Okay, you’re next, one of the teachers told a bashful girl wearing a traditional Muslim clothing. She led her to where I was standing and coaxed her in their local dialect, Bahasa Sūg, to smile a bit.
Taking portraits is really not my forte, finding rocks and waves much more interesting. But there I was, trying my very best to talk to these shy kids to pose in front of my camera. It was something alien to most of them; something they’re probably doing for the first time in their lives.
The distance between where we were staying, the Marine Battalion Landing Team-6 camp at Barangay Buhanginan and the Kaunayan Elementary School, where we were to photograph the kids, was only 600 meters. Close enough for a leisurely seven-minute walk.
But we weren’t allowed to do that.
For three days, we went there on military trucks, escorted by two more such trucks filled with armed marines and an armored tank. The dire situation in Sulu dictates that. Walking along roadways, even escorted by marines, equals to trouble, even abduction; an Abu Sayyaf camp is just a few kilometers away.
On our first outing to the school, hundred of kids greeted us; some with open smiles, a few with nervous little glances. This is something new to them and they can’t seem to decide what to make of it. I was having a difficult time communicating with them since they were too shy and most spoke limited Tagalog.
Through waves and smiles, I started to break down that barrier.
While waiting for the program to start, we checked out the local street food at the fringe of the school grounds. We found some variants of kikiam and halo-halo which interestingly enough, has macaroni noodles included. It didn’t take long before a few locals converged on us. We simply looked and sounded too different.
And then I felt two pairs of eyes suspiciously looking at us.
Kaunayan Elementary School doesn’t have fences and every little corner leads to the forest beyond. Those looks simply didn’t feel right and as I glanced around, it seemed that along with C, we were the only ones left in the area. I whispered to her that we should pay up now and hurry back to the safety of the classrooms.
I didn’t know it then, but back at the school, she related that she also felt being watched by those very same guys I was referring to.
It led me back to the question of why we were here again. It’s a dangerous place, no doubt. Would taking photos of the kids alleviate that? Certainly not.
With those thoughts running through my mind, I led a handful of kids and started taking their photographs.
As I tripped the shutter, somehow, my mind started to clear up. These kids are no different from the kids I know. They’re fun and happy-go-lucky even with everything that’s going on in their province. It doesn’t take long before I started feeling alright again. The fear was starting to dissipate.
To be honest, I have absolutely no idea how big an impact we were making. Before going here, I’m not really a hundred percent convinced about Juan Portrait’s cause. I mean, would a 3x6 picture make any difference?
But as the day wore on, I noticed that we were shooting more and more people. It just wasn’t the school kids anymore.
Soon, mothers along with their kids were asking for their portraits. A few would line up their kids and ask their photos to be taken. Word was getting around. And to my surprise, I’m finding that they’re really into this. It was indeed something for them for their photos to be taken, printed, framed and displayed in their homes.
After every photo, we would show them the LCD of our cameras. And even without saying anything, still shy to us, their eyes would light up.
It was then that I knew I was wrong in my assumption. There was something more to to this Juan Portrait project beyond the surface of a glossy 3x6 photograph.
And while we’re at it, a few of us, particularly street artist Geloy Maligaya Concepcion and the Art Attack guys led by AG Saño, were also doing works for the classrooms. Painting walls, putting up murals, engaging the locals to help them; to make them proud of their schools, giving them ownership. So that the next time bandit groups try to burn it down, they wouldn’t simply look and leave. It is now theirs, they sweated over it. They’d fight for it.
The Black Pencil Project group, led by noted photographer Mon Corpuz, was also there to hand out, not only pencils, but a few other supplies as well to the kids.
You won’t believe how kids go crazy over these stuff. What seems trivial to us, is a mighty big deal to them.
And then there’s Diego. The marines have found an awesome way of introducing their presence to the kids of Sulu through their soldier mascot. The kids absolutely love him (and so did we, lol)! It was a way of saying to these kids that the marines are your friends; they’re out there to help you.
To conclude the program, a long table was set up with banana leaves was filled with rice, noodles, sardines and all sorts of goodies. It was boodle fight time! It was a blast seeing the faces of the kids stuffing themselves full. A few of us wasn’t able to help it and joined in the melee too, haha.
And at the end of each day, we would all go back again by military trucks to the MBLT-6 camp. Laptops and mini-printers would be set at a table fronting the sea and we’d start the process of transferring, editing and printing the portraits we’d taken that day.
The day after, we’d be at the Kaunayan Elementary School once more. And every kid we’d meet would start to ask for their printed photos, jumping and excited to see and take it home. So excited, that they’d want another one.
And again, they’d pose for us, wanting to have another photograph in their hands for the next day.
It was surprising to see how powerful a small, printed 3x6 paper was. How it makes their eyes light up and twinkle. How they somehow see themselves in a new light. I guess in a way, it helps them see hope. A hope for a better future. A future where they won’t be needing our help in capturing their hopes in small 3x6’s. A future where they’d be able to do them themselves.