Self-Portrait in Time of COVID-19

(First of a series)

By Naff Beltran

Every Filipino photographer would probably know this old joke: kasal, binyag, libing or KBL (wedding, baptism, burial). As long as you are not picky, you will always be needed as a photographer. The gigs are limitless until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic happened.

Lockdown, social distancing, and quarantine are some of the words we are all familiar by now. The world continues to wrestle with the coronavirus that has already claimed many lives.

The last severe pandemic in recent history was in 1918, known as the Spanish flu, which by the way didn’t originate in Spain, claimed the lives of over 50,000,000 people. Some accounts say close to 100 million, more than the combined number of deaths during World War I and World War II.

Yet the 1918 pandemic is a forgotten catastrophe. You hardly find any mention of the Spanish flu in literature and in music. Only a few paintings, notably the Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu by Edvard Munch, who you probably best remember as the artist behind The Scream, from which we got the inspiration for the title of this article.

Virginia Woolfe wrote on her essay “On Being Ill”: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.”

What you would find on the Internet are not words by novelists like Hemingway but photographs, even then as it is today, photographers are visual historians.

“What words cannot express, photographs can.” – @LiveLife

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world to a halt. Businesses have shut down and left millions of people in the gig economy unemployed including photographers. The very nature of doing the photographers’ job is to be as close to their subject, talk about the irony of social distancing.

The only way we can have a better understanding is to let the photographers do the talking by sharing their own story during the time of COVID-19.

We interviewed five Filipino professional photographers who have carved their names in different fields of photography, and this is what they have to say:

MARK FLORO Commercial/Food Photographer ; Instructor, Philippine Center for Creative Imaging (PCCI)

 “To be candid, this pandemic has the strongest ‘negative’ impact ever! It will make the 1997 Asian Economic crisis seem like a hiccup. I barely ‘recovered’ from that 1997 crisis. This present one is different; this one is global; so many uncertainties; so difficult to plan anything when the most important thing is to literally stay alive against something we can’t even see. But I am quite surprised and very blessed that I have been shooting since the beginning of June. Since food photography is one of my specialties, I offered my services for ‘free’ to ‘only FB’ start-up entrepreneurs. I was swarmed at the first few weeks. Now, my schedule seems to have ‘normalized.’ I truly thank them for keeping me sane by making me work. To those who are starting to embrace the art, make your mistakes now. Learn from them. Sharpen your skill. Develop your eye (pun intended). Grow your passion for the art. If and when this pandemic is over, you better have a portfolio to show to the world that you are a photographer. For me, I am very grateful that I am still getting work even at this time and at my age. Presently, social media rules! Almost everyone has a smartphone with built-in digital camera. Do you know how many photos are uploaded only on Facebook? There are approximately 350 million a day; on the Internet itself, 1.8 billion photos a day. What is beyond social media is where photography will be. I still belong to the old school: light, film, shutter, f/stop, ASA (not ISO). The love and appreciation of the art/craft will remain to only the few. It is very sad. But I hope and pray that I will be super wrong."

EDUVIGES Y. HUANG Advertising/Commercial Photographer; Chairperson, Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation, Inc.; Phil. Emissary, Professional Photographers of America;Member – United Asian Association of Professional Photographers

“I had wanted to finish my documentation for a book on Crossing Bridges 16 which we hosted in the Philippines of which I was the team leader. When this pandemic will be over, I would like to travel again which I enjoyed so much. For more than six months now, I could not shoot air, land, and sea.  Travel and photography give me so much fun. My advice to the young photographers: This pandemic will surely end. In the meantime, don’t ever, ever lose hope. Keep on learning and improving your shooting skills. Food and products to sell are on the swing as many entrepreneurs are into selling online. Photos will certainly be needed to promote what you want to sell. Advertise your skills and earn money. This pandemic has affected all sectors and industries, not only in photography. The worst may not be over and life is at a standstill. We are all in the same boat, the boat is rocking but is not sinking and we have to hold and cling to one another. Everyone is affected, rich and poor, young and old. Again, I wished I travelled more. Professionally I have been blessed to be the advertising photographer of the most beloved Filipino brands and I will treasure those moments forever. Photography and everything that is down during the pandemic will rise again. There is no other way but up. Good luck to all of us!"

