This article originally appeared in the print and online editions of The Philippine Reporter in Toronto, Canada.
Certain birds (skylarks, starlings, swallows, doves, eagles, hawks, owls and parakeets, for instance) are associated with lofty ideals or used as metaphors (freedom, peace, might or courage, serenity, wisdom, and love).
People who are most drawn to birds can spend their whole lives watching these avian beings soaring in the sky, perched on branches, skipping on water, nesting in trees, living life the way nature intended. And such people arm themselves with binoculars for the sheer joy of birdwatching and identifying species, with the more avid birders lugging around expensive cameras with telephoto lenses and other equipment to capture those rare moments when the birds are in full flight with outstretched wings, huddled together, cooing at one another, doing a mating dance in mid-air, preening with their crests and tail in glorious color, or lovingly feeding their hungry fledglings in the nest.
The Philippines is not lacking in dedicated ornithologists (experts who study the evolution, lifecycle, behavior, habitat and ecology of birds) as well as avianists or birdwatchers who derive pleasure from “shooting” or photographing birds. Reuel Molina Aguila—playwright, poet, professor of literature, Carlos Palanca Hall of Famer, and photographer—is one of them, and has mounted or curated several exhibits of bird photography, accompanied by short poems he has written, or contributed by his fellow writers.
In 2011, Molina organized Sa Pakpak ng Tula (On the Wings of Poetry), a collaborative showcase of birds and bards, with his poems and those of poet friends embedded in dramatic photos of birds which represented his earliest attempts at a new hobby that would now seem to be a lifelong passion. This exhibit was held in UP Diliman, at the former Faculty Center, which was razed in a dawn fire on April 1 last year.
On March 31 this year, Molina mounted Sa Pakpak ng Tula 2, on the eve of the first anniversary of the burning down of the historic FC building. This time, the stunning collection of some thirty photographs of both endemic and migratory birds, taken at various places in the city and countryside, was shown at the atrium of the UP Kolehiyo ng Arte at Literatura (KAL), right behind the seared, skeletal remains of the old FC.
Unlike the first edition, Sa Pakpak ng Tula 2 is a solo undertaking by this multi-genre artist who captions his visual captures with various short forms of poetry: Japanese haiku and tanka, ancient Filipino diona (three lines of seven syllables each), couplets which echo old riddles and aphorisms, and some free verse. There was no specific matching of literary form to visual image, Aguila narrated in a pre-exhibit interview, allowing the poetic imagination to come up with an appropriate response to the ‘bird moment’ being depicted. This was in response to a comment I made that while the photos (which “tell a story”, rather than merely reproduce the magnificence of the subjects) could very well stand on their own, the poetic captions indeed underscored the drama captured in the frame, or even “unfroze” it.
The birder in the artist enjoys some edge over the bard when Aguila concedes that in this manner of presentation, the images have more weight than the accompanying verse, which serves “to heighten the moment, to highlight the action.” Because he himself crafted the poems to accompany his photographs, he could very well say this without qualm or qualification. Then again, the integrating art of ekphrasis—the combination of a literary piece and a visual artwork (photo or painting)—has virtually resolved this, and we can just stand back and savor both products of the creative mind.
“I have many more images for which I could not write accompanying verses, not for lack of poetic energy, but because the other photographs were predictably colorful enough representations of Philippine birds, which would just be pretty bird portraits, so I had to choose those images which had a narrative inherent in them, an expressiveness manifest in the action or situation of the birds, and wrote the poems for them,” Aguila reveals.
Another departure is the medium on which the photos are mounted. In the earlier exhibit, the photos were printed on paper. This time, the artist experiments with three other materials in addition to paper: metal, wood and tile. The photo comes out with a little more intensity when printed on metal and tile, while a degree of difficulty is involved in printing on wood. It would have been a lot simpler, says Aguila, to print on the usual heavy paper, since there would hardly be any difference in register on the computer photo image and the final result.
