When Sheila S. Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism first brought up the idea of a photo documentary on the police, I hesitated for about five seconds. I don't usually make up my mind so easily. The idea was a great one. Only later did I realize that staking out for three months, maybe more, at the Western Police District was not exactly a very appealing prospect. I could not help wondering why I was not assigned to do a nice, safe environmental documentary instead, one that entailed a lot of long, scenic treks in the countryside. But Sheila was bent on a police story and would not hear of anything else.
I have covered most organized armed groups in the Philippines for more than a decade. I took photographs of the attempted coups d’état, but this assignment was very different from those I had done in the past. There was some fear, I admit, but it was of a different, more subtle kind. It was more the kind of fear that a school kid faces when confronted with a bully: you know you cannot lick him, but you also need his cooperation. It was also the fear of sinking into a world where you are not invited, a fear born out of decades of hearing stories of corruption, summary executions and the shadow land of violence that is the world of Manila's Finest.
I thought that the subject matter of this book should be best approached in the documentary tradition of photography, which is to "immerse, then the images unfold before you." So everyday for several months, I was at the Western Police District headquarters at United Nations Avenue, joining the ranks of ambulance-chasers and night stalkers. Every photographer there was, driving past me in high gear, shooting pictures that landed daily on their newspapers. My work required a different mindset: I didn't have to produce photos everyday. Only the thought of a book months in the offing kept me going. Documentary photography can get downright lonely.
I shot most of the photos in this collection with an SLR borrowed from a wire agency and used one 35 millimeter lens. I pushed my 400 ASA film to its limits and got strange looks from police beat photographers who rarely shoot without a flash. Police officers also eyed me curiously when I snapped them in unorthodox moments.
But even the most dedicated documentary photographer can't avoid being hit with the headlines, especially when covering the police. On the night of November 26, 1993, I shifted to high gear, when the Manila City Jail riot took place and a headline event fell on my lap. With all the blood and drama, it was a photojournalist's dream coverage. When it was over, I knew that I had the last strand that made the image complete.
Some people have asked me why I chose the Western Police District. The answers are easy. I grew up in Manila, Paco to be exact, and the WPD was always the center of action, even during my childhood. News photos printed in The Manila Times in the 1960's were always about the Manila police. Blockbuster police officers like Alfredo Lim, Alex Yanquiling Sr., Romeo Maganto, Joe Pring, etc. all served in that imposing structure on United Nations Avenue.
Lastly, I knew that when things got too tough, I could always run to the comforts of Juanchito's Bibingka to brighten up my day.
Still, after six months of taking photographs of the Western Police District, I feel I have only scratched the surface. Many more stories of the WPD have to be told. This is a start.
The Photographer's Notes from the Brother Hood book is published in this website with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Alex Baluyut (b. 1956; Paco, Manila) is a pioneer in Philippine photojournalism and documentary photography whose practice spans more than three decades. Driven by the lifelong search for truth, he has traversed both frontlines and hinterlands, producing powerful and uncompromising images of rebellion, repression and resistance in the Philippines.
The youngest of six siblings from a prominent clan, Baluyut learned the craft as a young man during the mid-1970s. His mentors were older brothers and accomplished photographers Ted and Butch Baluyut. Alex grew up with his grandmother Rosario Dimayuga-Luz, a respected figure in Philippine interior design, and uncle Arturo R. Luz, the country’s seventh National Artist for the Visual Arts. Both instilled in the young Alex a sense of excellence across all fields of endeavor.
Baluyut became a photojournalist in 1979, during the height of Martial Law under Pres. Ferdinand Marcos. During the dictatorship’s waning years in the early 1980s, he and his colleagues extensively chronicled the protests, marches, strikes and militant actions of the day, giving a face to the masses opposing the regime.
During the height of his work, Baluyut resigned from the prestigious wire agency Associated Press to pursue a long-time dream of covering Mindanao and the people’s struggles in the region. His first book Kasama (1987) captured complex facets of daily life within the New People’s Army (NPA) with whom he lived with, on the run, for four months.
Working freelance after 1986, Baluyut produced a second book with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, titled Brother Hood (1993). Immersed in the Western Police District of Manila for six months, Baluyut explored the web of relationships among hardened criminals, juvenile offenders, and authorities mandated to protect citizens. Kasama and Brother Hood won the National Book Award in 1986 and 1996, respectively.
Baluyut repeatedly returned to Mindanao in the 1990s, fulfilling a personal promise to document the peoples of the island. The series, Gikan sa Erya (1995-1997), captured images of its vulnerable communities around the environmentally-protected zones of Agusan Marsh, Mt. Kitanglad, and Mt. Apo, which were by this time threatened by the impacts of development aggression.
Chronicling stories from Manila to Mindanao, Baluyut’s body of work affirms how the Filipino people endured and struggled despite the dictatorship, civil war, crime and conflict. “Never underestimate the power of an individual statement, a personal vision, which might be your own, that’s the way I survived, Baluyut recalls of these years.”
Baluyut helped organize, professionalize and educate a generation of photographers by co-founding the non-profit organization Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines; initiating the country’s first Masterclass in Documentary Photography; and helping to institute the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Photojournalism at the Ateneo de Manila University, serving as a faculty member and mentor for its diploma program.
Now based in Los Banos, Laguna, Baluyut continues to uphold humanitarian ideals as he enters his senior years. In 2013, he founded the non-profit Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK) to help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). It has since then served close to 300,000 hot meals to communities displaced by disasters and conflict across Central Luzon, Eastern Visayas and Northern Mindanao, as of this writing.
Baluyut, Alex. Curriculum Vitae (updated March 2018).
Baluyut, Alex. Brother Hood. Manila: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 1995.
Baluyut, Alex “Brotherhood – The Drug War in Philippines". Invisible Photographer Asia, July 16, 2016.
Baluyut, Alex and Limjoco, Lenny. Kasama: A Collection of Photographs of the New People’s Army of the Philippines. Makati: International Concerns for Philippine Struggles-ICPS Southern Tagalog, 1987.
____________. “I Don’t Make Decisions on Who Will Die”, Undated statement, written during his days at the Agence France Presse.
____________. “Three Rivers Run Through It”. Photo-Essay. Sunday Inquirer Magazine. August ? 199?
Exhibition catalog. Gikan Sa Erya: Portrait of the People in the Protected / Un-Proteted Areas of Mindanao, 13-30 December 1997. Hiraya Gallery, Manila.
Ito-Tapang, Lisa. Researcher’s interview, 30 January 2018, photographer’s residence, UP Los Banos, Laguna.
Lee, Kevin Wy. “Photographing the New People’s Army of the Philippines with Alex Baluyut”. Invisible Photographer Asia, April 4, 2013.
Sevilla, Cristina Luisa. “The Unanswerable Questions of Alex Baluyut”. Documentary Photography Philippines, January 2009.
Zamora, Fe. “News photographer’s kitchen confidential”. Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 17, 2017.
Zhuang Wubin, “The Yin and Yang of Documentary Photography: Sonny Yabao and Alex Baluyut”. Asian Art, December 2012.