What I've Learned

"I’m driven when I’m angry." -Rick Rocamora

The veteran documentary photographer on access, empathy, and the most important skill for young photographers.
IMAGE Joseph Pascual
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WHAT I'VE LEARNED

RICK ROCAMORA
70, documentary photographer

In 1990, I took the buyout from my company at the time. In 1991, I started full time with photography. Even before I quit the job, there were a lot of people who helped me—mainstream, professional photojournalists. They became my mentors. I said that, when I get a chance, I will return the favor.

A major part of this kind of work is your skills in dealing with people. Because the body of work we produce is not about us—it’s always about them. I always tell students that once you start feeling the anger, the anxiety, and the pain of your subjects, that’s when you can really see that pictures are coming out, and you can capture the essence of the story.

I always tell myself that I will do good and I will really pursue an issue if I’m angry. Anger is a good motivation factor for my work.

Ever since I became a photographer in 1986, the first time I came back after Marcos, my goal [has been] to document stories here that I’m concerned about. Although I don’t live here, every time I’m home—I still call this home—I [work] on projects like that. I’ve done work in Mindanao, I’ve spent time with the New People’s Army, I’ve spent time with the MILF. I’ve spent time in jail with children behind bars. I’m driven when I’m angry. That anger really motivates me a lot.



There’s no guarantee that you’ll be successful, in my kind of work.
You cannot guarantee that because [you] did this, things will happen, things will change.

I’m very militant in terms of preserving the integrity of photojournalism and documentary photography. There was one incident in Tacloban after Typhoon Yolanda—I was hired by the United Nations to work there for about 30 days. I was shooting on a building, and I saw below, a white guy setting up a picture, putting together a broken drum set with cymbals and asking a little girl to play. I saw that from the top [of the building]. I went down and I cursed the guy, I said, “You fucking asshole. Don’t do that.”

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I photographed Mark Zuckerberg when he was starting Facebook. I was doing work in Silicon Valley. And what I remember from his talk, his presentation, is that Facebook should be used like a vehicle to promote ideas, to sell products, and to put out your positions on issues. I, for one, always stand on issues—I don’t waver from one side to another. And I’m not going to be in the center to satisfy both. My positions, all the time, are very clear, and most of the time, [I’m] on the side of the underdog, the oppressed, those who suffer from discrimination.

There are two things you have to remember to say: “Thank you” and “I need help.”

You have to be flexible enough and courageous enough to seek out all levels of society. You can go down to the poorest person and you can meet and discuss things with the president of the country.

If you’re going to do the same thing that others have done, why do it if you cannot improve the story? If you don’t have another point of view? That’s where access comes in. Because if you can get access, you can get a different perspective. You’ll be allowed to go deeper into a story.

There’s a certain attitude among Filipinos. People from overseasbalikbayans—and people who have never been to Quiapo. They cannot relate to Quiapo. For us older guys, we’ve known Quiapo since before. That’s the center of whatever’s going on: movie theaters, restaurants, shows, things like that. So my purpose after Rodallie [Mosende] is to look for people in Quiapo and prove the point that they are not lazy people. They work hard.

I used to say that before, I stayed in Ritz Carlton. [But] when I became a photographer, sometimes, I can’t even stay in Motel 6. [Before,] I had a company car, I had a fifty-thousand-dollar expense account every year. I've traveled all over. I had to give up all of that because of my passion for photography.

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You have to act sometimes. In my kind of work, sometimes you have to assert power when you’re being intimidated by other people; and sometimes you have to move back and say “I’m sorry.”

"I was once called 'an imperialist pimp.' But with my record as a photographer and as a person, it’s very clear that I’m on the other side of the fence."

I don’t know how to swim. So I will not take an assignment that requires it. But when Martial Law was declared, I crossed the channel from Marinduque to Lucena on a five-hour pump boat [ride], without a life jacket.

When I was working in El Salvador, I made friends with Salvadoran soldiers. They were walking on the street, doing traffic, and they’ll go to the corner and say hello to me. I was invited to their barracks. But they didn’t know I was doing a calendar project for the human rights commission of the Farabundo Martí Liberacion Nacional [A left-wing political party in El Salvador, and one of the main participants in the Salvadoran Civil War].

Some people are angry just to show off. They’re not really courageous, it’s just to intimidate people.

There are some people who hate my guts, because I’m very open. I’ve been called names. Without hesitation, I’ll go after that guy in many ways. You just have to really confront them and put them on the spot when they’re wrong, really pin them down. So everybody will know the kind of mistake they made.

I can be emotional sometimes. The project I did on Muslim Americans after 9/11: I was listening to the radio. There was an event in San Francisco—a peace rally. Amatullah al Marwani, an American convert to Islam, was delivering a speech. It was so powerful that I parked my car and listened to the whole speech. After that, I knew that there was a mosque across the street. I parked my car, crossed the street, and introduced myself. I said, “I’m going to do a documentary on Muslims in America.”

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The photographers who I have known and respected, they’re good with people. Eli Reed, Ed Kashi.

I was once called “an imperialist pimp.” But with my record as a photographer and as a person, it’s very clear that I’m on the other side of the fence. I was saying that Filipino photographers should really look at the outside world, the Internet, because there are no longer any borders. The borders have collapsed. We can compete anywhere.

"I came from an activist background, and some of the leaders in the activist groups that I’m part of are women. They are leaders and they know what they’re doing. You have to appreciate that."

A good lawyer will say, you don’t ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. Same thing with day-to-day life. If you’re doing something, you must know the consequences.

I should have started photography a [longer] time ago. I’m much happier as a photographer than I was when I was selling. I think my life as a photographer could’ve been more successful. I could’ve done better. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished so far—I’m 70 years old and I’ve not really slowed down. Because I believe that photography and success should not be limited to a one-time thing. You really have to be consistent.

Women are very strong in many ways. In fact, in my lifetime, there are women that I admire because of their leadership qualities. They’re militant, in some ways, with what they’re doing. I came from an activist background, and some of the leaders in the activist groups that I’m part of are women. They are leaders and they know what they’re doing. You have to appreciate that.

If you’re really convinced of fighting injustice and inequality or discrimination—and you’re like that when you’re young, more so you should be like that when you’re old. Because you have more experiences to be fighting for [those causes].

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There is racism in America, for sure. That, I know. I have been in a situation where I saw a Latino being punched by a white guy. I ran after that guy. And the police asked me, “who was the one? A black man?” And I said no, it was a white man.



There’s no way you can understand what another person is going through without being empathic to their situation.
 Even just the mere fact that you’re asking questions and trying to understand [a person], you’re actually giving them a chance to voice their feelings. They know that somebody is trying to listen to them. That’s very important.

I’m proud of my work, I’m proud of the stand I’ve taken in my life. Some are not kosher for other people, but that’s who I am.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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