The photographers of Luneta

Katerina Francisco
The digital camera may have simplified the process, but the task of composition and technical perfection is still a trade secret

MANILA, Philippines – Jose Rizal in black and white, in sepia, in full-color. For many Filipinos, the image of the martyred doctor is forever immortalized in the background of one of Manila’s famed tourist spots: Luneta Park.

Time has been kind to this Manila landmark; throughout the course of history, it has never quite lost its crowd-drawing power. Generations of Filipinos have passed by Rizal’s monument, and the passage of time has brought with it new ways of thinking and new technology.

RIZAL MONUMENT. National hero Jose Rizal has watched over Rizal Park for decades. Photo by Katerina Francisco

On sunny days, Rizal Park is at its prettiest: tall trees border the edges of the park, and the lush green grass near the monument perfectly complements the bright blue of the sky. The wide open space attracts a flock of pigeons, to the delight of the little kids chasing them around the fountain.

Luneta remains a favorite haunt for lovers, truant high-schoolers, and families gathering together for a casual picnic. It still is a tourist draw too; foreigners ride the brightly-colored train and horse-drawn carriages going round the area, or stop by for a snack in one of the park’s food stalls. There is always an abundance of barkadas doing jump shots in front of the park’s perpetual model, Jose Rizal.

While Rizal may have stood still high atop his perch, both time and technology have caught up, pulling the park onto the edges of change.

Nostalgia has a way of romanticizing the past, and this is true for veteran Luneta Park photographer Jose Islao Jr. The 64-year-old has called Luneta his home and his workplace, and he has seen its transformation through the decades—mostly through the lenses of his camera.

Islao has been shooting in the park for the past 30 years. In some ways, nothing much has changed. “Ang nagbago lang dito ’yung management,” he says. “Nagkaroon ng privatized na kalesa at tren para sa mga turista. Pinagbawalan na rin na maglatag sa damo. Nagkaroon na ng mga tindahan. Pero dinadayo pa rin ng tao.” (The only thing that changed was management. There are now privatized calesas and trains for tourists. Laying on the grass has become prohibited. Stores have been set up. But people still come.)

TOURIST DRAW. Rizal Park has new features to attract visitors. Photo by Katerina Francisco

The park’s fountain and flower clock are still intact, although Islao says they used to be well maintained before. “Dati, mas madalas ’yung fountain show. Ngayon, dalawang beses na lang,” he says. “’Yung flower clock naman, mas maganda ’yan dati, may ilaw at numero pa.” (Before, the fountain shows were more frequent unlike today when they just have it twice. The flower clock was prettier before, it had lights and numbers.)

Different era

But the biggest game changer is the medium which has captured the park’s images through time. Photographers like Islao have made it their living to take pictures of countless tourists, relying on their equipment and skill to earn them the day’s wage.

But the leap from film to digital photography has shaken up what used to be a prohibitive profession, and to survive, the photographers who immortalize Rizal’s image must themselves learn how to adapt to the demands of a changing time.

OLD AND NEW. Nestor Arcenio sees the shift from film to digital. Photo by Katerina FranciscoNestor Arcenio is multi-tasking: he answers my questions while his eyes scan the surroundings. He looks calm but alert: every time a group of tourists pass by, he would instantly hold up several sample photos and offer his services. They would either ignore him or wave him off casually. Once they are gone, only then would he return to my questions.

It’s not difficult to explain his nonchalance; this has, after all, been his everyday job for the past 27 years, and every minute he spends here is a minute into his working hours. It’s important that he maximize his time: if he doesn’t approach people, he wouldn’t earn.

Kailangan magaling kang kumausap ng tao,” he says. “Bahagi na ’yan ng trabaho namin.” (You have to be good conversing with people. It was part of our job.)

But it hadn’t always been this way. Islao recalls the ’80s as the ‘golden age’ for the Luneta photographers. Sepia and black and white were all the rage, and photographers made a killing just by being equipped with a camera and access to a developing laboratory.

GOLDEN AGE. Jose Islao Jr was witness to the golden age of photographers in Rizal Park. Photo by Katerina Francisco

Hindi mo na kailangang mang-alok sa mga tao,” Islao says. “Madali pang kumita noon, ‘yung mga turista mismo ang lalapit sa iyo. Matakaw sila sa mga litrato.” (You didn’t need to make offers to people. It was easier to make a living then when tourists approached us. They were hungry for pictures.)

They were in demand. Student field trips were always celebrated occasions, because it almost always meant sure income for the photographers. They were even sought out by clients to cover baptisms and special events, or hired for a specific amount of time to take photos from different areas of the park. All they needed to do was stand there and offer their services as photographers and nothing more.

Now, however, they had to be both photographers and their own marketing agents. “Kailangan mo nang magpawis ngayon,” Islao says. “Kailangan mong mag-sales talk, ikaw na ang lalapit sa mga tao.” (Today, we have to sweat it out. We need to do sales pitches, we need to approach people.)

