Documentary photographer Rick Rocamora notes the irony of having a gallery exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). His photography career began almost by accident almost 30 years earlier when a Filipino friend, in exile because of Martial Law, gifted him with his first camera; Rocamora, whose family migrated from the Philippines to the United States a decade earlier, was then a fixture of anti-Marcos protests in the Bay Area. Today, he finds his photographs on display in the hallowed main hall of the CCP, one of the structures former First Lady Imelda Marcos had ordered built to focus on “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
The gallery exhibit, titled With Passion and Purpose, features a cross-section of Rocamora’s work throughout the years. His photographs, rendered in striking black-and-white, are imbued with a hypnotic quality that turns everyday scenes into powerful imagery.
These include pieces from his most famous work, “America’s Second Class Veterans,” which documented Filipino World War II veterans going through their lives in the United States while they waited for recognition from the American government. The moments he captures range from the mundane—an old man who pushes his shopping cart full of junk through the streets of San Francisco—to the monumental—veterans facing a coffin draped in the American flag, containing the remains of a brother-in-arms who had passed away.
A large part of his oeuvre consists of portraits of his subjects, and these include some of the most haunting images of the series. One picture shows Felizardo Ticao, a Purple Heart awardee, decked in his official US Army combat uniform that had clearly seen much better days. His medals hang from his mismatched formal military hat, while the Stars and Stripes take up the background.
“Sometimes people question if I was really a war hero,” reads the caption beside the photograph, echoing Ticao’s words. “To convince them, I show them the certificate of authenticity that I keep inside my cap.”
It was a photo of a tired, lonely man, who nevertheless remains mighty proud. In his action shots of Filipino veterans, Rocamora is able to document their plight. But in his portraits, he is able to capture—and forever preserve—the quiet dignity of forgotten heroes.
Quiapo in his eyes
In recent years, Rocamora has become a habitue of Paterno Street in Quiapo, Manila. A place that Pete Lacaba once described as “the armpit of the Philippines,” Quiapo when viewed through Rocamora’s lens is lovely, if not downright romantic.
He depicts scenes from Quiapo we see every day, featuring people with whom we normally strive to avoid eye contact as we pass each other on the streets. The romantic sheen in Rocamora’s photographs invites us to inspect more closely, instead of our usual reflex of looking away.
But that sheen is a trap; the uglier truth reveals itself, almost immediately, upon closer inspection. We find out that all that loveliness serves as mere temptation, and by the time we realize it, we’ve already left our guard down, enough to get our hearts broken, if only a little.
Rocamora’s latest series in Quiapo features teenage Rodallie Mosende, a homeless girl who lives in Paterno Street. The pictures tell the lives of Mosende, her mother Rosalie, a sidewalk vendor, her sister, and a friend who lives with them in the makeshift beds behind their family’s stall.
Rodallie attended the opening of the gallery exhibit, and it suddenly made sense why Rocamora would choose her as a subject. In person, she was pretty; in fact, strikingly so. She looked almost like a celebrity. A teen housemate perhaps, or a reality singing show aspirant—before the nose job and the dental work and the ear tuck and the daily skin care regimen has turned her into a full-fledged artista.
So it made sense that she would be the lovely protagonist of Rocamora’s romantic Quiapo. It almost requires a suspension of disbelief, the idea of her being homeless, until one speaks to her and realizes she has absolutely no affectations, and that she is painfully shy, so much so that her mother has to continue the conversation for her.
“We are so happy,” said her mother about being featured in Rocamora’s exhibit. Because of the photographer’s work, a patron had offered to shoulder Rodallie’s four-year college education; she starts school at Lyceum of the Philippines University the next morning.
The pictures of Rocamora may feature sad scenes, but they’re not so dire as to preclude the possibility of a happy ending.
Martial Law Portraits
The gallery exhibit features the first appearance of Rocamora’s latest series featuring head shots of claimants of Marcos Martial Law victims. He was in the country when the Commission of Human Rights awarded checks to the victims’ group Claimants 1081, and asked to take photos of them. Most of them happily acceded.
The resulting head shots are devoid of pattern, save for Rocamora’s deft touch from behind the camera. Some were smiling, while others remained blank. Some featured no stress on their faces, while others had eyes puffed. There were victims themselves, and there were mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, and children. Most of them had nothing in common, except that they all experienced the tyranny and oppression of the Marcos regime.
The project is nowhere near complete; Rocamora is planning to continue to take head shots of claimants to come up with a richer tapestry, in time for the celebration of the 40th year of Marcos’ Martial Law declaration. People interested to be part of the project may e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
With this latest series, Rocamora’s career has come full circle. He is fully aware of how bizarre this twist of fate is, to have his work displayed in the structure that epitomized Imelda’s “edifice complex.”
Because while Rocamora’s work may be true, the scenes he portrays are far too sad to be good, and his photographs are beautiful only in the most heart-rending fashion.
Rick Rocamora’s “With Pride and Purpose” is on view at the Pasilyo Vicente Manansala (2/F Hallway Gallery), CCP Main Theater building until August 12. Viewing hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays.
Rocamora will be conducting an artists’ lecture on Thursday, June 21. For inquiries, contact the CCP Visual Arts and Museum Division at 832-3702 or email email@example.com.