BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Madam Palerma

She stands out from the crowd. One glance and I instantly notice her almond-shaped eyes, the kind that would make you look again. Her high bridge nose is perfect and her cherry red lips smiled the whole time I was talking to her. Strands of her chestnut brown hair fall just right on the forehead, concealing the wrinkles of her 81 years.

"I am Madame Palerma. I was also a journalist like you," she says in perfect English. Her voice is deep, firm and solid and not once did it show her old age. She is just right outside the door of what she calls her home -- a dark, one room shanty.

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and I am in Valenzuela, Bulacan with photographer Jes Aznar. His task is to shoot, mine is to interview and take a video as he shoots. We reach the interior after two hours of struggling against heavy rains and tormenting traffic. I offered to take the wheel many times as I sensed his frustration but (to my relief) was always turned down.

We are working on a book project and our second assignment is to search for a 52-year old man who lives near a basketball court and a tricycle terminal in a depressed community in Barangay Mapulang Lupa, Valenzuela.

There are at least three basketball courts with a tricycle terminal nearby in Barangay Mapulang Lupa. For a while there, I didn't think we would find him.

We succeed after a few more minutes and after asking bystanders for the nth time where our mystery man could be.

Journalism, after all, is about "finding it." The editors won't really care how you find it but you better damn be able to find it -- your subject, your assignment, your interviewee, the story -- because no amount of excuse would do unless it's a matter of life and death.

That's what Madam Palerma congratulated us for. The former radio announcer, as she introduced herself, said I reminded her of her early days.

"I used to be a radio announcer. I miss the radio booth. I miss being a journalist," she says.

"It's good to see press people here. We're the same. We're the same. Like you, I was also a journalist before and I would go to different places for my assignments," she adds enthusiastically.

"Thank you for being here," she says. "We hope you can come back."

She talks of the old times. That she would go to different places in search for stories. That she laughed many nights away during her shifts at the radio booth. That she met so many people in the course of her work.

I am holding the video camera while talking to her. Jes sends me a signal that it is time go. We are off to Caloocan for another assignment.

I thank Madam Palerma for the chat. She seems so happy to see the two of us working as she used to.

"I hope you can come back and visit my house," she says.

As we drive out of the community, I think of Madam Palerma and her passion for her work.

I don't know if I'll ever see her again but I'm sure I'll never forget her face. It is a picture of a contented and proud journalist who is rich not with material wealth but with stories of her years of experience.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My notes on a 15-hour coverage

It was still dark when I left the apartment. The fresh smell of dew wafted in the early morning air. The world must still be in deep slumber except for the neighbor's roosters crowing loudly, I thought. And except for the crowd gathering at the Manila Cathedral.

I didn't want to leave so early. I wanted to stay snuggled in my bed, still tired from the previous day's work. But I told myself I'd cover former president Corazon Aquino's burial. I wanted to write and to shoot the story. Or maybe, I just wanted to be there simply because of the kibitzer that I am.

I thought I was all set for the day's event. I tucked inside my green backpack everything I thought I would need – press I.D., camera, lenses, batteries, notebook, jacket, umbrella, crackers, drinking water and an extra set of clothes.

The veteran lensman I would tag along with had been waiting for me. He just had a small camera bag and a belt bag. “You're late. Let's hurry,” he said. We still have time for breakfast. He said I should eat a heavy one.

“There'll be absolutely no time to eat later,” said the lensman who had been covering the wake since day one.

The events that unfolded throughout that day surprised me and tested my patience. Because I thought I prepared for the coverage well enough, I had no idea I would be soaked in rain not once but many times over. I had no idea that I would wait for eight grueling hours for just one or two minutes of history. I had no idea that all the photojournalists that covered the event were prepared for rain, mud and what have you. (Despite carrying small bags). Not only did they have water proof clothes but more importantly, they came with protective gears for their cameras.

What a bunch of professionals I was with. They waited patiently. Photojournalism, they said, is 90 percent waiting and only 10 percent shooting. I'd say, it's also 90 percent going hungry and 10 percent shooting. I was counting the hours. I could hear the grumbling in my tummy with each passing minute. I barely finished the story I sent through my mobile phone.

(In contrast to the professional photojournalists that covered the day's events were three hobbyists waiting with us under a makeshift stage put up by one of the television networks. They are of a terribly different breed. They went there apparently to show off their expensive cameras and obviously slightly used camera bags. They blabbered about their thousand peso cameras and boasted of their technical know-hows. They used press cards to be on the frontline but arrogantly disregarded unwritten rules about “sapaw.” And while every journalist on standby was fighting off hunger and thirst, the three conos bought hamburgers all for themselves. And devoured this in front of all five of us waiting under that stage.

The thing that pissed me off most was that when a stampede occurred at the Manila Memorial Park, they went ecstatic, so eager to shoot while the other photojournalists dropped their cameras and helped those injured.)

More than fifteen hours later, I joined colleagues for some ice cold drinks. I was hungry and exhausted but fulfilled. I was happy that I woke up to cover the day's events. I learned a lot by shooting and writing about the events that unfolded. I learned a lot by just being there.

By the time I got home, my daughter was already sound asleep. It doesn't happen all the time but it happens. She's probably getting used to it. I'm sure she knows by now that journalism, although it comes only second to motherhood, makes me truly happy. (The day my waterbag broke, I whispered to her, "Not now please. I have a 5 p.m. deadline." She heeded my request and came out into the world 36 hours later.)