The Unanswerable Questions of Alex Baluyut / By Cristina Sevilla

By Cristina Luisa Sevilla

[Editor’s Note (July 2010): I’m very excited to republish Cristina Sevilla’s loving portrait of Manila-born Alex Baluyut, one of the most important documentary photographers in Southeast Asia, on my blog. Baluyut is the founding faculty member of the Diploma in Photojournalism programme at Ateneo de Manila University. Sevilla, on the other hand, has worked for years in TV and as a writer. She joined the diploma programme to further her interest in photography.]

The walk back home was three kilometers long. The young, brash and rowdy group of teenage boys had gotten drunk in town and to get back to their houses, they would have to pass through Pampanga’s cane fields blackened by the night. Suddenly they heard a gunshot piercing the darkness. And then another. And then again another. Silence. It was the first time the young Alex would hear the heart-stopping, sickening explosion that could only be gunfire. The boys would tread on in the looming shadows; the silver edges of moonlight barely lighting their way. Laced with alcohol and fear, they would crack jokes about the New People’s Army (NPA) coming to get them.

Around 10 years later, Alex would find himself trapped in darkness again, not in Pampanga’s cane fields but in the horrid war zone jungle of the Agusan Marsh in Mindanao. This time, he would hear more than a few gunshots. “You hear everything. You hear grenades. The sound of a mortar shell going off inside a jungle is terrifying. You learn to distinguish between the sound of an M16, an AK47, an M203. The mortar round comes in and you have to listen from which direction it’s coming from para matantsa mo kung saan ka pupunta.” And this time too, it wasn’t the NPA Alex was scared of. He was doing a photo-documentary for and with the NPA. It was the other side, the army of the Philippine government, which would come and gun them down. The sounds would never leave him. Mindanao would never leave him.

Almost 30 years later, I sat across the famed documentary photographer Alex Baluyut in a glorified version of a nipa hut called Coca Cabana near the red-light district of Makati City. Alex was my professor in a photojournalism course at the Ateneo de Manila University and among all the teachers, he was terribly difficult and the most demanding. At the beginning of our session, he gave our class a syllabus of required readings and assignments that made our jaws drop.

One of the tasks among his infinite list of requirements was to interview a documentary photographer. And though I knew the pressure would multiply to unspeakable levels, I chose to interview him. Alex had a notorious reputation of being uncontrollable under the influence of alcohol and had an equally famous temper. It was also common knowledge that he spoke his mind and was testy. One night, in drunken fury, he even called another famous veteran photojournalist, Sonny Yabao, “a worm”. According to Alex, it was because Yabao didn’t stand up for his photography work as a Marcos propagandist.

And yet, Alex was also known for his brave, intense work and his fierce, if not ferocious integrity. His credibility was and is never questioned. The respect photojournalism veterans and students have for him is no less than colossal. And he was also, reportedly, charming to the ladies. It was impossible not to be intrigued.

Our first round of beer was gone in an instant. Over the course of the night, we consumed around two packs of cigarettes and 16 bottles of San Miguel Lights, only five-and-a-half of which were mine. I sat across Alex in those first few minutes, fidgeting, and tactlessly, I blurted out that one of the very first things I heard about him years ago was his drinking and how he would throw intoxicated bouts of anger in public. He accepted my daftness coolly and explained that on the contrary, he had already stopped drinking heavily. He now only had the occasional drink with friends, and that’s that. “But until now, people still want to test me. How drunk can we get Alex? All my life, people wanted to test how much they could get me drunk or how tough I was. It’s always been like that, people testing me. But they could never get me down. I always showed them. Like I may not be a clever photographer. But I have guts. Pure guts lang talaga. Reckless passion.”

*

Alejandro Luz Baluyut was born in 1956 in Paco, Manila to a clan of wealth and artistry. But despite that privileged beginning, his family history was beset with difficulties. One of Alex’s rare memories of his mother is of her reading, keeping herself shut in the bedroom. The memories are faint because she died of a drug overdose when Alex was only seven years old. His father had been obsessed with his mother and would even, at times, threaten her with a gun. Alex’s elder siblings who had seen it all would, after their mother’s ruin, have a strained relationship with their father, silently blaming him for driving their mother to her death. It was not long after that when Alex’s father began drinking heavily. Everyday. Without restraint.

