Tale of the Take

Young photojournalist Basilio ‘Eli’ Sepe fearlessly captures drug wars, erupting volcanoes, and a raging pandemic in his insatiable quest to capture truth

Interview Patrick Kasingsing
Images Basilio Sepe

Basilio Sepe, Header: Mayon Volcano eruption, 2018

Good day, Eli! How has the pandemic been treating you? Can you tell us a bit about your most recent assignment?

As a freelance photojournalist, covering the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging. It’s not as simple as covering a protest or other socio-political stories like the administration’s war on drugs. You can’t just go out there and shoot right away. You have to always think twice or thrice because once you step out of the house you’re exposing yourself to a potentially life-threatening disease even with all the protective equipment intact.

For our readers, can you recount to us briefly how you found yourself in the realm of photojournalism? Has your dad, himself a lensman, played a huge influence in your decision?

My father has been a huge influence on my decision to pursue photojournalism. He has been more than a father to me; he is my teacher, a great teacher, and sometimes a colleague whenever he criticizes my work and whenever we are both in the field.

I started doing photography even before I entered college. Back then, I was just shooting still-life images, learning how to use a film camera. Eventually, I got a digital camera, which was a hand-me-down from my father. I used to shoot human interest, street photography.

I had my first grasp of being a freelance photojournalist when I entered college. As the photography editor of The Varsitarian, the official student publication of the University of Santo Tomas, I have been involved in covering events in Metro Manila, as well as those that sparked national interest. From there, I learned new techniques and gained a lot of experience shooting sports, fashion, campus events, religious and national activities, including the Papal Visit in 2015.

My time with The Varsitarian was a stepping stone to my career. I treated the publication as if it was a national newspaper.

We are bombarded by countless images daily. What does it take for an image to stand out? What are your hallmarks for a memorable picture?

For an image to stand out, it should not only equip people with knowledge but be also capable of awakening their consciousness about current social issues. It has to be powerful and striking enough that the audience would feel as if they are physically present in the scene depicted.

The Black Nazarene procession, 2014
Cemetery, 2014
Pope Francis on his papal visit to the Philippines, 2015

Widespread poverty is a reality we have to live with in this country; we are also frequently touted as a nation of resilient people, given our capacity to ‘smile’ in the face of hardships. There is growing backlash however in this resiliency narrative as well as with the voyeuristic and dramatic tendencies some of our journalists (among others) resort to talking about poverty. What is your stance regarding this?

People should realize that photojournalists are not just agents who provide visual support to a story—we are also public servants. It is this public calling that turns our photographs into tangible platforms for education and information dissemination about social, political, and environmental issues. Therefore, we have to be honest in our craft, whether it be in writing or photography.

To follow, how much post-processing do you do on your images? In your opinion, for the realm of photojournalism at least, where do you draw the line in editing imagery?

I don’t really put much effort when it comes to post-processing my pictures. I only do minimal editing with minor adjustments on highlights, shadows, contrast, and clarity using Adobe Lightroom. If the photo needs more serious editing and will be used for publications, like magazines, or applied to advertisements, then I harness the capabilities of Adobe Photoshop.

What would you consider your hardest assignment? What made it so?

Nothing has ever been more challenging than covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

My primary concern during these times is everyone’s safety, particularly my family. The nature of my job is in contrast to other workers who have the luxury to stay at home and still be able to provide for a living. In my case, I have to constantly remind myself that I am not privileged enough to afford the medical expenses, more so, putting my family at risk. But since this job is my passion, I would do everything to adapt to this ‘new normal’.

The greatest protection I could give myself is to simply be cautious in everything I do, therefore, urging me to limit my appointments and strictly adhere to safety protocols. My nose for news has also been honed more than ever. If before, the stories come in abundance and unfold right before me, now I have to carefully consider stories that are not only time-sensitive but also socially relevant.

As for the financial aspect, I have to contribute to house expenses and cover gas, food, and accommodation most of the time when I’m on assignment. Nothing is certain, but as a son, a family member, and an individual saving up for my future, I have to thrive.

SONA protest, 2018
Pride March, 2019

Can you show us an image you’ve shot that you regard as your most memorable, or one that shook or affected you greatly? What did this image reveal to you about your subject and yourself?

It was my first night doing coverage on the drug war in the streets of Manila. A group of journalists including myself stumbled upon a crime scene — a woman clinging to her partner who was shot dead by unknown assailants riding a motorcycle.

I didn’t want my personal feelings to get in the way. We were there for more than an hour, but no one responded. We had to leave her with no respondents as another crime scene was waiting for us. From that moment on, I decided to devote more time and effort to document what was going on behind the government’s campaign to eliminate illegal drugs and criminality.

