Shooting a revolution

Gil Nartea
Photographs are not just evidence but an interpretation of the world

MANILA, Philippines – The New People’s Army (NPA) turns 43 today, March 29. At its peak in the mid-1980s, I was allowed entry in the guerilla zone. I stayed in the countryside for several months at a time to document in photos the daily lives of the cadres and their mass base.

The experience proved a belief that I still hold true today: photographs are not just evidence, or a record, but an interpretation of the world.
From a small number of red fighters and a mass base of peasants and workers from Central Luzon in 1969, the NPA grew to 25,000-strong nationwide under the Marcos dictatorship. It was a very critical point in NPA history – when the victory of the revolution seemed surer than ever.

For a photojournalist, it was a time to make sure that the revolution will be photographed, to paraphrase that popular poem.  

I would go up the densely forested areas of the mountains several times, armed with 2 Olympus film cameras, roaming the red areas of the NPA, the small isolated barrios uphill, where basic social services are non-existent and government military troops, doctors and school teachers are rarely seen.

Barrio folks would serve rice coffee whenever we passed by their huts, no cream and sugar, but sometimes with sweet camote and bananas. During meal times, 6 to 20 people would share one can of sardines, maximized by cooking it with a potful of leafy vegetables. The beauty of this meal is having a plate full of rice, and no matter how I decline, I am always given the biggest serving of sardines.

Most of the time, the barrio folks served as our intelligence unit. They would act as couriers for the fast delivery of communiqué to the next camp. Battery-operated two-way radio was not possible then due to lack of double A batteries.

During the day, we would patrol the controlled areas in the mountains, visit different barrios, talk to the people, set up medical missions, try to help find solutions to local problems such as cattle rustling and family feuds, and still have time to play volleyball and mini-billiards.  

One of the most unforgettable experiences is witnessing a guerilla ambush on a military truck. But the photos from that encounter are not included in this series. The images here show the red fighters in their ordinary, day-to day tasks.

I consider it a worthy time doing photo documentaries for these people, with my family waiting and praying for my safety. When it’s time to leave, I would also leave behind my belongings that could be of use to the people in the countryside.

I would go home empty-handed, except for bundles of black and white negative rolls, capturing ordinary people in an extraordinary time in our history. –
(The author is a veteran photojournalist who is now one of the official photographers of President Benigno Aquino III)

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