April 15, 2024

■  Rimaliza A. Opiña 

They say every person has a gift but it takes someone with a discerning eye before people are able to appreciate that gift.

This exactly is what a group of Baguio-based photographers are doing for more than a decade now – mentoring people who may have a gift in the art of photography.

But the people the Baguio Photographers Club (BPC) and Baguio photojournalists chose to teach are not those who fit the mold of a conventional student. Their students are within the autism spectrum, which means the approach by which they teach these students are different.

Despite lack of experience on how to communicate with people with autism, former BPC chair and coordinator of the photography-mentoring program called “Colors of ‘A’ Spectrum,” Rodolfo “Ompong” Tan recalled saying “yes” to the late famous Filipino photographer John Chua, who, during a five-minute phone call in 2009 asked him to mentor people with autism in Baguio.

The call with Tan was prompted by a referral from spouses Noli and Isabelita Vizcocho, whose youngest son had autism, and who also happen to know Chua.

The Vizcochos said Chua asked them to look for a photographer who can replicate his project in Metro Manila where at the time, he was also teaching a boy with autism, who was living in a boat docked at the Manila Bay.

Tan said despite not knowing anything about how to deal with people with autism he said yes to Chua’s proposition and gathered his friends in BPC and the media to help mentor students under the umbrella of the Autism Society of the Philippines-Baguio chapter where the Vizcocho’s were officers and founding members. 

It did not take much effort to convince the mentors  like Ric Maniquis, Florence Co, former mayor Reinaldo Bautista Jr., Eliza Consul, Neil Ongchangco, Mark Perez, Midland Courier Editor Harley Palangchao, Jerry Telva, Lino Tabangin, Red Fernandez, Jose Olarte III, Vanessa Olarte, Lui and Falgent Fagela, and BJ Pagtulingan for when he asked them to help, they immediately said yes.

It also does not take rocket science to teach his mentees as they were allowed to tinker with their cameras sans the technical nuances in photography, Tan added.

From an initial 22 mentees, there were those who turned out to have a gift in photography. “It was a hit and miss for us but it is fulfilling to see that there were those who stayed and are now regulars in the photography exhibits we have organized through the years,” said Tan, who is also an outstanding citizen of Baguio for community service.

The students’ first immersion was in the garden owned by the Espadero family in La Trinidad, Benguet, owners of the homegrown Valley Bread.

The students have since gone to many places for their practicum or immersion and have taken photographs at the Northern Blossom Farm in Atok, Benguet and Camp John Hay. Several years back, the students also took a shot on aerial photography during the Hot Air Balloon Festival in Clark.

For this year, seven students embarked on a larger scale, in their very own turf – the 2024 Panagbenga Festival.

ASP-Baguio president Bernadette Palicdon said the parents decided to expose the children to the colors, the sounds, and the crowd of the Panagbenga to allow them to venture on their own and innovate the skills they learned.

Tan said he was apprehensive at first as exposing people with autism to noise or to a crowd might overwhelm them, but in the end, the decision of the parents was correct for they were able to capture equally beautiful images of the festivals sans issues that he thought might occur.

Like the hobbyists and the photojournalists, Tan said no special treatment was given his mentees as they too, underwent the accreditation process required of every individual who wanted to have a good vantage point during events of the Panagbenga.

Featured photographs were taken by Carlo Bañez, Cire Garay, Josef Vizcocho, Leila Lachica, Onel Gundran, Stephen Palicdon, and Vincent Bayeng.

“I was just on the side to remind them about the protocols. Other than that, they took photographs on their own with the least guidance,” Tan said proudly saying that his mentees can now mentor their juniors.

The images captured by mentees will be made into calendars, which the ASP plans to sell and proceeds will be given to the them, the Vizcochos said.

In 2023, the students produced a desk calendar and mounted a photo exhibit at SM City Baguio of the images they took of the Northern Blossom.

Isabelita said some amount was raised from the sales and exhibit and these were given to the mentees. She said they were allowed to buy what they wanted from the money so they too, will have an idea on handling money.

For future immersion projects, the ASP and Tan are planning to bring the students to the market where they too will capture images of everyday life in the public market.

Malaki ang naitulong nitong photography sa kanila kasi it is not just about photography or showcase of their talent or creativity, they can now express what they want and even show their affection. Kasi sa mga may autism, hindi madaling magsabi o ipakita ang nararamdaman,” Palicdon said.

For the Vizcochos, parents and guardians of people with autism, it takes patience, perseverance, and dedication to discover what their children are good at and what they might want to be. But they remain hopeful that through the projects that the ASP, BPC, and other kindred souls mount, more people will come to recognize that people with autism also have rights, talents, and aspirations that need not just one but a community’s support.