A Tiger With a Lens: The Photography of Paul Quiambao

Despite the emergence and the easy accessibility of digital camera in recent years, viewing prevalent photographic practice as an art form in the Philippines is still a blurred picture. Photography has yet to evolve from its commercial roots into a discipline it was meant to be, more than a century when it was first introduced to our shores. More so, lacking is a substantial writing on contemporary photography. One finds signification in the examining production of images taken from its various genres such as photojournalism, or government institutionalized images (even reading the positioning in photo opportunities), to how we portray our weddings has specific readings. 
Not that there is a dearth of worthy recipients, there has never been a National Artist awarded to a photographer though many a master lensmen have brought honor to the country by winning international photo competitions and exhibiting abroad. Rather photography is just relegated as one of those subjects under visual arts.

My belief in photography was reawakened with this young photographer who should we say obviously became obsessed with his alma mater as his subject. But I am writing ahead of my story.

Paul Quiambao considers himself a late bloomer in the arts, his epiphany arriving only after documenting his mother’s Christmas party at the Bank of the Philippines Islands Head Office in Makati when he was barely 12-year old. It was then that Paul began his love affair with the camera. He was just in first year high school.

Unlike other parents, Paul is blessed to have supportive ones: “My parents taught me to be independent and appreciative of my surroundings. This value resulted in my being a maverick; I work best when I’m alone.”
Santo Tomas, You are Stunningly Beautiful, 2011

A Realization called ArtPetron
As fate would have it, Paul entered University of Santo Tomas (UST) just as it was gearing up for its quadricentennial celebrations in 2005. As an inquisitive freshman, it was the UST Main Building that initially fascinated him: “First year pa lang ako, masyado na  kong attracted sa UST Main Building, shinu-shoot ko na lagi.”

Looking back now he noted how he wasn’t impressed at all with the photos in the Varsitarian, the university paper. The opportunity to make a change, or be the change could not have come sooner. In 2006, the Varsitarian photo editor announced an opening for photographers in the paper. As a sophomore, with fire burning in his belly, Paul submitted sample works and was immediately taken in. This was the same year he won in ArtPetron (now Vision Petron).    

On the two consecutive occasions he won in ArtPetron, Paul preferred quality over quantity, and submitted only three photos as entries. “I have always been disciplined on quality,” he emphasizes, “and even if ArtPetron allowed unlimited submission. Restraint is a quality a photographer must possess.”

His Favor of Carrying The Largest Human Cross
On March 9, 2011, Ash Wednesday, the officials of the Guinness World Records (GWR) watched as UST community of 13, 266 UST students and faculty formed a human cross and was still for five minutes in prayer. This beat the previous record of 935 people in red forming a giant Red Cross set at the Oslo Opera House in May 2010.

Paul was assigned to photograph this historic event, which was UST’s concrete collective contribution to its quadricentennial celebration.

“I was chosen to do this task because of my being a two-time ArtPetron grandprize winner. The UST Rector called the adviser of Varsitarian and inquired of this award-winning photographer who won twice in ArtPetron. I was called to his office and immediately given the responsibility.”

Recalling the incident, however there’s more to this story which makes Quiambao more thrilled.

Through the generosity of taipan Lucio Tan, a helicopter was made available. Meeting place was at the helipad of the Century Park Sheraton in Pasay City. The agreed time was that at 3:34 pm they should already be at the vicinity of UST for the official five minutes of being still to be recorded by GWR.

“However at 3:54 pm we had not left the helipad. My superiors at UST were already getting worried. The helicopter would and could only accommodate four people. Lima kami — dalawang piloto, isang member ng Presidential Security Group (dahil dadaan over Malacanang), official photographer of Lucio Tan and me,” Paul narrates.

Paul was able to convince the photographer of Lucio Tan that he would just give him his best shots. To make the long story short, they were able to finally leave after the delays and infighting. Paul felt as if God orchestrated the act, by the time they reached UST it was already 4:11 pm, or as their watches were synchronized it was 16:11, the digital year UST was founded.

It was this time he felt the anointing spirit of his calling: “naramdaman ko na may mission ako sa UST. Di ako basta photographer dito. It was serendipitous that I am in UST,” Paul believes.

As earlier reported that day, because of the bad weather, the pilot said they could just go around UST quadrangle only once. Paul must take as much shots as possible. Again, as if God opened His window, they were able to go round the assembly ten times without interruption! And Paul’s best shot was the one with the sunlight beaming on the whole human cross, as if it was spotlighted.