Going digital

He attributes this to the change in technology. To get into the business, one would need at least P5,000 for a secondhand camera and enough to invest in rolls of film, making photography a prohibitive profession. Equipment, too, was not enough—film cameras required a degree of knowledge about technical specifications and calculations for a photo to turn out right, and this had to be learned and perfected from experience.

It was also common for photographers to know how to develop their own pictures. Islao spreads out his hands: they are wrinkled and dotted with skin lesions, effects of the chemicals they used to develop the negatives. “Halos lahat kami dito, ganito ang mga kamay (Almost all of us here have hands like these),” he tells me.

Nagmumukha kaming may leprosy, pero pinapakita rin nito na marunong kaming mag-develop ng sarili naming litrato.” (We look as if we have leprosy but this just goes to show that we know how to develop our own pictures.)

LUNETA VISITORS. They come in streams to pay a visit to national hero Jose Rizal. Photo by Katerina Francisco

These days, it doesn’t take specialized equipment or formal training to take photos. The popularity and affordability of digital cameras—from the camera phones to the more high-end single-lens reflex cameras—have made it possible for tourists to be their own photographers. The digital camera market has already driven film out of the business, and for the Luneta photographers, the change in medium is translating into a change in their business.

Some photography purists might decry the decline of film photography, but for Arcenio, whatever brings food to his family’s table is what he’ll take. He and his wife Eden, who also does photography in the park, have raised their family this way, offering their services to tourists for P50 for two copies of a photograph. They earn around P500 to P1,000 a day.

Lahat kami rito, gumagamit na ng digital [camera]. Ang gusto ng tao dito ’yung mabilis,” Arcenio says. (All of us here use digital cameras. People here want speed.) It takes around 20 minutes for film to develop, while digital printing takes significantly less.

He adds that only four or five members of their Luneta photographers’ association are still using film. A look around the park seems to confirm this: gone are the bulky bags that hint at film cameras. In their stead are the small and cheaper digital cameras, with some photographers sporting their own SLRs. Arcenio himself uses a small Panasonic camera while his wife uses a Nikon.

But the shift to digital has only been quite recent for the Luneta photographers. Digital cameras have only been in use for close to 2 years.

It takes skill

Despite this shift, Arcenio believes that it does not take responsibility and craftsmanship off the photographer. Anyone can take a snapshot of the Rizal monument, but not everyone can do it perfectly with the right exposure and other technical settings.

For him, the digital camera may have simplified the process with its built-in settings, but the creative task of composition and technical perfection is still a trade secret that has to be learned from experience.

Iba pa rin ang alam naming marunong ng photography,” he says. “[Kapag sa gabi], mahirap makuha nang tamang exposure, ’yung monument na hindi gumagamit ng flash. Kami, kaya namin iyon.” (Knowing photography makes a difference. At night, it’s hard to get the right exposure for the monument without using flash.)

For Arcenio, his work is just like selling any other item. Sell your skill well enough and you’ll get a steady supply of customers.

May mga suki ako,” he says. “Babalik-balikan ka kapag magaling kang kumuha ng litrato.” (I have regular customers. They will keep coming back to you if you’re a good photographer.)

Film preferred

But if the tables were turned—if he were the tourist instead of the photographer—Islao would rather have his photos taken on film. Film, he says, will always have that feel of semi-permanence that digital photographs don’t quite possess.

Matagal masira ang film,” he says. “Kemikal talaga ang nagluluto. Sa digital, parang Xerox lang ’yan, mabasa lang, sira na.” (Film photos are more resilient because chemicals are used. Digital photos are like Xerox copies that get damaged when wet.)

On rare occasions, he’d even have customers who request to have their photos taken with Islao’s old Pentax camera. He recounts an instance where his American customer insisted on film as he was pulling out the digital camera.

“He showed me his camera. He said, ‘I have two digital cameras, look, 2 cameras. I want film.’ I said, ‘Film is 30 minutes developing time, but digital is only 15 minutes.’ But he insisted,” Islao said in a mix of Filipino and English.

This had happened before the photographers’ final and total shift to digital cameras. No one uses film now, with the last blow to the film camera being the closing down of the film-developing lab near the park.

BEYOND TIME. Luneta photographers will never be a dying breed. Photo by Katerina Francisco

Digital wins

Both Arcenio and Islao treat their photography business as just that—work. Whatever helps to earn them their day’s salary is what they’ll take, and right now, digital has won over film.

“I really prefer digital,” Arcenio says in Filipino. “It’s preferred by people.”

Islao, on his part, thinks it’s all a matter of adapting to the changing needs of time. “Bahagi na ako ng kasaysayan dito,” he says. “Kailangang magtrabaho, kaya kailangang makibagay.” (I’m part of history here. I need to work, I need to adapt.)

The Luneta photographers are not a dying breed. Time will continue to test them, and for as long as they learn how to keep adapting, the monument of Jose Rizal will continue to bear witness to change. –

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