Through his own lens: Albert Garcia gets up close with Pinatubo, Taal

Bonz Magsambol

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Through his own lens: Albert Garcia gets up close with Pinatubo, Taal
Rappler talks to award-winning photojournalist Albert Garcia about covering the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo and Taal Volcano

MANILA, Philippines – It wasn’t a lucky shot.

When he covered the eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 15, 1991, photojournalist Albert Garcia badly wanted his photos to be remarkable and to end up somewhere. 

He wasn’t disappointed.

That photo of the cataclysmic eruption taken while he was at the back of a pickup truck driving at breakneck speed away from the explosion won first place in the 1992 World Press Photo Competition in Amsterdam. It was also hailed by the National Geographic and Time Magazine as among the greatest of all time. 

But beyond the iconic photo, Garcia shared with Rappler his experience covering the eruptions of Mount Pinatubo in Zambales and Taal Volcano in Batangas. 

While both eruptions happened in the afternoon, people in Batangas were calmer than the people in Zambales, according to Garcia. 

“I sensed more fear in people when Pinatubo erupted. Unlike in Taal, I didn’t quite feel it. Maybe because they are more familiar with the area. Hours after Pinatubo erupted, you can see that people were anxious and afraid,” Garcia said.  

Fast information is crucial

Garcia said that unlike the Pinatubo eruption, people knew what to do when Taal Volcano started erupting on Sunday afternoon, January 12. They were tuned in to the blow-by-blow updates of news organizations on social media about the situation in Taal.  That information enabled them to safely evacuate from the island. (READ: Two-time Taal eruption survivor: Access to information saved lives in 2020)

“People get information faster now. Unlike in Pinatubo, there was no Facebook, no Twitter. People can easily gather information now. Maybe Facebook – social media – is a big factor,” Garcia said. 

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) had been monitoring Taal Volcano since it began erupting. Phivolcs uses two networks to monitor volcanic earthquakes – the Philippine Seismic Network which covers the whole country, and the Taal Volcano Network, which includes small earthquakes undetected by the former. (READ: LIST: Where to get official, reliable info on Taal Volcano eruption)

Garcia said scant information during the Pinatubo eruption nearly 3 decades ago was a problem at that time. “We just relied on the radio and the newspaper. The flow of information during that time was so slow. We had to rely on Phivolcs for updates,” Garcia said.

People were anxious and scared when pyroclastic materials hurtled into the air towards them. “Everybody screamed because ashfall was approaching us,” he recalled.

According to Phivolcs, Mount Pinatubo ejected an eruption column 40 kilometers above its crater. The volcano then started ejecting volcanic materials such as ashes, lava, and rocks. Earthquakes and steam explosions were also felt.

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo was considered the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. (READ: Looking back: When Mount Pinatubo blew its top)

The danger of social media

Not doubt social media has provided quick information during disasters, enabling people to plan their actions. However, the sheer volume of content on the platforms makes it difficult for some to determine what is or is not factual information. (READ: FACT CHECK: False alerts, warnings over Taal Volcano eruption)

Garcia said there is a danger when people believe everything they see online.“Fears worsen because of disinformation,” he said.

“People feared the wrong information they saw online, and they also feared the right information,” he continued. 

Call of duty

Garcia recalled what was going through his head when super hot pyroclastic materials spewed by Mount Pinatubo flew towards them, forcing him and other journalists to evacuate the vicinity of the raging volcano.  

“During that time, I prayed. I hoped that it wasn’t my time yet, because my children were still young. Just give me one beautiful shot. Just one shot,” he said.

Later, he recalled how relieved he was when he looked at his photo and saw how beautiful it was. “I was happy because it was beautiful. I saw how big the cloud was – its sheer enormousness,” Garcia said.

While he feared for his safety as he covered disasters, Garcia would always be reminded of the importance of his profession.

“I want to tell stories through photos. I went there to do what I want to do – to take beautiful photos and tell stories,” Garcia said. –

*Video by Franz Lopez

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.