Vices would trickle down the family tree. The siblings were composed of an eldest sister and five succeeding boys, the youngest of which was Alex. He would hang out with his older brothers’ friends and would begin smoking at 12, start taking drugs at 13, heroin at 15 and downers at 16. “We were the ‘bad Baluyut brothers’. Each brother’s barkada specialized in a certain drug. And I would just go there. I was a prince.”

It was during this time of experimenting with drugs and religions—like Buddhism, Hari Krishna, reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and listening to the songs of Bob Dylan that Butch, Alex’s eldest brother, swapped their turntable and two speakers for a Nikkormat camera and a 50mm lens. Butch would teach Alex and they would buy film for P15 at Herran. “I spent miles and miles of film,” recalls Alex. “After you used your film, you could use the canister to put in all sorts of drugs.”

It was at that time that Alex was kicked out of the Grade School of Ateneo, ironically the university where he presently teaches, when he led a protest against the rule banning long hair. He transferred to Letran, where his brother Benjie, the fourth of the bad Baluyut brothers, was studying. On the first day of school, the brothers cut class and Benjie introduced Alex to the pool hall. Back at Coca Cabana, as Alex recounted these moments to me, he suddenly got excited. “At 13, I decided that the best education wasn’t in a classroom. It was in a pool hall. The body language, the moment. The greatest players in the universe are in Manila! Not just the best players in the world, ha, in the Universe!” Alex exclaimed. “And for how long were you in Letran?” I asked. His answer — “Just enough for me to learn the basics of pool”.

All the drugs however, would one day, sadly, take its toll. Rickee, the third of the brothers, would die of an overdose. It was a turning point in Alex’s life. “I wanted to live.”

It may have been all his listening to Bob Dylan, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Wooden Ships, or it may have been Alex’s driving need to feel the underbelly of the world. Whichever it was, Alex packed his belongings, and just like that, rode the Philippine Rabbit bus and felt the wind slap against his face and run through his hair. He was on his way to Magalang, Pampanga. He wanted to go back to the roots of his ancestry and had decided that he wanted to work in the farm and study at the Pampanga Agricultural College.

I was astonished to hear this, as it seemed crazy for a city boy barely at the age of shaving to make such a huge decision of independence. I learned later though that many of Alex’ traits as a young teenage boy would grow with him to his adulthood till he mastered them. This in particular would be one of Alex’ chief characteristics—that he left when he wanted to leave, no matter how absurd the decision seemed. As a young man, Alex would for example, show that very same relentless inner faith and willpower once again and leave for one of the most important journeys of his life.

IN AND OUT OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was in his early twenties, working for his brother Butch, who, after years of photography, had by this time become a much sought-after portrait photographer. Butch had had an enormously successful first exhibit and was working on his 2nd exhibit of portraits of glamorous women. Alex was his lab man. “I started processing and printing for the Master, my Master. He was charming, dashing, he was Butch Baluyut. Everyone wanted to be photographed by him. It was an honur. I was making nothing, but it was enough.”

Butch had a friend, Bobbit Sison, who had worked for the Associated Press (AP). While Butch was into Richard Avedon and Teddy Boy, the second of the Baluyut brothers was into Guy Bourdain, Alex couldn’t forget the photo essays he had seen in LIFE magazines by photojournalists such as Eugene Smith, or Saint Eugene, as Alex now fondly calls him.

So he decided to go to AP. “I just went. I walked into the office. I saw all those Teletype machines. It was cool, something out of the imagination.” He asked one of the staff if he could apply as a photographer and was flat out refused. “We have a photographer already,” the staff said. When he got back home, Alex thought about the situation and decided he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The next day, Alex went back to AP and chanced upon their photographer Andy Hernandez. When Alex asked if they needed a photographer, Andy immediately said, “Yeah, we need a photographer.” That very instant, Andy took Alex to the editor who immediately told Alex he could go ahead and be Andy’s apprentice and a stringer for the AP. “That’s why I tell my students to never give up.”

Being a stringer for AP was no walk in the park. It was tedious, tiring, dangerous and threatening. But when he made a brilliant coverage of the child who rushed to Pope John Paul during his visit to the Philippines and brought him to a precinct, with photographs no other photographer had taken, Alex was finally, officially hired. On that New Year’s Day, Alex took his cameras to church and prayed in deep gratitude. “I said I would do my best. I believed in photojournalism, that I could make a change.”

