Livelihood through lens: The photographers of Luneta

A click of the camera, a snap of the shutter; the photographers of Luneta Park capture irreplaceable moments at the heart of Manila.

At the heart of Ermita, a vast green landscape stretches far and wide. Flanked by walkways, tree cover, gardens, and museums, its pièce de résistance is an obelisk: the Rizal Monument dedicated to the national hero himself, who was executed on the Luneta grounds, of which the park would be named after. 

Rizal Park draws visitors all year round, attracting tourists and locals alike that stop by to walk, relax, or have fun in the open, sunny breeze. As visitors gaze over the picturesque landscape, photographers clad in red and orange vests can be found roaming the park on bicycles and on foot, inviting visitors to have their photos taken at the park’s most scenic places and spots for a reasonable price. 

A union of photographers

Juanita Reyes, who has been working as a Luneta photographer since 1976, says that people like to visit the park because it’s open to the public. “Gusto-gusto po ng mga namamasyal kasi walang bayad dito,” she conveys cheerily.

The crowds at the park invites photographers like Reyes to make a living there, as fellow Luneta photographer and President of the Samahan ng Malayang Photographer sa Luneta (SMPLI) photographers’ association Celio Compoc shares that the park’s openness stands out among all other locations in the area. “Ito ang pinakamagandang pasyalan noon hanggang ngayon dahil ang area [ay] maluwag. Kasi marami namang pasyalan dito, pero [dito] ang pinaka-tangkilik ng mga tao],” he furthers.

(It has been the most beautiful place to visit, even until now, because it’s spacious. There are many other places to visit, but people enjoy being here the most.)

Reyes, Compoc, and other photographers in Luneta are also a part of associations that support their members with allowances and benefits. Furthermore, these groups also guide them through the work rules and regulations set out by the park management, the National Parks Development Committee (NPDC), an agency under the Department of Tourism.

Binigyan po kami ng mga alituntunin dito sa loob ng Luneta Park galing sa opisina ng NPDC na sinusunod po namin,” Compoc says. Reyes also mentions that these guidelines from the NPDC help protect them and their visitors in case of any untoward incidents—to which Compoc adds, “Kaya kailangan ipapatupad natin ang karapat-dapat”.

(We are given guidelines here in Luneta Park from the NPDC that we have to follow. So we have to implement them accordingly.)

Framing the foreground 

A fixture to Luneta Park, mapping out its historical indents with their shutter and flash, the photographers have borne witness to the significant changes that shaped the place into its current form. “[Kapag] nagpapapicture sila, pag-uwi nila sa lugar nila, makikita nila ‘yung kagandahan ng loob ng Luneta,” opines Compoc. 

(When they arrive home after having their pictures taken, it’s when they are able to see the beauty of Luneta.)

Beyond beautiful snapshots, the photographers have faced a collective problem for years: the tremulous foundation of their income structure. “Ang matumal sa amin ay ‘yung mga simpleng araw,” Reyes divulges. Luneta photographers are compelled to take it upon themselves to find extra income opportunities in an effort to hobble past grudgingly slow work days. “Bagyo, pandemic, tag-ulan—[ang mga] iyon ang [pinakamahirap][dahil] talagang walang income,” Compoc asserts. They often find themselves constantly re-evaluating their footing in this line of work due to the responsibility of supporting their own families.

(Weekdays are usually the slowest. Typhoons, pandemic, rainy days—these pose the greatest difficulty to us because we don’t get income during these days.)

Regardless of the adversity, within the hearts of these photographers lies the drive that allows them to carve out spaces for themselves in Luneta Park. “Kanya-kanyang diskarte pagdating sa tag-ulan [at] bagyo. ‘Yung iba kasi, kumukuha ng [pinagkakakitaan sa paglilitrato sa] simbahan, kasal, o binyag, [habang] ‘yung iba nagtu-tourist [photography],” Compoc explains. While difficulties abound, these photographers have honed not only their deftness in photography but also their unfaltering ability to make the most out of available opportunities, no matter how scarce. 

(Everyone strategizes on their own during rainy days and typhoons. Some cover church events like marriage or baptism, while some do tourist photography.)

Still, they are not entirely alone in their predicaments, especially with the supervision of the NPDC. “Kapag may events sila, kino-contact kami. ‘Yun ang pinakamaganda sa kanila na kahit papaano, may [tulong na] binibigay sa amin,” Compoc notes. Although the pillars of Luneta photographers’ livelihood rest on shaky ground, it is nonetheless reassuring that there is an agency to underpin their foundations should the need arise. 

(When they have events, they contact us. That’s what’s great about them, they somehow provide us with assistance.)

A captured moment

As people switch to modern cameras and digital photographs, it is in the bustling grounds of Luneta Park that the art of photography is still kept alive. Despite being told that this profession is unessential due to how quickly photographs are developed in the current age, Compoc shares how there are still people who prefer the old nostalgic ways, “Kahit magaganda mga cellphone nila, [nagpapakuha] pa rin sila… [Gusto] nila [ng] souvenir.” Time and time again, nothing can replace the unbridled joy of receiving a physical copy of a moment frozen in time. 

(Even though their cellphones are advanced, they still want their pictures to be taken. They want to have souvenirs.)

It is through these photographs of unfiltered beauty that we see how they keep the merry culture of the historical park going, and how significant it is to support their line of work. Campoc echoes this sentiment through a delighted smile, “Pinakamasaya ay marami kang makilala dito…hirap ginhawa, magsama-sama.” 

(The best part of my job is meeting many people. In the bad and good times, we are together.)

Developing photographs may now be a speedy process, but the art of these passion-driven shots are what the Luneta photographers will always love. Through the resolute press of the capture button and the purposeful configuration of the lens to frame the subject, Luneta Park photographers tell a story of change—one that circumscribes society, the visitors, and the park itself. 

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