RAYMUND ISAAC Fashion/Advertising/Celebrity Photographer; Sony Alpha Professional

“Even before the pandemic, the photography business has slowed down considerably because online digital advertising has been on the rise. Because of advancements in technology, it is easy for anyone to jump into the advertising world and make a living. But advertising or commercial photography is not the only one directly affected by this pandemic. Because of social or physical distancing, wedding, events and any form of social gatherings have been postponed till next year, leaving the business at a standstill. Unless these photographers have saved for the rainy day, the revenues will not come till next year. After this pandemic, I honestly want to leave the country and go back to Spain where I was supposed to be before the pandemic. There I will be able to shoot travel pictures and a few editorials I had lined up. Shooting in an island there in Spain would be attractive. To young photographers, remember that photography always evolves. And I think we should, too. We should know and be aware of how the landscape is changing and not wait for it to happen before our eyes. We must adapt to the situation and not feel bad, anxious or threatened by this situation. Keep calm, focus on what you have to offer as a photographer. Photography will always be here. The question is in what form? That is why we need to train, re-learn, and not be complacent about anything. The faster you adapt, the better you survive.I wished that I had finished my conceptual photography project for SonyPH. This project is like renewing my portfolio in fashion and advertising."

GEORGE TAPAN Multi-awarded Travel Photographer (With over 50 years of experience as a professional photographer)

"As a photographer amid this pandemic, I have to adjust and wait. I am still shooting and I must shoot and record history as it happens. I have a few photography jobs that needed to be rescheduled, and I will start to shoot when the situation will be normalized. My advice to the generation of shooters is to wait. As photographers we are trained to wait for that perfect shot. Instead of doing something else, record this time in history with your photographs. I have been a photographer for 50 years, I am blessed to have done different types of photography, from being a studio, fashion, and a magazine photographer. I am optimistic about the future not only in photography but in the world in general.  I started with film, and I learned digital photography. I know whatever lies ahead, I will learn to adjust. I want to share this to the young photographers, only those who really have the heart of a photographer will survive the post-pandemic world."

EDWIN TUYAY Photojournalist; Corporate/Wedding Photographer; Brand Ambassador, Sigma

“Like all photographers, I have lost substantial income because of the pandemic. While I was able to shoot portraits of Lucio Tan’s Holding Company Board of Director, three days prior to the Luzon-wide lockdown, other projects are now either canceled or moved to a later date.To stay afloat, I joined groups that sell pictures and is trying other business endeavors. My advice to young photographers, this is time to sharpen your skills as a photographer. Learn as much as you can through online photography courses. Continue to shoot, document your own family lockdown memories, capture the struggles and emotions of your daily lives. Later on, you can publish your own photobooks. After my heart-bypass surgery last year, my plan is to go back again to Mt. Pulag and shoot the sea of clouds and its surroundings. It is an opportunity for me to test my endurance as a person and as a photographer. Photojournalism will flourish,  that is why Richel Macariñas and photojournalist friends formed PonD News Asia, an offshoot of the lockdown situation, where all members of our PonD App can shoot in their community during the quarantine. When this pandemic will be over, I want to hit the streets of Manila again and continue my street photography."

The birds of Tagbilaran (Edwin Tuyay)
Power Linemen (Photos by Edwin Tuyay)

The world may have shut down, but don’t let the pandemic shut your camera shutter. The future may appear confusing but stay focus and always remember what photography stands for: “phōtos” means “light” and “graphé” means drawing, together meaning "drawing with light." Cliché as it may sound, but there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Photography will always be with us – in life, in love, and in death. Photography lives on!

(Naff Beltran is a humorist, photographer, and writer in The Writing Cooperative. Connect with him on @Medium and