For the next three years, Alex would work beyond the call of duty, risking life and limb and missing each Christmas dinner for his job at AP. He was now one of AP’s few photographers in the Philippines, with a salary and overtime pay that came to around P4,000/month, an enormous amount at that time.

And yet, after the work, the toil and sacrifice, when the offer of doing a documentary of the NPA in Mindanao came, Alex, to the surprise of his colleagues, quitted his job, received a 7,000-peso separation pay and left. He had wanted to photograph the growing insurgency in the South and do the kind of work that he had originally set out to do. When the opportunity came, he took it in a heartbeat. And just like that, as that bus ride from Manila to Pampanga, he left. “Pag sinabi kong gagawin ko, gagawin ko.”

TESTS

The Pampanga Agricultural School required actual hard labor at the farm and you had to pass an aptitude test before you could enter. It must have been especially entertaining for the Kapampangans to watch Alex, the rich kid from Manila, digging his hands into dirt. His first job was holding a huge shovel-like tool on each arm, digging both into the ground at the same time, then hauling up the earth and transferring it elsewhere. “Putok ang kamay ko! I had blisters all over my hands. They said I wouldn’t come back at all. They said ‘Ahh mayaman yan. Baluyut yan eh.’ They rejected me right away. But I showed them. I bought gloves in Manila. And I went back.” A few days later, Alex would pass all the tests.

There would be different characters later on in Alex’s life, but it would essentially be the same scenario of people and situations testing him and challenging him, until Alex was left with nothing to prove. Such was the case when he left the AP for Mindanao. “UP sina Romy Gacad and I came from Ateneo with a pedigree. They looked at me like I couldn’t do it with institutional help. Can you do it without AP behind you? Ano kala nyo sa akin, wimp? They were always questioning me. Are you questioning my manhood, my family or what? Nobody had gone to Mindanao yet. I was the first. Nobody was willing to take a risk. It was my dream, to get my feet wet. And I thought if nobody’s gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. I was an athlete, I was strong, I didn’t have a family, and I knew I could take the punches.”

In the war of Mindanao, he would see people die. The NPA would even execute a comrade accused of being an agent right in front of Alex. The nights were the worst. He couldn’t see where he was going and was disoriented. It was double the fear. “You feel totally naked inside the forest. You were fighting for your life. In war, either you live or you die. I was really scared. I was chicken shit, man. But you gather all your senses and you think—you might as well die shooting, right? You learn how to be cool under pressure, steadying your nerves and mind. You have to function, eh. I had to do a job, I had to fulfill a commitment and I did it as best as I could.”

And much like his triumphant return to Pampanga, passing the tests with blistering hands, four months, 60 rolls and countless wounds later, he would finish his job in Mindanao.

*

The Baluyut family came from generations of hacenderos in Pampanga. The house Alex lived in on their sprawling land was an 1800 narra hardwood family manor. “It was fabulous, just fabulous.”

The kitchen was the center of the whole house. And their huge stove had smoldering heat. What was used to make fire for the stove was ipa or rice bran. And at any given time, there would be four or five sacks of ipa, just for fire, by the ceiling.

Every morning, the cook, Apong Gara, would prepare a glass of carabao milk for Alex. Breakfast was usually a Kapampangan specialty called Pindang, which is beef or carabao meat laboriously pounded and dried on the roof for three days. Pindang would be eaten with wagwag rice and cane vinegar to balance its saltiness.

While meals as specially and meticulously-prepared as this would just be his breakfast, Alex on the other hand would see his classmates eating tuyo and only tuyo for each and every meal. “I was living in this big house. I saw the disparity of the rich and the poor. It was here where I first learned the protocol in a poor man’s house. On weekends I’d go home to Manila and I’d take drugs to forget the poverty. After four years in Pampanga, I knew the poor like the back of my hand. I knew the language, I knew how to eat, how to take a crap in the middle of a field without qualms.”

It was this training later on that helped him as he did his documentary work. No matter where he was, he knew how to be with people. In Mindanao, he stayed in safe houses and learned about the people. They were poor but they had a rich and immense culture. He would eat with them and fall in love with their food, their suka, their coffee that had hints of macadamia, and their kinilaw. “It was the best kinilaw I tasted in my whole life!”

