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Mt. Pinatubo@20 Photo Exhibit: More than just pictures, it was a reunion of survivors

(Standing from left) Nick Sagmit (formerly of Manila Bulletin), Mike Pusing (former PIO of then Mayor Richard Gordon, Olongapo City and organizer of Mt. Pinatubo@20 Photo Exhibit), Rhony Laigo (formerly of Times Journal), Myrna Aquitania (president of Filipino American Press Club of Los Angeles), Zen Lopez (curator and civic leader), Consul General Mary Jo Bernardo Aragon, City of Carson Mayor Jim Dear, Miss Beauty of the Philippines USA 2011 Erina Lightholder, Councilman Elito Santarina (City of Carson), Charie Villa (ABS-CBN Head of News and Online Business Regional Network), Tourism Director Annie Cuevas-Lim, Heraldo “Boy” Cabrido (formerly of Philippine Daily Inquirer), Joe Galvez (GMA-7 Online Editor and president of Press Photographers of the Philippines), Ted Aljibe (chief photographer of Agence France Presse, Manila Bureau), (seated from left) Val Handumon (photographer, European Pressphoto Agency, Manila Bureau), Ernie Sarmiento (current chief photographer of Philippine Daily Inquirer) and Angie de Silva (freelancer, consultant for YKL Fuji Film, Manila). Inset is Albert Garcia (current Manila Bulletin Photo Editor).

Albert Garcia’s award-winning photo taken on June 15, 1991 was chosen by Time as one of the “Greatest Images of the 20th Century” and also by the National Geographic Magazine as one of “100 Best Pictures” of the 20th Century. Garcia is currently the photo editor of Manila Bulletin.

By Rhony Laigo

It’s been 20 years and yet the memories were still vivid in their minds. The photojournalists who risked life and limb to capture the moments of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption had only one thing in their mind: perform their assigned task to take the best picture possible in the best possible place.

It’s no wonder why a select group of Filipino photojournalists braved facing nature’s fury to work on one of the most daunting coverage ever. Not that they had little regard for their safety, but the urge to frame a picture that “tells it all” was much more compelling at that time as shown by the photographs now on display at the Mt.Pinatubo@20 Photo Exhibit at the Southbay Pavilion in the City of Carson. These pictures, chosen by a panel of Manila’s top press photographers, deliver reality, the truth, and the impact to humanity.

There are about 100 pictures in the City of Carson exhibit which were flown in by photojournalists from the Philippines that gave the awe-stricken and the curious a glimpse of how it was like during the eruption on June 15, 1991 and the days that followed. The Mt. Pinatubo eruption killed about 800 people, buried several towns around the volcano and destroyed properties worth billions.

Garbed in Barong Filipino, the photojournalists opened their initial U.S. leg of the photo exhibit in large formats sponsored by YKL Fuji Film in the City of Carson to celebrate the Filipino Heritage Month. The event was made possible through the invitation of the City Council led by Mayor Jim Dear and Filipino American Councilman Elito Santarina and the organizers of the Tambayayong Festival led by Sining Kambayoka president Edgar Lopez and project director Peter Calma.

The idea behind the photo exhibit that began in the Philippines was conceptualized by Mike Pusing, who at that time was in charge of the journalists covering the event as far as providing them shelter and direction. Pusing served as the public information officer of then Olongapo City Mayor Richard “Dick” Gordon, whose office was turned into a barracks by the reporters and photographers both foreign and local covering the eruption.

It was Pusing who reminded Heraldo “Boy” Cabrido, who used to cover for Philippine Daily Inquirer and who just like the other photojournalists may have forgotten the seemingly now dormant volcano, that it’s been 20 years since Mt. Pinatubo roared and changed the topography of Central Luzon.

At that time, Cabrido was with 10 other photojournalists in Botolon, Zambales. All 11 in three separate vehicles were the most celebrated, for the lack of a better word, among all those who covered the eruption. Among the 11 was Albert Garcia, now photo editor of Manila Bulletin, whose photograph in full color captured what turned out to be the most compelling shot that showed the power of Mt. Pinatubo while exploding, followed by a searing pyroclastic flow racing against its slope, enveloping everything in its path and was going after him and the rest of the photojournalists, most of whom thought would never see another day.

Garcia narrated that he was in the second vehicle. While the others sought cover and prayed that they’d be saved, Garcia was busy focusing his camera. He recalled that his 50 mm lens wasn’t quite right ““ too tight, he said. Not thinking that he too had to duck and put down the curtains, Garcia decided to change his lens for a wider shot. He said he put in his 24 mm lens and took a picture”¦the same picture that made the covers of Time Magazine which also declared it as one of the Greatest Images of the 20th Century. The National Geographic Magazine also chose it as one of the Best 100 Pictures of the same century.

The other photojournalists who were in the same vehicle with Garcia also had pictures of the explosion, but not until Garcia convinced them to hold their camera and take their shot. If not for Garcia’s presence of mind, the panicked photojournalists may have missed the moment when Mt. Pinatubo was at its “best” again for the lack of a better word. Sad to say, others in the two other vehicles were not as lucky to have another alert Garcia with them that they failed to take as good a photo as that of Garcia’s.

But that was only on June 15. There were other photos that were as dramatic as Garcia’s and may arguably have competed with Garcia for the covers of the prestigious magazines if that were possible given the tons of photos to choose from. Some of the are pictures didn’t even show the erupting volcano itself, but they showed the tragedy that was taking place, of people fleeing to safety, the desperation of those in the evacuation centers and the destruction that mudflows and ashfalls were causing that resulted to deaths to many.

These unforgettable moments were recalled when Garcia, Cabrido, who together with Ted Aljibe (now the chief photographer of Agence France Presse in Manila), Val Vandumon (now a photographer of European Pressphoto Agency), Ernie Sarmiento (current chief photographer of Phil. Daily Inquirer), Joe Galvez (current president of Press Photographers of the Philippines), Angie de Silva (freelancer), Charie Villa (who serves as head of ABS-CBN News and Online Business Regional Network) and Pusing, flew in from Manila courtesy of Philippine Airlines and Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation or Pagcor at the insistence of fellow photojournalist Ed Galvez (who used to worked for Times Journal) that they come to Los Angeles join Nick Sagmit (formerly of Manila Bulletin) and this author (who used to cover for Times Journal) to hold the exhibit in the U.S. (Derek Soriano, now a freelancer, is on his way to join his colleagues, most of whom will proceed to San Francisco for a similar exhibit on Oct. 11-12.)

The reunion of the journalists, who call themselves the Mt. Pinatubo Media Survivors Group, had all the flavors of what it’s like to be a member of the Philippine media once again ““ beer, smoking, loud voices and cussing…and it was all made possible through the hospitality of Priscilla Sagmit, wife of Nick Sagmit, who accommodated almost everyone at her place in the City of Carson, and by Jess Fonseca and wife Raquel, who hosted a night of booze and laughter at their Garden Grove residence.

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