Nana: when and how did you start out?
Alex: I was in college, I became the sports editor when I was in school.
They were looking for a camera, Teddy boy was selling at that time a spotmatic , pentax. The school bought the camera, that was what I used. More and more I became familiar, had more confidence using the camera.
Then later on I looked for a job. Teddy boy, at that time was working for ADPHOTO, John Chua??s. He took me in.
Nana: advertising work?
Alex: yeah, a little bit..studio, but?we hardly did studio work. The bread and butter actually of John at that time was photo coverage, events..John was the main man, the big clients he handled..I learned a bit, about lighting..so?from there, I got to know some of his clients..and one of his clients, told me about the Bataaan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP), that they were looking for a photographer. So I applied.
Then remember later there was a controversy, about the BNPP?right? It closed down. I was there, when there was a fact finding mission, Tanada spearheaded it, the anti nuclear campaign. Then I saw and met Willy Vicoy. They were one group, the usual, media tour..i said to myself..okay to ahhhh. Then I approached them,talked to them. That was my first realization..this is a different venue for photography. So eventually, BNPP closed down.
But before that, I had started to develop connections with the left. I got to know the wife of Sixto Carlos, Tina Carlos..who was then based at St. Scholastica??s college..they would ask for pictures, so I gave them. My first realization about activisim. They were really good..and they were good at developing friendships..right?
So I went back to manila..i had no job, BNPP closed down. I didn??t know what to do.
Then Butch Baluyut, my brother put up his second studio..i worked at his darkroom. But even before then, I was already printing his negatives for exhibitions. Even when I was in Pampanga, we had a darkroom, Teddy boy put it up. Shit, that dark room was dirty! Sonof a bitch! Butch was clean, his darkroom was orderly..airconditioned. This is where I developed my skills in darkroom work, the discipline. The second studio Butch put up, he partnered with Sandro Tucci. This is how Sandro Tucci started out in photography. He ??envied? Butch, because of the chicks, yeah, sosyal eh..lots of women, portraits.. sonof a bitch! That was Camera 2. The studio was in Malate.
Later on, I became restless..i said I just couldn??t be a lab man all my life!
Then, on of Butch??s friend, Bobit Sison, he used to string for AP. I talked to him. Asked him, how is it working for AP. He said: it??s a lot of hard work! Madugo ang trabahong yan, he said..
But I said, I don??t just want to be like Butch.. so he already there..i wanted a different path..i became desperate, pay was low, because, you know, I was his lab man..
So I went to AP.
The first AP office, at RCPI, in United Nations Avenue. So I went..the first person I talked with was Mike Suarez. Castillian. Snob, suplado, me bigote..
I asked him: Sir, do you need photographers? Then he answered: ah, hindi! (ah, no), we already have a photographer. Because I was young, i turned back..little bit feeling bad. But when I got home, at night, before I slept, I thought?hmmp! Who is he?? The heck maybe I should go back! So I came back the next day, and again, I saw Mike! His desk was at the front, there was no way you could pass..but at the end of the room, I saw Andy Hernandez..the desk had cameras..so I thought, oh maybe that is the photographer..so I went straight to him! I tapped his shoulders, and asked him: would you need a photographer? Andy answered: who are you? I introduced myself, I am alex Baluyut..
And Andy replied, ah, you must be Butch Baluyut??s brother?.Andy knew Butch??s work.. okay, come, I need an assistant here. He brought me to the bureau chief, Billy Mann. Andy introduced me, and said, can we hire him to string for us? Billy replied, yeah, up to you Andy..Billy trusted Andy.
Andy eventually worked for Time Magazine, then went on for agency work, then Newsweek. Andy was a good guy! Magaling din si Andy..
So that is how I started, at AP. I was so happy!
I had one camera, I borrowed money from my father, around 5thousand pesos. I bought a Nikon F2. Plus there was enough equiptment at AP, though most of it were really over used, you know how it is when photojournalists handle cameras.. but it is okay..
Nana: You have published books right?
Alex: yeah, 2 photobooks..Kasama (Comrade), then, Brotherhood, with PCIJ, about the police..
Nana: you were known as the bad boy of Philippine photography.
Nana: why, how did that came to be?
Alex: I don??t know..(laughing)..by nature, I am a shy person. Maybe photojournalism became my therapy, to overcome certain things, my shyness. Of course, you need to be brusko, tough on coverages, a lot of things..i hardened, toughened up, through the years..sumobra yata. I was really different. I really had a different lifestyle. I broke rules, at the same time, I can still deliver. That was the time when it was really hot, you know..martial law, marcos time, I became known for a certain style.. luis (luis liwanag), there was us, we were different..wild, chaos..punks, the punk photographers! But we delivered!
Then I left AP..i went to Mindanao. Somebody approached me, if I wanted to cover the NPAs in Mindanao..a long term shoot. So I asked permission from David Briscoe, if I could take a leave that long..but I got turned down. Son of a bitch, that is too long, 4 months! So I resigned.. I used my separation pay to fund my trip, my project in Mindanao..self assigned work. I really wanted to do that, to go and cover Mindanao. That was my dream! So when the opportunity came, I grabbed it! Right?
