Some flights to Leyte are more memorable than others. The first time you tasted their sweet midget pineapples, your first time at the Pintados-Kasadyaan festival, or witnessing firsthand the horrors of Typhoon Yolanda. Rem Zamora is no stranger to polarizing moments in life such as these, being the professional photojournalist that he is. As he clicks and saves the moments in his camera, so too are they embedded in his character and soul.
Many are called to take a scene and call it a photograph, but very few can take its helm and call it an advocacy.
Aim, focus, shoot
In Susan Sontag’s essay In Plato’s Cave, she describes photography as “soft murder.” There are a lot of weapons that could kill, and a camera is one of them. After all, Sontag explains, owning a camera is not that different from owning a gun. When we take a photo, we aim for a subject and focus on capturing a clear picture. When the timing is right and everything is still, we shoot. Guns stop heartbeats, cameras freeze reality. A camera is a weapon for capturing someone in a potentially vulnerable situation. It is when the photo is taken that the epiphany comes in: Taking photographs is having power.
If photography is soft murder then Rem could have just committed a crime. Every day he captures people showing a wide array of emotions. Whether it is a smile or bloodshot eyes, there is vulnerability in emotions, and photographs will preserve them for life. There is power in this encapsulated vulnerability, but Rem decides to stifle it.
How does he avoid becoming a murderer? Besides letting his 14-year experience guide him, he lives by a simple mantra, “Be sensitive, be human.”
He had trained himself to do quite the opposite. Instead of making sure that people look like a deer in the headlights, Rem aims to take photos that respect and empower. And this, he believes, is a skill that only mature photojournalists have.
“There’s a lot of beauty even in calamity, even in death, even in war,” he says “Photography is so easy. If you do it every day, you’ll be good at it. But telling a story, having a photograph that tells a message, having a photograph that has your voice? That’s the challenge. And very few photographers will reach that level.” he adds.
After countless images of tragedy and loss, the photojournalist had learned to master the art of portraying humanity in its best angle. In the end, it all boils down to what is most important: The message.
“There are a lot of ethical considerations that you need to follow, because photojournalism is not just a job, it’s not just a means to earn money, you have a bigger responsibility in somehow shaping society.” he explains.
The perfect murderer is trained from an early age to see the world in a different light. Born with bloodshot eyes, he heists with precision, and kills. The way Rem shoots, it is as if his eyes turn blood red in eyeing that perfect photo; the strain, the pressure, and the agony to capture reality as it is, and not what he wants it to be, is all that comes with the profession he is in. The tangibles of photojournalism are as straightforward as it gets; no adding or subtracting elements (otherwise known as drawing), and an epic stance against envelopmental journalism, or simply encashing photographs at a reasonable price.
In becoming the perfect photographer, what is hardest to gain and easiest to lose is integrity. Acquired over one’s entire career, and lost at one fell swoop of a favor, the value of integrity candidly speaks of having moral consistency, regardless of the circumstance. One could spend years building a reputation of crisp and authentic photographs with honest work ethic, only for one “drawn” photo to be blacklisted.
“Even if you produce all great photos 99 percent, and there’s this one percent that you created a beautiful photo but nag drawing ka, or you accepted money for that, then the rest of the truthful photos will be lost, because people will have no idea which one is real and which one is not.” says Rem.
“They buy or they read your photos, they look at your photos because they know the person behind that photograph has integrity.” Yet much more than losing one’s job, Rem explains that it’s the readers’ trust and confidence that is lost as well. People are pleased not solely by the aesthetics of the photo, but are just as interested in the person behind it. Who is eventually murdered isn’t the photograph, but everyone who has lost faith in the man behind the camera. It’s a mass shooting.
A bullet of experience
“The photographs, the coverages, the experience, the events also contribute in making who you are as a person.” he explains. The practice of precision for photojournalists meant spending years in areas that most people would avoid. Other people may dodge a bullet, but photojournalists would get closer to it. Going to those areas meant seeing things that may be drastic and life changing. With the lens of his camera aimed at his subjects, stories are expected to be told just from the photos themselves. However, in doing his job as a photojournalist, Rem admits that it has affected who he is today.
In pulling out his camera and taking photos, he takes in experience for photography. A treasure in doing so, however, does not only include capturing moments through his camera. Just like a trooper on an adventure, they see areas of calamity, hunger, war, sadness, happiness, in the eyes of the people they meet. As they look in the eyes of the people in the story, they gain a different experience–an experience of being human.
“You’re a human being first before a photographer.” says Rem. Like an adventurer in the middle of a jungle at midnight, photojournalists also face different problems when they are on site. From picking the subject to interfering when there are people in need, trained photojournalists have to act on instinct not just as a professional, but also as a human being. The stories the audience sees in the photos have their own backstory – one that can never be replaced.
“There’s [a lot of] different personalities, different people, different layers in society that gives you the experience and will somehow create you or be part of who you are because that’s what you experience and that eventually all those experiences will affect you with whatever decision you do in the future.” adds Rem. With all the different people he had met before, each one of them gave Rem lessons for a much-needed awakening as a person. Just like his camera aiming at his subjects, they too aim back at him through experiences that keep his toes on the ground, giving him a different perspective of things in life.
“Sometimes you have personal problems and then you’re exposed to people with bigger problems than you and then you see, you have a good perspective of where you are relative to a lot of people.” says Rem. Even if he already spent more than a decade with a job that requires time, talent, focus and one’s whole self, Rem admits that all his experiences are unique. Every coverage, every person, and every photograph has become a part of him. Everything, all of a sudden, becomes a humbling experience.
Hours after Rem Zamora saw the destruction of Bohol, he had lechon in Cebu. He caught a glimpse of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that had just killed 222 lives, and caused 2.2 billion pesos worth of damage to buildings, roads, and historic churches. And just like that, amid all the chaos, when the world seemed to have stopped and people wide-eyed and frantic, he was eating charcoal-roasted pork like it was just another day of his life.
Photojournalism doesn’t end with a few clicks of the camera. Being a fly on the wall in situations involving death, birth, tragedies, celebrations, and the overall reality of life is something most people would not choose to do. The quotidian life of a photojournalist is not for the faint of heart. And when tragedies like the Bohol earthquake are assigned to Rem, he simply has to put a touch of mundanity in the situation.
What Rem and thousands of other photojournalists signed up for is more than just to find angles and click away. It is to live a life where one is constantly keeping in touch of their humanity, prioritizing integrity and knowing their responsibility. In a way, it is a job that consumes.
“[Being a photojournalist] doesn’t stop when you put down your camera.” the photojournalist warns.