As I watched him dreamily recalling the different tastes, Alex suddenly snapped out of his reverie. “When I got back to Manila, all those in the safe houses were captured, tortured, killed.” He took a sip of beer and shook his head. “They were good people too…all the good people, they killed them off…the gentlest people, they killed them off. And the Left killed off themselves.”

PHOTOGRAPHY

During Alex’s years in Pampanga, Teddy Boy had built a darkroom back at Paco. “It was the messiest darkroom in the whole world. Butch was really spartan, but this was a really lousy darkroom. Mang Cecilio, who was also a Kapampangan, the lab man of Danny Feliciano, taught me how to darkroom. He was old school. He smelled of pomade and he was a real gentleman. One time, Teddy Boy had a job doing the Assumption yearbook and I could do 150 prints in one night. And Mang Cecilio was old, so when he was tired he’d say ‘Bili na tayo ng serbesa’. Yun ang tawag doon nun, eh. Ang sarap pakingganparang nakakauhaw, eh, no? Di pa ako umiinom nun, eh.” Alex would go home each weekend and learn the ropes, not just of the darkroom, but also of making codeine from cough syrup, with the main seller only four blocks away from their house.

And on weekdays, when he would be back at Pampanga, Alex would learn to drink. It was gin with the exiles, the Tagalog who were the bad boys sent off to the province by their parents. “We were the wildest but we were also the most talented. Like my friend, Vic, was an archer and could play the guitar.” Alex, too, despite his delinquency would win speech contests. “Drugs didn’t destroy my body because athlete ako. Drugs didn’t destroy my mind because may will ako.” His teachers had no choice but to respect him. But it was one particular teacher who really saw his talent. “Evangeline Lacson, Dean of Student Affairs, saved me. She saw I had something. Nakita niya agad. Women are always saving men.” Evangeline made him the sports and photo editor of the school paper. Alex would for the first time, on a ‘professional’ level, shoot and write. Teddy Boy would sell his Pentax Spotmatic ES to the school and this would be the very first camera Alex had on the job. “It was here where I learned how to drink gin, where I got my first ulcer, where I got my first camera. After those four years, I knew how to shoot and how to do darkroom.”

At first, as the paper’s photo editor, Alex’s photos were mostly of sports events. But he still remembers the very first time he took photographs he really liked. “It was a photo of a husband and wife, farmers na kumakain sa field. And the light was really, really bad. But I was so proud. And then another time, I was trapped in the canteen because it was raining. And there was this kid, a boy, who was walking. Ang ganda. It was better than masturbation!”

But photography however, would not always feel this good for Alex. The years after his Mindanao project were trying times. During Mindanao, Alex was courting Tina, a girl he had left behind in Manila. He wrote her love letters, which would later be used as captions for the photographs of his highly revered book on Mindanao, Kasama: Photographs of the New People’s Army. The whole book would actually be one long love letter dedicated to Tina.

The Unanswerable Questions of Alex Baluyut / By Cristina Sevilla

Communist Rebels, 1982 / From Kasama / Courtesy of Alex Baluyut ]

COMING BACK FROM MINDANAO

Tina finally became his girlfriend. Time went by sweetly till the day she found out that Alex was still using drugs. Those were the last few occasions when Alex would be taking drugs, but it wasn’t enough for Tina. She split up with him. As Alex did the darkroom work for Kasama, his co-author, photojournalist Lenny Limjoco would also share his bitter tale of love. Lenny, an activist, was left by his girlfriend for, of all things, an army major. It was a slap on his face. Alex and Lenny would take turns crying in the darkroom.

But love was not Alex’s only battle. After finishing the darkroom work, he would finally have the exhibition and book launch of Kasama. On the night before the launch, a representative of the NPA came to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) where the launch would take place and told Alex that they had changed their minds, he Alex had refused to have the choice of his photographs censored by the NPA. The representative and her cohorts confiscated Alex’s photographs and books, leaving behind only one copy of Kasama. The CCP was behind Alex all the way, and with their support, Alex decided to launch the book the following night – with one and only one copy of the book.

