Starweek Magazine

Sleepwalking with a camera

Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It is easy to imagine that at 70, veteran photographer Sonny Yabao, the only one revered by younger generations of photographers as the “master,” has seen it all and has slowed down.

But that’s not quite what’s happening. On the contrary, Yabao refuses to put down his camera. To stop is to no longer see the world around him, to shut one’s eyes or to cease to breathe, says the man who continues to capture everyday life as it happens, when it happens.

At the same time, Yabao, at his age, now has the luxury of retrospection – to look back at years and years of treading what he calls the strange and lonely, a journey that has taken him in and outside the country, from the mountains of the Cordilleras to the hills of South Africa.

Yabao worked as the photo editor of post-Martial Law Newsday, a daily broadsheet that ran from 1989 to 1991. He was the first and perhaps the only photo editor who sat in the newspaper’s daily editorial meetings, dominated by text editors.

Yabao’s Newsday team of photojournalists, meanwhile, would later emerge as among the country’s best photographers of their time: Ben Razon, Jose Enrique Soriano and George Gascon, among others.

“He would know what a good photograph is, unlike text editors who have this idea of what image they want based on a reporter’s story. They lock their minds on that picture. He was not like that. He trusted you. He was open to ideas,” Soriano says.

“He is the first picture editor in the history of Philippine newspapers who would discuss the picture with the text editor. He would sit in editorial meetings and discuss the page,” he adds.

Thus, Soriano says, Newsday was better than its competitors at the time.

“Visually, it was a lot better. I used to have, at least once a week, a whole page of photos,” he says, this owing to Yabao.

He adds that Yabao trusted his photographers.

“Since he knew your work, he trusted you. It was up to you to decide on what you would give. He was open to that,” says Soriano.

Newsday’s competitors had a difficult time, he remembers with pride.

“We never ran a picture that was expected. The photo editors of the competitors would ask their photographers, ‘why does Newsday have these photos?’” Soriano recalls.

It was, Soriano says without hesitation, the heyday of the newspaper.

“We were young then and we didn’t know where life would take us. We were looking for a place to flourish and that was Newsday,” says Soriano, then a 26-year-old photographer and now the chef of Fred’s Revolucion, a bar in Cubao.

To this day, he is thankful to Yabao for trusting him.

“He was very patient. He trusted me. I am thankful to him for letting me be,” Soriano says.


Yabao’s work in Newsday came after his stint at the Bureau of National and Foreign Information. He covered Imelda Marcos when she visited world leaders across the globe. He was there when Madame shook hands with China’s Mao Tse Tung, the Palestine leader Yasser Arafat and exiled Iranian strongman Ayatollah Khomeini.

He also worked for several magazines, local and foreign, as editors around the world assigned him to cover various events within and outside the Philippines. He also did projects for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), headed at the time by multi-awarded journalist Sheila Coronel, now Academic Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

More than the affiliations or accolades, however, Yabao is his own man. He is known largely for his craft and more than any media organization he has worked with.

And at a time when the arts world is again trading barbs as to who is deserving of the National Artist Award, Yabao’s peers refuse to look far.

Many veterans say that if the award would be given to a photographer, that would hands down be Yabao because of his dedication to his craft and his excellence in photography as a visual art form.

But Yabao, though named by his peers as Photojournalist of the Year in 2005, does not think of such awards. He refuses to be part of camera clubs or photo groups in the country. He just doesn’t care much about such affiliations. He has always been a lone wolf. Many young photographers could only dream to be under Yabao’s mentoring or tutelage.

Some consider him as one of the greatest influences in Philippine photography but Yabao, though always willing to teach the younger ones who are worth his time, shrugs off the observation.

“What my contribution is to Philippine photography is the least of my concerns. My greatest fear is when people see my work and they will turn around and say, ‘Sonny, you did a good job. We finally understood what you’ve been trying to say and by the way, what’s for dinner?’” Yabao says.

For him, the trance-like experience of freezing time in a visually stunning image is reward enough. He also has no messianic delusions that he can change the world. He doesn’t even attempt to do so.

“I am not out there to change the world,” Yabao tells STARweek in one of the few interviews he has ever granted to a journalist. The man does not like talking about himself but at his age, he feels he is ready to share with the world the stories behind his photographs.

He is, to put it simply, a passionate avant-gardist, one who is deeply influenced by the surrealist movement of the 20th century, perhaps the only one in his generation of Filipino photographers.

Indeed, what excites him is to find the surreal in the most mundane of scenes, to see what is strange in the most ordinary moments.

And in the process, he unwittingly takes his audience on an obsessive, piercing and riveting journey to the world of the uncanny.

It is the same intravenous experience one gets when reading Garcia Marquez, considered as the father of magic realism.

This is because Yabao’s images are, at best, a blending of truth and magic realism, of the surreal and the mundane, captured in between dimensions and split seconds in between full-consciousness and dream-like state.

Perhaps it is never deliberate, but Yabao circumvents the conscious mind to show the deeper realities of the everyday life. That is, after all, what it means to be alive.

“Through my photos, I am telling the viewer ‘look at this, I have seen something that we haven’t seen before. Take a look at this.’ There’s joy in that,” he says.

The idea of the decisive moment, coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, comes in. It is part of Yabao’s driving force as he captures daily life when it happens, as it happens.

And such enigmatic chance encounters are seen in each and every image of Somnambulist, Yabao’s latest photo-essay, which may be viewed at his website www.sonnyyabao.com.

Here, there are angels walking on heaps of garbage, the same God-forsaken land where a dead baby is laid on a used carton of Lucky Me noodles.

There are empty coffins strewn grotesquely in a trash-filled cemetery. There are shadows in between the heart of a woman and a narrow walkway. There are virgins in purple robes and a man in a child’s pose in the direction of eternity and the deep blue sea.

It is a world that Yabao sees. It is ordinary, yet it is strange; it is magical, yet it is very real. The juxtapositions are shocking and enigmatic and the concealments are sensual and erotic.

Nowadays, Yabao no longer has the pressure to beat daily deadlines. He lives in a two-room apartment – one room is filled with books and other literary masterpieces – at the foot of the mystical mountain of Mariang Makiling, she with the thick wavy hair cascading down her shoulders, in the city of Las Baños in Laguna.

On some nights, young photographers would pay the master a visit. Some travel all the way from the fish port of Navotas, some from nearby cities in the province just to hear Yabao talk about photography over bottles of ice-cold beer.

In the morning, Yabao wakes up and roams around the foot of Makiling or beyond. And again and again, in the stillest moment in this chaotic world, he stands with his camera and captures the bizarre and the absurd in the most ordinary moments of the everyday life.

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