Everyone laughs. Laughter is a balm for pain.
Andy Labor is a photographer for a broadsheet. He has been working there for the past four years but  has yet to receive a salary.
“The office doesn’t care. They just promised to give me a job, not a salary,” he says.
And so he learned to be resourceful. He sold some of his properties in the province so he could buy a brand-new SLR digital camera, lenses, and other accessories, all of which added up to the price of a car.
Yet, despite the uncaring attitude of his employer, Andy persists in trying to become the best photographer he could ever be. Never mind if the stomach grumbles, as long as he can click his camera.
“When my editor assigns me to a coverage but doesn’t even give me money for my transport fare, I’m dead!” he says.  He scratches his head as he says, “Whenever I see that I’m running out of rice, I wonder…what will I do next?”

No honey
Money is not the only problem for news photo-graphers.  Having—or not having—a love life is another.
“My girlfriend would always ask me to spend more time with her. So one day, we went on a date,” says Dennis Marco.
He was driving his car when his editor called him.
“It was a big story,” Dennis says— a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story.
So what did he choose? His date or his assignment?
“I told my girlfriend to get off the vehicle,” he says. “I told her she can get angry all she wants but I have to go.”
Having made his heroic choice, Dennis proceeded to get the story. Half-way to his destination, the editor called again.  It was a bum steer.  There was no story.
“Bad trip talaga! I didn’t know how to get my girlfriend back. She was so angry. I left her in the middle of a date!” he says.
Somehow, Dennis’s girlfriend found it in her heart to forgive him. In fact, she married him.
“But she hasn’t gotten used to my job,” he says, explaining, “I still don’t have time for her. When I do get home, I don’t have money, too. Now, that hurts.”

Other heartaches
Ka Penny has had three heart surgeries, very likely because of his fast-paced, highly competitive job.
“I’ve been jobless many times. In the times when I had a job, I occasionally didn’t get paid,” says Ka Penny, turning serious as he adds, “But I have no regrets.”
He explains, “Life is hard, money is tight, but I am happy.”
“I get disappointed a lot but that is life’s challenge. One has to keep trying to find fulfillment. When I see my photograph on the front page, especially when it is used as a banner photo, I do not feel tired anymore,” he says.
Jay says, “Even if I smell of sweat all the time, it’s okay. I wouldn’t exchange this life for a boring, regular job. I am happy here.”
“Flash report!” shouts an announcer over the radio. Everyone stops to listen. Outside, the sun is hot. Traffic is at a standstill at EDSA.
“Flash report! Isang lalaki in-ambush sa Commonwealth, Quezon City (Man ambushed in Quezon City),” the announcer says.
Now, that’s a story. The photographers grab their cameras and run to their vehicles. Those who don’t have a means of transportation would hitch a ride with those who do.
When they come back, they will bring photographs. They will bring back images of life in their cameras.

Mike Perez started out as a reporter. He became a news photographer for the defunct Pinoy Times, Today, and The Manila Times. He now works for Abante.

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