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The Avant-garde Images of Romeo Mariano
One of the most productive and artistic Filipino photographers who lived from the 20th to the 21st century whom I admired both as a personal and Facebook friend is Romeo Mariano.
Committed to his art as photojournalist and a commercial “street photographer” (swinging from one side to the other), he has produced one of the most thought-provoking and soul-searching images of the two centuries.
He has come a long way since we first met sometime in the 1990s in Northern Mindanao, when as a still-young photographer he was commissioned to cover a political event. From Manila, he flew in to Cagayan de Oro City in Southern Philippines where I met him. After that event, we lost contact for a number of years but through Facebook or “FB” we managed to see each other again.
I guess FB is the only platform right now that has allowed old friends separated by years to meet again.
All through the years however I was able to maintain long-term friendships with people in the visual arts business that included commercial photography. They have been on the local social level who are competent enough to display their competitive productions mostly in prenups and weddings. They represent a growing force of technically and visually competent artists of the modern genre. I also had a number of friends who were original painters and whose works had been acknowledged on the national level.
I belong to the old guard group of photographers of the 20th century who has learned to appreciate the classic exhibits of my contemporaries from the Baguio Arts Guild rather than learning to appreciate the equipment and processing technology behind their exhibits.
Originally, my experience in photography developed out of necessity. As a news writer and columnist for the Mindanao Daily Post, and as a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I had to gather some images from the field. The most popular “cam” at the time was the Kodak point-and-shoot camera that came in handy and was not expensive.
As one becomes proficient in “pointing and shooting,” one develops a sense of accuracy and art in the production of images. I had rolls and rolls of black-and-white and color films in my shoulder bag. At the time, the point-and-shoot camera was the easiest to use. The cellular phone with a built-in high-resolution digital camera was not yet developed. The task of gathering images becomes an art as one realizes the importance of presenting a clear and presentable image to the reading and viewing public.
Luzern Switzerland by Romeo Mariano
As a result of developing a good habit of pointing and shooting, I recorded a relatively large number of images for a number of years that some people in Manila were interested to exhibit. Through the Washington DC-based non-government organization, Directions International, the Rotary Club of Manila at the Ermita District sponsored an “Eco-Photo Exhibit” of my photographs at the Greenbelt Square in Makati in 1986. These were mostly my landscape shots taken from the different parts of the country.
This was followed by a second one man exhibit that was sponsored by the Mindanao State University, titled, “Mindanao Rising” in 1989 where the first venue was at the East Lobby of the Philam Life Building along the United Nations Avenue in Manila. I was the first photojournalist that exhibited exclusive images of the Moro rebels from the islands of Tawi-Tawi and the region of Maguindanao. The rest is history.
And in the late 1990s, when I became the chair of the Chancellor’s Committee on Culture and the Arts of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, my sense of visual artistic orientation came to the fore again. At the time I was also writing for some national and regional print media outlets based in Manila and Cagayan de Oro cities.
Romeo Mariano Street Photography
Romeo’s talent comes from his soul and his heart. One of the intriguing images that flashed on my sight is the photo of the “Good Friday Penitents,” an expression of the extreme religious-cultural devotion of Catholics in the Philippines who voluntarily undergo punishment for the “atonement of sins.” This happens during Holy Week. It portrays a certain type of realism in the picture that leaves an impression of a concocted drama, but one that has happened and captured in real life by the lenses of Mariano.
His 1987 camera Nikon FM2 is still in use he said and much of Romeo Mariano’s photos paint an image of political surrealism of people and events—sometimes with a tint of irony. To a certain extent, we see so much of irony in society, and to this extent, Romeo Mariano has captured it well.
His photo, “Traslacion 2016” captures the moment when people rush towards the image of the Black Christ Nazarene, one of the largest Catholic Christian celebrations in the Philippines. Traslacion epitomizes the Filipinos' devotional madness in trying to come close to the image of the Christ statue and touch the image either directly or through an intermediary using a handkerchief in the belief that all sins would be pardoned and a new life would begin, and the pouring of material and spiritual graces would ensue after the event.
“Palo, Leyte 40 Days after Yolanda” captures the moment of sunset when the souls of those who have died in the natural disaster are completed in a 40-day prayer. The desolate ground and the sense of loneliness are effectively captured by Romeo in a painting-like photograph. This contrasts with another picture of the same title “Palo, Leyte 40 Days after Yolanda 2” where a child seems to express hope beside a foggy river while a man at her back picks up some firewood.
Palo, Leyte After Typhoon Yolanda 1
Palo, Leyte After Typhoon Yolanda 2
Mixing Picture Elements
Romeo has a way of mixing elements in his picture, shot at the right time, to make it appear surrealist, such as “Alindahaw 2016” where the foreground and background landscapes appear to have a life of their own; or the “Happy Wedding,” showing an old man and a relatively young woman seeking the blessings of the Santo Nino after the wedding.
Romeo Mariano has the ability to spot and record ironic situations in life such as the picture of a man sleeping, partly hidden by a large poster which says, "Race Towards Success 2014." The title of this photo is "Chinese New Year at Binondo" (Manila). In another captured image, people pass by destroyed houses after typhoon Yolanda, with one house still standing, outside displaying a huge handcrafted star, but with a large space or hole at the center, in which Romeo aptly titled, "Merry Christmas Tacloban."
Light and Shadow
In this street photograph, Romeo anticipates the effect of his shot and waits for the man to walk further before taking his shot at the most effective angle and captures the man's shadow, creating an illusory but eye-catching effect as the sun sets.
As a photojournalist, Romeo was concerned with national social issues that made an impact on people and society. Such pictures portray the serious, sardonic and sometimes comic expressions of anger, discontent, dismay and indifference of people from various situations and walks of life. Mariano is able to capture precisely, at the right moment the facial and body language expressions of people reflecting a range of emotions towards certain issues, as seen in his mostly black-and-white photos.
He successfully and consciously combines the content of the subject and the art of the form which I believe only learned, committed and experienced photographers like Romeo can do.
For many of the 21st century younger generation of photographers who have been exposed to digital photography, “Facebook journalism” has become a sort of standard practice which contributes to a new genre of news photo coverage and dissemination. Because of competition and the urgency to disseminate news via Facebook, the art component of photography is most of the time left behind or relegated to the background.