Something about that night, seeing her clinging to whatever life her partner had left, made me want to help bring justice to her, her partner, and others like her whose grief is not as visible over these killings.

Drug war killings, 2017
Drug war killings, 2017

The truth can be equal parts beautiful and horrifying. Any particular situation/s where you were faced with a dilemma of whether to soften the blow of the hard truth or to reveal it in its terrifying state?

The truth can either be beautiful or horrifying, that’s just how it is. You can’t change what is happening right in front of you, otherwise, that would be staging or spreading fake news. I never had a moment where I have to contemplate on how to show what I was able to capture.

Can you school us in a bit on your pre-shoot preparations when on assignment? What are your must-haves and must-dos before an assignment?

I always make sure that my camera batteries and laptop are fully charged, memory cards free of space, and that I have an emergency-preparedness bag or a go-bag packed in advance. A go-bag is like an emergency kit, containing enough non-perishable food, water, toiletries, and clothes that are stored and ready for hasty evacuation.

Nowadays, however, it’s not just your equipment or go-bag that you should keep in mind. Every time I step out of the house for a coverage, I always bring a mask, face shield, alcohol, wet wipes gloves, protective suit (just in case I need to go to a high-risk area), extra clothes, pants, underwear, and socks. All these, along with my heavy camera equipment. Upon arriving home, we have this family protocol to clean everything first before stepping inside the house, which includes taking off everything you are wearing except the underwear, immediately followed by a shower. It really is a tedious process, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Oftentimes I have the free will to choose which event I want to cover. If something big happens and it has an international angle, I would usually inform my editors from different news outlets that I’m up to cover it and I’d wait for their go signal. Before going to an assignment, I usually do research first so I would have an idea what and where I will be covering. In terms of safety, you have to have exit plans in every coverage, in case mayhem happens.

Part of the research is also reviewing other people’s works. Whenever I give lectures or do talks to young, aspiring photojournalists, I always remind them that looking at the works of others is good training, whether it’s in the newspaper, books, or online. The process trains your eye and helps you learn from the veterans, helping you come up with new takes. On top of it all, always make the best out of every coverage, whether big or small. I am very meticulous with the images I produce and make sure that I run through my photos several times before sending them to news outlets or clients.

I make it a practice to really linger and allot ample time on my coverages because I want my photos to accurately reflect the essence and message behind my reportage — to initiate change and let other people, especially those of my age, see how these occurrences impact society.

You are a multi-awarded photographer. What for you is the role of awards in photography? Would you encourage more lensmen to join competitions? What do these awards mean to you?

We have this idea that photojournalism or photography, in general, has the power to change the world, but in reality, it can’t really change your status in life. You may have all these awards and recognitions but, in the end, you still have to work harder, not for exposure but for you to be financially successful.

I’m not discouraging people to join competitions. In fact, competitions create travel opportunities and could save you financially if you get lucky. Although for me it doesn’t really matter if you are multi-awarded or not, what matters is you have a stable job (whether here or abroad) and you are earning enough by still doing what you love to do.

Typhoon Vamco, 2020

A photojournalist is both beholder and shaper of a story; what steps do you take to become a responsible storyteller especially since you are the medium behind the reader and the event?

The advent of social media has made it more challenging for photojournalists to maintain an objective stance on what angle of the story to take. At the time of rampant fake news and misleading information, I have a responsibility to tell the truth. I present the images as it is by focusing on the tangible pieces of truth at hand and providing a platform for both sides of the story to unfold. Criticisms are always inevitable but I always welcome them and make sure everything I say is carefully researched. Journalists do not just inform; they are also educators who follow a two-way learning process. It’s not a one-way ticket—you teach people and you learn from them.

You have found attention and reaped accolades for your unflinching documentation of the government’s war on drugs. What were your thoughts throughout the assignment? What cold truths about the human condition did you derive from the experience?

Being in the frontlines of every story, journalists hold a huge social responsibility. Our profession calls our bodies to be readily available anywhere and our minds to be aware of the social issues round the clock.

My documentation on the Philippine drug war that began in 2016 has been one of the turning points of my career. It taught me a lot of things that I still hold up to this day. It enabled me to expand my network and become more socially aware of global issues. This coverage led me to an eventual social awakening—that if I would only use my skills for a better cause, I could be an agent of change fighting for people’s rights.

Immersing myself with the activities of other photojournalists taught me that photography is not about the longevity of your experience, the quality of your snaps, or how well-versed you are with the technicalities of your equipment. It is about inspiring change by doing what you love the most.