An amateur learns something new from the professional photographer:
“A lot of wastage is involved in printing on metal, tile and wood. What appears great on paper does not necessarily carry over to images printed on these three materials. There’s the problem of a surfeit or a subtraction of color and intensity, which is due to the absorption, or non-absorption, of the ink.”
Aside from appreciating the technical concerns that go with the exacting art and science of bird photography, the viewer is amazed at the artistry, skill, patience and time spent by the artist in bringing to the public the images displayed in Sa Pakpak ng Tula 2. These were taken at various times of the day between dawn and dusk, using expensive camera equipment and accessories that when draped on the body take on the appearance of full battle gear. Months were spent traveling to different parts of the country for those propitious, sometimes split-second moments which are the only aperture, so to speak, allowed the photographer to make a successful shoot.
Aside from the solo exhibits at the FC and the UPKAL, Aguila has curated or participated in a number of group shows on bird photography during the last five years: Bagwis 1 and Bagwis 2 (Birds of UP Diliman), Birds of Baguio and Benguet (at the Maryknoll Sanctuary in Baguio City), and some group shows sponsored by the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, of which he is an active member.
In the past five years since he took up bird photography in earnest, Aguila has captured more than a hundred species of endemic and migratory birds in the Philippines. One is pleasantly surprised to know that a few of the more arresting, intriguing images were taken from the rooftop of his house in Lagro, Novaliches. (Imagine the stoic aficionado in the early dawn hours, with camera, telephoto lens and a cup of coffee.) The other photos were taken in places close by, such as the La Mesa Dam Eco-Park and the wilder stretches of UP Diliman, and as far afield as San Juan, Batangas; the Candaba swamp in Pampanga (a favorite spot of local and foreign birdwatchers); Pinagbanderahan in Atimonan, Quezon; the mountains of Baguio City and Benguet; the island of Marinduque; and the Twin Lakes of Danao and Balinsasayao in Negros Oriental.
In recent years, birdwatchers from faraway places, notably the United Kingdom, have been flocking to the Philippines, attracted by the wide diversity of bird life in the islands, despite the physical hazards and extreme conditions in some places in the country, war zones included. According to Birdwatch.ph, the official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), “the Philippine archipelago has an astounding mix of more than 600 species of resident and migratory birds, of which almost 200 species are endemic,” a fact which is not generally known to the public, hence the mission of this group to make us more aware of “the high degree of endemism and avifaunal diversity” in the Philippines.
The Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, Aguila’s group, has a complementary mission.
“The WBPP is a staunch advocate of conservation photography,” Aguila says. Indeed, viewing the Facebook page of the group will give you an idea of the great ornithological wealth of the country, as well as the state of the art of local bird photography. One of the members of the group, Undersecretary of Education Alain Pascua, is internationally known with his various photo awards. He has just come out with a coffee table book of photographs of the Philippine Eagle (pithecophaga jefferyi)—the magnificent bird memorably described years ago by another aerial icon, Charles Lindbergh, as “the world’s noblest flyer” (an honorific traditionally reserved for the serene and lofty crane).
The title of Pascua’s valuable source book is Haring Ibon: The Great Philippine Eagle, depicting in vivid images the lifecycle from nest to quest, so to speak, of the ‘King of Birds’, this empyrean creature which has so endeared itself to Filipinos that it has long replaced the tiny ricebird maya as a symbol of the nation.
Fittingly enough, the poetic tribute to the subject of this book, a piece entitled “Ibong Malaya” movingly set to music by song artist Isabelle de Leon in the promo video of the book, was penned by Reuel Molina Aguila, who continues to soar to new heights as a professional bird photographer, having already established himself as one of the leading literary figures in the Philippines.
(Translation of Filipino poems by Ed Maranan / Reuel Molina Aguila’s photo by Mark Anthony Carranza)
Ed Maranan has won major literary awards for his poetry, fiction, essays, plays, and children's stories. He writes a column for The Philippine Star, contributes to other publications, and is a member of the Baguio Writers Group, PEN Philippines, and Umpil (Writers Union of the Philippines). He was a political detainee for more than two years during martial law.
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