Luis Liwanag: Photojournalism as passion

by | Feb 1, 2011 | Alumni

By R. Kwan Laurel

Luis Liwanag (Liwanag means bright light, which is a perfect surname for a photographer) just finished with the Konrad Adenauer’s Asian Center For Journalism (ACFJ) two years ago.  Today the 50-year-old veteran photojournalist credits the Center (which is celebrating its 10th-year this June) for teaching him visual literacy and the history of photography. Not having finished college when he had shifted from Geology at the University of the Philippines (Baguio) to Fine Arts at the University of the East, he grabbed  the opportunity to get some formal education at the Ateneo de Manila University. It was never an issue for him that he was already an experienced photojournalist. He just wanted to learn, and the online system of the ACFJ provided that avenue. It was, for him, a worthwhile experience.

Asked what he considers the most important things a photojournalist must know, he said there were only two essential you must-knows if you wanted to shoot as a passion and/or profession: One, know your camera. Play with it. Shoot with it. Every day. See its possibilities. Two, know the ethics of the profession. It is now demanded of photojournalist, anywhere he goes to shoot, to work, to publish, that he knows the do’s and don’ts. To know the ethics is easy, according to him. There is google where the stuff can easily be found as to what is the international standard today. Gone are the days  when he would see photojournalists re-insert a knife at a murdered victim, or place a photojournalist-supplied rosary beside a cadaver, for dramatic and commercial purposes. That is his only golden rule to his photographers: never even touch the scene. “The photographer can and should move around to capture a good photograph, but he should not move around anything in the scene.”

He himself regretted an incident in his days as a young photographer. Arriving late in a crime scene where a hostage-taking had just happened, he and other journalists asked bystanders to recount what had happened. Men hanging around the area, with nothing better to do, started performing their account of the incident. The acting was good enough, the way Liwanag described it, for these people to receive an Oscar Award from Robert De Niro. Liwanag, together with other photojournalists, started taking pictures. Back in the newsroom, he was asked to produce a photo of the incident: editors, never being receptive to excuses and sob stories from delinquent photojournalists who could not deliver the goods, the young Liwanag showed the photo of the staged hostage-taking incident. He did say that it was not the actual incident, but the editors were in no mood to debate the ethics of the photograph. The next day the photograph appeared in the paper. The caption explained that it was not the actual incident, which Liwanag had insisted to be included with the photo, but as far as he was concerned, hardly anybody read captions. “That photo,” he said,  “should not have come out in the first place.”

Looking back, Liwanag couldn’t remember a time in his boyhood when a camera did not play a role in his life. Ice cream vendors who went around their town also doubled as portrait photographers, and his parents always had their photos taken over the years. When they had saved enough, his parents got a Kodak 76X as his first camera, and his ambition then was to move up to a Pentax. His father was a big reader, and they always had Life Magazine at home.  And his father, being a resident artist for an advertising agency, Liwanag  early in life knew the importance of visual communication. So even if at 17 years old he was already supporting himself with photography, his father having fallen sick at that time, he was still tempted later on to become an animator, which he did successfully, even staying in the United States for six years because of this. He started with the Smurfs and the Flintstones, and, proudly, he “graduated” (his term) with the Simpsons. But in the United States, he would see Filipino photographers in the ABS-CBN’s the Filipino Channel, and he would long for the friendships, excitement, freedom, and fulfillment given by photojournalism. Instead of applying for a U.S. citizenship, he kept buying equipment, getting ready to come back to Manila and pursue his love for the camera.

But when asked what were now his goals for himself, he did not seem certain what he wanted: there were the awards, of course, and he still hoped to win some of them, but they were not essential to his life. As the photography chief of the Manila bureau of Xinhua News Agency, he has had fewer chances of going out to shoot with a camera, because he has to take care of the company, its stringers (“You have to give out assignments to sustain your stringers, you cannot just keep taking all the assignments, or you won’t be doing your job for the company as the chief of photography.”), and the overall administrative duties of being a part of China’s state media giant. His old Leica (the legendary Leica of the Henri Cartier-Bresson variety), the ultimate camera and brand for the film generation, was still hanging around his neck, although it looked more like an amulet of nostalgia rather than an equipment for shooting.

During the interview, while waiting for the canvassing for the 2010 elections to begin in Congress, he moved around with a television camera, batteries, microphones, and everything else you need to get something juiced out of a television screen. These were now his regular companions. For himself, aside from the Leica, he also brought a water bottle to keep him going.

People say video is the future. As much as he appreciates its power to tell a story, he also gets bored steadily holding the video camera as it keeps its steady and monotonous focus. His glaucoma is limiting him as a photographer, and he thinks because of this,  fewer opportunities will come to him. This year he was hoping to have an exhibit, to celebrate his 50th year, but he lost the bulk of his photographs to Ondoy. But he remains optimistic, in spite of having fewer chances of shooting: life is about constant renewal, he said. After the interview, I cannot not shake off the image of this man, whose passion is photography, in need of water to keep his body going, and an old Leica around his neck, to keep himself dreaming.

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