Two hot topics amongst photographers today are the issue of proper credit and compensation by media corporations. What are your thoughts on these two burning issues? What do you personally do to protect your work?

Proper compensation for professional photographers has been an issue in the industry for a long time, especially for those in the media industry in the Philippines. It’s one of the reasons why some photojournalists lose interest in working here and take their skills abroad. The usual rate for a single photograph is, what, 500 pesos? Who can live with that salary? There is also the fact that there’s no assurance that the photo taken will be used or not.

No ifs, and buts — professionals should be properly compensated. However, we professionals also have a responsibility to fulfill. We can’t just complain but refuse to have the personal initiative to change the system. Ranting online or social media can make it much worse or complicated. If you want change, go act on it on the ground — start with yourself, and learn how to say no to free work.

As for how I safeguard my work, I put watermarks on my images before posting them online or on social media. Most of my works can be viewed on my Instagram and website where they couldn’t be easily stolen or used without permission.

Taal Volcano eruption, 2020

What’s the craziest or most life-threatening thing you’ve done in the name of a good picture?

I was in the middle of a meeting last January 12, 2020,, when I saw the news that Taal Volcano had just erupted. I immediately packed my things and hurried home. The volcano is located in Batangas, south of Manila, in the middle of a crater lake. For many, its eruption was unimaginable; it’s hard for people to fathom the volcano’s sudden fury, especially since it has remained peaceful for a while.

I arrived in Tagaytay, a city perched near the volcano, early morning of January 13 with the help of a colleague whom I hitched a ride. We took as many pictures as we could from the moment we saw the volcano from afar to the moment we got to a lakeside town. Along the way, we saw ash-blanketed villages and residents evacuating.

The following day, we saw a group of rescuers on their way to the volcano’s island to save trapped animals. With a rush of adrenaline and without any hesitation, we jumped into their rubber boat and went straight to the island. The next thing we knew we were taking pictures of a volcano blasting steam, ash, and pebbles up into the sky; the volcano can choose to erupt violently at any given time and we were just a short distance from it! A huge black mushroom cloud hovered on the horizon as a reminder of the imminent danger.

What was once a verdant and popular tourist destination has turned into a ghost town, with destroyed houses and trees covered in a thick layer of ash and countless dead animals, mostly cows and horses. The longer we stayed, the more I panicked deep inside. 

After hours of waiting for the rescuers to save as many stranded animals as they could, we rushed back to the mainland, realizing that we could have been dead at any given time from that assignment.

We’ve seen the rise of citizen journalism and how powerful it can be in effecting change and eliciting a response from the authorities on urgent matters. What are your thoughts on this development?

They are part of the competition and we cannot dismiss nor marginalize them. Anyone could indeed be a photographer by just simply using their smartphones. In fact, sometimes there are better pictures that come out from cellphones than digital cameras. However, I have to admit that citizen journalists have also become a threat to photojournalists, most particularly to freelance photographers who anchored their livelihood on being a professional artist in their craft. Everything now is fast-paced and sometimes agencies would buy or get photos from citizen journalists instead of hiring professional photographers, which is cheaper.

The life of a photojournalist can be draining sometimes; what hobbies or passions outside photography do you pursue in your downtime?

For most of us, what’s been happening ever since the pandemic started has been quite overwhelming. In my case, when nothing much is happening and there really is no need to leave the house, I practice video editing and doing digital art. I attend dance classes and badminton training. I also jog in the afternoon but I haven’t been consistent, just when I feel like going for a run.

There has never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist and yet you persist. What keeps you going?

There is no doubt that it is a tough and challenging job, but the easiest and probably the most exciting part about the profession are the immense opportunities that it offers — the chance to expand my network, meet new people with different personalities, and discover contrasting cultures and places that would imprint themselves on my perspective.

Although there were times that I felt anxious about where I was going, what I was doing, and if I was doing enough, my advantage lies in the sincerity of my intention to convey my message. I don’t shoot simply because I’m doing it for fame. I take photos because I have a story to tell and I want the people to hear, see, and feel it. I spent years patiently working my way up the ladder. Wherever I am now, I owe it to my mentors, my parents, and myself for not giving up. I am in a continuous phase of learning and I will forever be. I have committed countless mistakes but each one of those honed my craft. Every time I stumble, I get up, wipe the dust off my shirt, and store the failures in my pocket of experiences, and go out to live another day to shoot. I just go out there and get it done and have my successes and have my failures. Everything’s just trial by fire; you live and you learn. •

Taal Volcano eruption, 2020

Watch the nation’s story unfold with @basiliosepe

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