The bright spot in the life of Luis Liwanag

The veteran photojournalist gets overdue recognition via a new documentary short

by Jerome Gomez

“Even then harcore siya talaga. Gritty talaga yung estilo niya. His sense of timing is very good.”


“What he puts in the frame comes from his mind. Yung simpleng simpleng tira niya, lintik ang drama.”


“Ang photographer na walang kibo, malalim. Ang termino sa ganyan, may mata may damdamin.”


These quotes come from three Filipino photojournalists—Alex Baluyut, Ramsey Hormillo and Ed Santiago—and they are all talking about Luis Liwanag, a colleague who is finally getting much-deserved attention via a short documentary on his life and work.


Called Liwanag, and showing tomorrow at the second weekend of Short + Sweet Film Manila at the De La Salle University at 6pm, the film follows the ex-dyarista and street photographer as he goes about his life covering Manila in its days of quiet and when it’s bursting at the seams with drama and pageantry (the film begins with him leaving home early to catch the Pista ng Nazareno). Despite the ever-present hurdle of shooting his images with just one eye fully functioning—his vision was greatly diminished after a botched procedure to cure his glaucoma more than a decade ago—Luis continues to produce honest, poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, images that capture his country’s small and headline-making moments.


The documentary, originally more than an hour-long, is from the husband-and-wife team of Arby and Christine Laraño. “At first we were just intrigued by how Luis can manage to still shoot photos despite his situation,” says Arby, director and cinematographer, a former screenwriting and film production scholar at the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts. “We just wanted to see him in action. But doing this film, and knowing him deeper, napilitan kami to move forward about the story. We ended up doing a film. We started doing some interviews from personalities who know him. Tapos ayun, mas lumalim ang pagkakilala namin sa kanya.”


Arby’s wife Christine is the photographer of the duo. A former ABS-CBN news and current affairs writer and segment producer, she found her passion in street photography. According to their official bio, her pictures are “immensely personal.” And that she “doesn’t want fame or glory in any way. If she inspires one other person to pick up a camera and take a picture, that is enough.”


It’s a quality not unlike one of the things they admire in their docu subject. “He is one of a kind,” says Arby of Luis. “He is a fighter. Pero simple lang siya. As long as nakakapag-shoot siya, he’s happy. One sad thing about him is that he sells himself short. I think this is because of his humility. Kaya lang minsan, sa sobrang baba ng loob niya, minsan siya pa ang napapahamak. Another thing about him is that he is really a mentor. He wants everyone na lumapit or malapit sa kanya na gustong maging photographer na mag-shine. Sometimes he tends to them more kaysa sa sarili nya.”


Luis began his career in photography in the 80s, during the last years of the Marcos dictatorship. He was with the crony broadsheet Daily Express but even then, says his friend Baluyut who was at that time with the Associated Press, Luis was “willing to break free from that group.” They were an impassioned breed, even then already exploring the possibilities of telling the deeper stories behind the day’s headlines.


One of Luis’s most memorable coverages is the 1987 Mendiola Massacre where farmers protesting the government’s inaction to the issue of land reform was met by violence from security forces. Luis arrived late in Mendiola but soon found himself in the line of fire. He was torn between two calls of duty: as a photographer, he needed to shoot for the next day’s paper; as a human being, he knew he needed to help. He was able to do both. Nakapag-shoot ako and at the same time natulungan ko yung mga farmers,” he said in an interview I did with him in 2014 for another magazine. “Ganun ako eh pag may rally meron ako lagi first-aid kit. Kasi frustrated boy scout ako eh. Kaya minsan nagagalit yung mga photographer sa’kin. ‘Huwag mo munang tulungan.’ Pero nakapagshoot na ako eh, mabilis ako mag-shoot eh.”


The glaucoma slowed him down for a time. Depression struck. The Oakwood mutiny in 2003, however, would pull him out of his two-year hiatus. When he saw what was going on in Makati on television, he knew he had to get his camera and find his way to the hotel siege. He went on his scooter. He had difficulty at first but he soon found his bearings. “Finally tumibay ang resolve ko na hindi pa ito ang katapusan.”



Producing the documentary opened the Laraño couple’s eyes to the realities of being a photojournalist in the Philippines. “One thing about it is that, it is freaking hard to be one. Iba itong industry na ito. Malaking balancing act. Sabi nga ni Nonie Reyes, isa sa mga featured interviewee, hindi pwedeng yun lang ang bread and butter mo. Kaya kudos sa mga photojourns. Lalo na sa mga veteran. If you’re a veteran and you’re still relevant, you must be doing something right. Kasi kami, digital kids, akala namin mahirap na, kesyo no budget, no audience, no support. Pero sila nga even the technology noong time nila mahirap. Sabi nga ni Wig Tysmans, different breed ang mga gaya ni Luis.”



For Laraño, Luis is an epitome of the Filipino everyman. “He fights whatever is in front of him. Di ba ganun naman tayo? Sometimes we don’t realize anymore the fight because we are so used to it. Parang si Luis. Sa dami ng pinagdaanan niya, nakalimutan na yata niya na may pinagdadaanan siya. All he knows is that he needs to push forward.”