Time and Tides: Teaching photography workshop in the Philippines

By Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times

This month I teamed up with Magnum photographer Eli Reed and Armando Arorizo, owner of the Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles, to hold the first South Pacific Photo Workshop in the Philippines.

The setting was Dumaguete City, the capital of Negros Oriental Province. The participants consisted of a mixed crew who possessed varied photographic skills, including seven Americans, six Filipinos, one Mexican and one native of the Czech Republic. Two Filipino students participated on full scholarships.

Eli, Armando and I taught the basics of composition, exposure and style on the fly, following an intense five-day schedule of shooting in the city’s bustling markets and downtown streets, as well as surrounding wilderness and agricultural areas that grew lush and green in the middle of monsoon season.

The weather largely cooperated, pouring torrential rain at night and mostly clearing by daybreak, allowing us to work in partly cloudy conditions that offered cooler temperatures and long periods of soft, natural light. On most mornings, black and gray storm clouds framed the sun rising from the horizon, beyond the rippled surface of the sea. It was inspiring to see and photograph.

We based the workshop at Foundation University, a nonprofit, nonsectarian school founded in 1949 by my grandfather, the unwanted son of a Catholic priest from Spain. Through hard work and some luck, Vicente Sinco became a prominent attorney in the Philippines during the period of U.S. colonization and after independence was granted at the end of World War II. He opened the school because he knew then, as now, the problems of class stratification and persistent poverty throughout the archipelago.

In Dumaguete — which has two Catholic schools, an American Protestant school and a state university — Foundation U is known as “the poor kids’ school.”  My family is proud of this reputation, even as my mother and brother who now run the place work hard to change it.

The roots of this workshop go back about eight years. Shortly after my father died, my mother introduced me to Hersley-Ven Casero, a young man who was short on money but blessed with artistic talent. My dad helped him attend art school, and the kid told me he wanted to learn photography.

I remember lending him equipment to take to his barrio and snap pictures. He returned with some really rough images, but it was clear that he had an innate sense for light. In my ensuing visits he learned everything I know about the craft.

The investment has paid off. Hersley has found a lot of success, having his artwork and images exhibited and published in many galleries and publications, including the pages and website of the Los Angeles Times.

I’m happy to see him pay the favor forward. He takes time every summer to teach kids in Dumaguete, with the help and resources of the university. He was a capable assistant instructor for this first workshop.

I have witnessed war and tragedy in a career that has spanned 29 years. It’s been therapeutic to teach talented kids at Foundation U — and just about all have gained from the experience.

I hold hope the seeds will grow and that the photo workshop eventually will generate enough resources for more instruction and equipment at the school. Until then, we will dig into our own pockets to do what we can.

Meantime, the residents of Dumaguete proudly cherish their reputation as the “City of Gentle People” — and in just about every instance they gracefully granted workshop participants the freedom to take all the pictures we wanted.  The end result was that everyone got at least a handful of really good photographs.

Beyond the basics, we tried to teach our students how to capture the essence and dignity inherent in the places we visited and the people we met. Eli, Armando, Hersley and I are of the same mind. We plan to hold more workshops, and we fully believe that visual imagery is empowerment.

Through photography, individuals can show and share what’s good, what’s bad, what we must accept and what we can change. Images have the ability to make people pause and think. And we can’t wait to do it again.

Participants in the first South Pacific Photo Workshop include, from left: Mark Bermas, Juliet Gim, Dennis Welter, Kenan Tuada, Hersley-Ven Casero, Roman Hampl, Jeff “Ruby” Rubenstein, Luis Sinco, Armando Arorizo, Sophia Sinco, Lisa Blumenfeld, Eli Reed and Paul Benzi Sebastian Florendo. Not pictured: Phil Prins and Mark Besario.