I was intrigued by the war, at that time, you don??t get to read about it in the paper, what appears then, before, were one or a few paragraphs about Mindanao, Bulletin, Crony Press. So I said to myself, then I should go..so I resigned from AP.
But maybe, I was also feeling burnt out at AP, you know, you are boxed up, there was the usual template for pictures, I thought, that?.it??s time to move on.
When I left, I didn??t have a camera. Son of a bitch!
So, at that time, Romy Gacad, Bullit Marquez were about to go into AP, one of the reasons I wanted to leave AP was, I envied Romy and Bullit, they were freelancers?at that time..they were free..so, it was like a swap..romy and bullit they wanted to work for the wires, and I wanted out! So sige, split ako, dito kayo, ako labas, but can I borrow your cameras? Yeah, sure , Bullit says..that time, Bullit was already stringing for AP. And Romy was really kind.. he lent me a Nikon F, with 2 lenses..a 135, and a 24..ganda ng lente!
That was a life changing experience for me. Mindanao. I saw a lot, deaths, executions, I saw and documented the lives of guerillas. At that time, nobody was doing that
Nana: do you still have the prints?
Alex: maybe, some, maybe in digital files now.
Most of the films, at that time, I sent back to manila. Bullit helped in processing the films, at AP.
When I came back to manila, son of a bitch, I didn??t have a job, I had no place to stay.
I had nothing. Luis and I when I left, we were renting in Malate. When I came back Luis had abandoned already that place we used to rent. Luis was working at Tempo then. Gulo namin! Gulo ng buhay naming!
I had no place to stay, son of a bitch!
So what I did, I sold some prints to AP. At that time the Asian photo editor was here in Manila, coming from Tokyo, he bought around, 7 or 10 prints from me..putang ina, I sold it very cheap! Tang ina! Maybe I earned around 9 or 10thousand pesos from those prints.
From the sale of that, I looked for a place to stay..i was really nervous. Ed Manalo and I found a small room in Paco. Maliit talaga, maliit talaga pare!
Only a small double deck could fit into that room! We stayed there for some years.
Nana: so when you came back, you had all these material..
Alex: yeah, but I didn??t know what to do with it?I just stored it..but everybody knew that I had that execution pictures, word spread among photographers. Even David Briscoe, didn??t know what to do with the pictures..
Nana: yeah? Because it??s not news? no?
Alex: yeah, it??s not news..so?yan, and I didn??t want to bring out the execution pictures, I was kinda afraid?I might get arrested. That time, it was still Marcos time.
So?I stored the pictures for many years, almost 4 years before the pictures finally came out?.Lenny Limjoco after EDSA revolution approached me..Lenny Limjoco came from the US, he had a grant to do a book about the Philippines.
At that time, I was hanging out at Agence France Presse (AFP). I was stringing for AFP, then went to Germany at that time. It was also a crazy time.
I met lenny at Agence. I knew him by reputation..
Puta, ikaw pala si Lenny, puta ang galing mo pare!!
Lenny was an introvert..
So I asked him, what are you doing here, I hear you are based in the US.
And he told me, about this grant that he has to finish a book about the Philippines.
And then, he left..then I saw him again..but this time, he was really a wreak..magulo din ang buhay nya non.. mas magulo pa yata kaysa sa akin.
Many things, he was a wreak, he had it too much, you know, wild stuff.
Then we went out for a beer, then he said, he was in a bind?he had to do the book , but he didn??t have a concept yet?
So I suggested, lenny look, let??s do this..anyways, I got a lot of material from Mindanao, why don??t we make a book about the NPA. Puta?Lenny??s eyes went big! So we conceptualized the book, NPA from North to South. Putang ina, nabuhayan si Lenny! Yan, tama, yan, yan?..nag vibes na kami.
At that time nagiging wreak na rin ako..tina and I at that time were separated. Depression, plus the wild stuff. So the next time, was we built the darkroom.
We found a place, it was far, in Caloocan! At the house of Lenny??s aunt.
Lenny would fetch me, putang ina, mag print ka alex! We were on the same plane, he got separated too, then he was still inlove with the first wife na taga TFD, but who married a military man..so grabe talaga yung blow sa ego nya! Nawasak talaga!
While we were printing, we talked about the women, we were crying..we hate them, we would say to ourselves!
I printed, we would edit together at times, he would edit alone too.
Then, we finished,I finished the prints..lenny had shot the Visayas part, and I said to him, putang ina mo Lenny, you had already taken up so much of my time!
And lenny said, you know lex, if there is anything I can do best..it is to make a book. This is what I promised and assure you, I can make a book, even if I have gone insane, I can make a book!
Then lenny got some funding..( I will not mention it here anymore).
So now, I asked lenny, is this going to be a propaganda book?
And lenny said, no, and we agreed that it should not be.
So..we published the photobook.
The book won, the National Book Award.