Paul describes: “Buong university madilim,sa cross lang may ilaw. Yung sunray, nag-form into cross. I considered this my turning point in being a Thomasian. Pagdating ko sa UST, tumakbo agad ako sa simbahan to thank God, that I was privileged to do the task.”

World’s Largest Human Cross

400 moments for the 400 years

With the wealth of Paul’s photos taken of the many facets of UST, he first thought of the 400 photos to mark its quadricentennial anniversary.

Entitled “400 Shots to Immortality, Timeless Photographs of the University of Santo Tomas Towards its Neo-Centennial,” his eagerness for UST was rejuvenated. Since he was an insomiac, Quiambao would wait for the perfect sunrises at UST buildings.

“Biased aside, lahat ng panahon maganda sa UST. It is a heaven in the middle of a desperate city.” Paul beams with pride. “Wala akong pinapiling araw o kundisyon for UST. One must work with the weather, there’s no such thing as perfect. I have shot UST in almost weather possible — rainbow, kidlat, lunar eclipse, moondog, sunrise, sunset, even mini-tornado.”

Was it Paul’s aesthetic sense of architecture that became his canvas for creation or it was his pure passionate love for his alma mater that drove him to achieve such meticulous perfection?

Even Paul was amazed at his somewhat obsessive work ethic: “I would even stay overnight on a rooftop just to get a shot. Who would opt to capture UST’s gaudy rooftops on its seminal laboratories in the wee hours of the morning?”

In zest, Paul speaks further “another favorite time was when it rained kasisure may reflections, something I became known for.” One of my most memorable shot was when I spent overnight at a tower just to frame a sunrise over the UST Main Building. A security guard had to wake me up and say ‘Paul tingnan mo sa likod mo.’ That’s when I saw a beautiful rainbow on top of the UST Main Building, which has always been on top of my wish list.”

Like a revolving carousel, his fun never stopped. “I was really after quality. The 400 carefully selected photos had to be timeless and still relevant when UST’s 500th anniversary comes along. In fact, the day of the opening I was still shooting. That week I literally didn’t sleep and I had whatever chicken pox left in my skin. Until now, after the 400 photos marami pa rin akong di nailalabas sa UST. Sinacrifice ko sarili ko para makita ng Thomasians na maganda pala ang UST.”

Aside from reflections Paul ’s trademarks in his photos are fireworks and sunsets/sunrises. He also leans towards the unusual, more like puzzles for viewers to trigger them as to ask how the shot was taken and how the photo turned out to be.

“After 50 years gusto ko balikan and take another photo of these place. Given another chance, I will do it again,” he sentimentalizes.
Neo-Centennial 2012

Lasting Impressions

Symbolizing UST’s commitment to Excellence, the Benavidez Outstanding Achievement Award is given to students who have “extra excellence” in their respective fields. Given annually the Benavidez award is named after Bishop Miguel Benavidez, OP who in his desire to put up an academic institution bequeathed his funds and donated his personal library for the establishment of UST in 1611.

Paul holds the distinction of having been awarded with the most Benavidez trophies – four (out of the five years he has been a student). Two were for his two grandprize wins in ArtPetron. His third Benavidez award is a collective one, as he was part of the Varsitarian Quadricentennial coverage as its photo editor. The fourth is his being the Philippine delegate in the Asean Youth Camp in Indonesia in 2012.
Castlevania, 2012

Paul confessed that he did not previously have any formal technical know-how of a camera. He acquired the skill the long and hard way, by shooting as many images in the streets as possible: “Trial and error. I do not like to be confined with the technical complexities of photography. Mata pa rin ang importante.” Although the learning curve is long, he is fulfilled.

The Founder, 2011

In a world where everyone who has a camera considers himself a serious photographer, he advises that one must become more responsible with the photos one take.

To this day he would still receive thank you notes in his Facebook account for his contribution of bringing out the beauty of his alma mater. His photos showed – not a 400 year old institution — but a living dynamic and iconic educational institution.

Currently, he is part of the forming of Fotomasino, a UST-based Photo club, initiated together with alumni and more advanced photographer students. His advice to budding lensmen is the investment in time: “You have to be there at the right time and place. However minsan talo ka. Kahit ang tagal-tagal mong naghintay, overcast pa rin or pangit ilaw. No one can predict the right formation of clouds and sunset. Second, dapat may puso ka, kailangan passionate ka sa ginagawa mo kahit anong mangyari. Dasal, diskarte, tiwala, ‘Wag susuko.”