The Camera Man (Quiapo, Manila 2015)


There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself,
for what we see is what we are.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Do photographers have a secret society?

A hush came over the table when I asked a group of photographers where their camera’s were serviced. One looked into his glass with eyes glazed; another gave out a weak smile. Was there an alternative to expensive dealers? Is there a special place in Manila that us non-photographers don’t know of? Do they hold on to that dirty secret? Are there bad cameras, or just bad photographers?

After a brief pause “There’s a street in the heart of Quiapo that… near Hidalgo.”
“Yes I’ve been, but which one exactly?” I persist.
With some hesitation,
“Dong, look for Dong”, the person said.

In the early years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines, Quiapo was the primary city centre of old Manila.  It derived its name from the Tagalog word “Kiapo” meaning water lily- which grew in abundance along the canals and marshes. Initially Quiapo promoted commerce and held the activities of Manila’s elite. It was known not only for trade but for fashion and the arts. Qiuiapo is home to a sizable Muslim community, The Golden Mosque and  the Church of the Black Nazarene. The town square Plaza Miranda was named after Jose Sandino y Miranda, who served as the secretary of treasury of the Philippines in the early 19th century. At present the square has become a popular site not only for the celebration of the Black Nazarene Feast day but also for various political rallies.

Quiapo has seen better days and is not for the faint of heart. It has a bad reputation for crime and often attracts the bottom of the barrel.  With the influx of air-conditioned shopping centres a majority of its well established stores have moved or closed down. However there is still a steady stream of brave blue collared patrons who find this the ultimate Mecca market place for great bargains.

From the church around the square it transforms into a redundant photo walk location for avid photographers- exploiting the grit and chaos, trying to capture the “real Manila”. The professionals make their pilgrimage to Hidalgo Street for all their camera porn. Named after the famous Filipino painter- Hidalgo is known for connecting two main churches, the San Sebastian Basilica and the Basilica of Quiapo. In the early 1800’s it was called “the most beautiful street in Manila”, quite difficult to fathom at its current state. Gone are the grand mansions of the upper class. The once celebrated street has experienced a major decline in the past century. It is bewildering to make sense of the shacks that surround it.

Through years of borrowing cameras from my dad, I thought it time to get one of my own or at least with what the budget (second hand that is) could afford. Something handy for work and travel.  Apparently there are accessories; lenses, different types of film, tripods, filters, maintenance gear etc. to be had and added to the list of expenses. I dug myself deeper into the hole!

After the reluctant tip off, a designated day was set aside for the purpose of exploring what the photography related streets of Quiapo had to offer. The alley was tight and dirty with vendors selling a hodge podge of knick knacks of all makes and brands. From shack to shop I searched in the stifling heat for a basic protective filter for my lens; pretending to know what I was doing. Overwhelmed, I elbowed my way to the counter, camera aficionados (mostly men) looked at me in amusement. Did I need to wear a special jacket with pockets to be taken seriously? Or did I have to ramble on with technical nonsensical numbers of apertures and shutter speeds first?

Whatever they presented was either too small or too big of a fit. From the dilapidated shops of Hidalgo I finally turned to P. Gomez. To my right a sign read “Dong’s Repair Shop”.  A hole in the wall,  miniature museum filled with vintage film cameras, from Kodak, Polaroid, Leica to Rolliflex and even an antique stand up twin lens box camera from the turn of the century. It was compact and charming in an odd way. A group of men stooped over their desks with bright fluorescent lights beaming on cannibalized cameras.

“Filter for…” as I held up the gadget for the young man to see. He reached for a stack of boxes, going through envelopes with various numbers scribbled on them.

A distinguished voice could be heard in the background. “She’ll have to go to the main dealer-size is unusual and difficult to find.” He said with confidence. I felt dejected, but then it was a relief to receive a straight forward answer. Running around like a headless chicken was not an ideal way to spend the rest of my day. Best to make the most of the situation.

Was that he? Who was the man behind the camera? Would he have the time to speak? It is fascinating to find out why people choose to do what they do.
I mustered up the courage to ask for an interview. There were a few chuckles around the room.

A few minutes later I was lead under the wooden plank that separated the outside world to theirs. A tall man with a funny looking beard got up to meet me as I held out my hand.

Virgilio “Dong” Escober Gales graduated with a degree in Electronics from the Surigao del Norte School of Arts and Trade. His experience with camera repair goes as far back as 1978 in a camera shop located along Hidalgo. In 1997 he opened up his own along P. Gomez. I read it back to him. “This was the only research I could get hold of”. I said and he looked at me in amusement.

Think the man deserved more.

Despite being the head of the contingent his station was just as modest as the rest of his staff -all blood relatives.

“My brother asked me to come to the city with him in the late 70s.” He quipped.  “After college ironically, I was tending to corn fields! But my brother wanted more for us. We arrived on a weekend in Manila, he showed me around and the Monday after I began to work with cameras.”
He hasn’t stopped since.

It didn’t matter to him whether it was old with film or the latest in digital photography.
It is quite admirable to meet people who genuinely love what they do.
“When I can’t figure it out, I leave for a while and go back to it.” Mang Dong exclaimed as he pointed to a dismantled camera across us. He knew when to step away. Patience, after all is a virtue. Is it like life? We shouldn’t be flustered if things don’t go our way.

I watched the people who came into the store going by with their business- not knowing what a remarkable man there was behind all those lenses.

We spent the rest of the day talking about his travels, love for birds and photography.

Retirement is not anywhere near the horizon.

“Do your work well…” he said.  After all, it’s what we will be remembered for?

“So you’re not leaving this place to them?” I teased and pointed to the rest of his family.

“Not just yet! Until I can…” he quipped and we both laughed.

As I stood to leave, he moved towards the cramped desk and carried on- with a camera close to his chest.

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