One night I was drinking at the Right Spot in Malate. Joe Galvez was running towards me, and he said, Alex, have you seen the papers? Your book won the National Book Award!
Putang ina, ang sarap ng feeling!
Somehow I felt, everything I had done, na validate.
Nana: what was next after that?
Alex: wala (none)..(laughing) my reputation stuck more and more as a badboy.
Putang inang yan!
It took me another eight years to make another book.
Documentary photography is really hard.
How do you live? It is really a struggle!
More so here in our country.
Nana: how do you sustain yourself?
Alex: when you choose documentary photography..you need to expand your network. You do everything, editorial assignments, weddings, events, you need to do everything so you live, to fund your work. This is what I am saying to my students. Firm up your family ties, get their support, it is important also.
Nana: so, what is your advice to younger documentary photographers?
Alex: stay on top of the game, be visible, keep re inventing yourselves, do not retreat, if you do, you lose. Mawala ka sa eksena,talo ka.. let them know you are alive, kicking and doing well.. your survival instinct should be high, you never quit!
Nana: okay, so the second book, Brotherhood.
Alex: yeah, PCIJ yun. Putang ina, that time, I was kinda out of the scene I remember..i was in the process of building a house with Buena, I sold all my cameras, all my leicas?.
At that time, I sold everthing. I went to see Vir, you know, si Tito Vir Montecastro.
Nana: vir was like a godfather no?
Alex: yeah, vir, he was really good to talk to. He offered me a bottle of wine, I drank it all.. then I told him, vir, I want to do something. Finally I pushed him, to a point siguro naasar na rin siguro sya..sige na nga! So he called Sheila Coronel. Because I had an idea for a documentary, an environmental documentary, because I was with Buena, and that time, she was working with FPE. So I had made a proposal already?for laguna lake. Shoot around the area, for a documentary..so this is what I wanted to give to Sheila..so vir called Sheila.
So I went to PCIJ. So I was so happy..nabuhayan ako.
Next day I went, I had the proposal with me.
I was told to come back the next day, so we can discuss the proposal.
And when I came back, they were talking..and they called me, it was like a meeting.
Alex, Sheila said to me, don??t do the environmental project anymore.. do a story about the police.
Putang ina! I said?In my mind, I was thinking, of keeping away from stories that are ??bang-bang? you know, well, there were many things that happened before..after Mindanao, ahhh?Salcedo, then Gumaca..so, I was kinda war shock. Literally I was war shock.
So I thought, of not doing bang bang stories.. you know..not for a while.
Putang ina, I said to myself.
Here I am again.. sige!
So I took the money.
I made about 60thousand pesos..5, or 6months work.
So yun, I started to hang out at the police stations. I found the access. I was able to get in. now that was the second book after eight years.
And again, that also won the National Book Award.
Shit, I was so happy!
Validation for the work I have done. ??tang ina yan!
But also that time, Buena and I had separated.
Then Precious came.
After that, I thought of doing the environment story.
But the concept had already changed..people of the protected areas na.
That was Gikan sa Erya (from the area)
I wanted it to be a book, but it didn??t happen, it was shown in Hiraya Gallery, for exhibition.
Nana: did you get funding for it?
Alex: yeah, I got funding from FPE. Around 30thousand pesos, I went around 4 areas.
Actually I heard that FPE made a book about it..i haven??t seen it.
So ayan, yan ang buhay ko (so there, there it is..my life as a photographer)..
Nana: so now you are teaching? In Ateneo, ACFJ
Alex: ah yeah, I am committed to teaching. Now I have made my own masterclass.
Now the style of photography is also moving, its more conceptual.
I could teach documentary, style, approach, concepts.
As usual, I am always, restless.
Nana: how many years in photography?
Alex: ah, going 30 years.
I have evolved, from photojourn, to documentary, now I am teaching.
Although I may not have so much money, but I have done what I have set out to do.
Nana: what is your source of inspiration?
Alex: (laughing) hahha! Rock and roll! The music, rock and roll. That whole concept of, you can change the world.
Nana: do you believe that?
Alex: yeah, yeah I believe that. If not, I would have given up, long time ago..but I didn??t?di ba? I knew deep in my heart, like Luis, we wouldn??t fall off a cliff. We would survive. I know.
Nana: how old are you now?
Alex: now I am 54. Hahahhah! Sometimes, my knees would buckle down, but, my mind is strong?never say die! We have our own God. We are taken cared of?somehow..even when you are at an edge, putang ina, you think, wala na (there is nothing anymore..!) then, ??tang ina, meron?! You push yourself to the edge, you feel alive. Maybe this is why I want to teach documentary, because I want to instill the discipline. You have to be disciplined, otherwise you will not last?deadlines, tradition, basic, hard nosed, you think fast, and react fast?you have to know that..i have never missed a deadline in my life..even when I have drunk, that is my discipline. You have to know the rhythm of your mind and body. The courage to create , that is important..
Interview done: June 6, 2010
next post will be Alex's photographs and a link to his works.
A Photographer's Life 2
Nana: when and how did you start out?