Despite the threat of the NPA, the launch proved to be worth the trouble. Kasama won Alex his first National Book Award. It was the first time in Philippine history for a photography book to win that prestigious honor. The recognition of Alex’s fearless work was a validation of the difficult choices he had made in life.

It would not take long however, for the success of Kasama to wear off on Alex. Throughout those years, he would work for Malaya, and then The Manila Times, and he would still shoot some projects for AP. One particular assignment was a shoot with fellow veteran photojournalist Gil Nartea in Quezon. Both Alex and Gil were heavily criticized for being at the scene and taking photographs of the violence instead of informing authorities.

A similar incident was when Stephen Salcedo was beaten to death by Marcos loyalists and the photographers, Alex included, took photographs instead of stopping the violence. He was a photographer doing his duty. And yet, he was human too. Should he have taken those shots?

When I asked what he loves about photography, Alex answered, “the adventure, the unanswerable questions that wait for you the next day.” But this insight would take years to come. At the time when these controversial issues emerged, they weighed heavily on Alex’s shoulders. “I drank, tried to commit suicide. I would stand up, fall again – that kind of life. I just wanted to die, actually. I didn’t see a reason to live. There wasn’t a single day I didn’t think of killing myself.”

LOVE

At some point in the interview, a fully intoxicated girl came crashing at our table out of nowhere and without an invitation, decided to sit down with us. She was dark and sultry and her name was Guada. I had a pen and notebook in front of me. Automatically she assumed that Alex and I were poets writing poetry off the bat.

She started scribbling instant poetry on my notebook in her drunken handwriting, words moaning of love. I presumed she was attracted to Alex. And then she wrote down her cell phone number and left. Was she coming onto Alex or me?

Perhaps women come into Alex’s life this way – always when he least expects it. Among his countless firsts in Pampanga, it was there where Alex would have his first taste of intimacy with the opposite sex. It was controversial and a huge family scandal. It was with his cousin.

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Prisoners raise arms in surrender, as Deputy Warden Calderon and prisoners Daang and Caayan lie dead. / From Brotherhood / Courtesy of Alex Baluyut ]

Decades later, during those trying times with his photographs, Buena came into his life. With his new love, he began taking photographs again and was inspired to create his next bookBrotherhood. It was a documentary on police brutality in the Philippines. It was another feat no one had ever done before, with the police allowing a photographer to take incriminating photographs of their daily violence and cruelty. “I knew I could do it. I wasn’t scared of the policemen. They knew this by feel. So they just let it all hang out.” And while Alex’s relationship with Buena wouldn’t last, Brotherhood was another success, winning Alex his second National Book Award.

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Bagobo Ritual, Magpet, Mount Apo / From Gikan sa Area / Courtesy of Alex Baluyut ]

His next project, Gikan sa Area was a major photo exhibit of Alex’s five-month sojourn back into the protected areas of Mindanao. “I knew Mindanao like the back of my hand. I traveled more than a Mindanaoan around Mindanao. I drank with them, slept in their houses, and learned about their food, weaknesses, strengths and cultures. I was well entrenched. The Mindanaoans said, ‘You’re our adopted son.’ That was the most honorable thing.” Gikan sa Area was exhibited after Alex’s current lover, Precious, came into his life. The couple has two children between them – five-year-old Rickee, named after Alex’s brother, and Dylan who is three.

Surprisingly, for someone who has a constant flourishing love life, when asked what he loves about documentary phtography, his answer reflects a highly individualistic spirit. “What I love about documentary? The isolation. It’s really when you come to terms with yourself. When you’re totally free. When you have to be a man. Or a woman. Being alone with yourself is a very, very hard thing to carry. Towards the end, it’s always you. Never underestimate the power of an individual statement, a personal vision, which is yours. That’s the way I survived.”

Despite the drunken stupor of the night, it was impossible not to grasp that I was in the presence of greatness. Or madness. Or both. I understood that more than his photographs, it was his person, his freedom, his insane and unbending will that marked him as a legend, the one and only Alex Baluyut.

We finished our last beers and I watched the fire dancing in Alex’s eyes. He was 51 years old and perhaps just as strong and fierce, or even fiercer, as when he was younger. There are more adventures, more unanswerable questions that will await him. After four years in Pampanga, Alex returned to Manila. He would bide his time, as he bides his time now, till the day he would leave or leave again.

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