Almost a year to this day, on a late January afternoon, I met with three characters who were crazy enough to have woken up one morning and collectively thought to themselves, “Hey, we think we’ll build a film lab.”
Sunny16Lab was literally born overnight between Francis Perez, Kimberly Lim, Jed Calara, and I. By the 3rd week after this meeting, our home lab was already up and running with a few rolls trickling in. Six months in, we were already being faced with approximately 100 rolls every 2 weeks. It started off a small operation, but our goals were BIG.
Most of the people who know me understand my love for film photography, and how for years I struggled with the idea of being “part of the industry”. While I’ve always seen myself as an enthusiast for film, I never wanted to be part of the business simply because I thought the anxiety would kill the magic. However, everything changed for me in 2016 when I began meeting people who worked behind the scenes.
Constant encouragement to take baby steps really catapulted me to where I am today: a clear objective for who I want to be in the local industry.
Sunny16Lab knows that it can’t stop at just processing film; it is not really a complete channel if we don’t dip our toes in traditional printing. Being in the Philippines, the lack of support isn’t the problem, it’s the limits of resources for an industry long assumed dying/dead. This is where the story of how one chance encounter absolutely changed our game begins…
There’s someone I think you should meet…
I’ve learned through many years of awkward socializing, to NEVER underestimate the phrase, “There’s someone I think you should meet.” It’s how most of the important people in my life today came to be my crutch. My friend Jason Quibilan introduced me to Mr. Fernando “Bobit” Afable one afternoon in a small town called Tanauan in Batangas. It’s just an hour away from Manila and all I knew was that he owned a space called, Fotobaryo.
In an unexpected jaw-dropping surprise, Bobit used to manage the Darkroom of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Every who’s-who in the photography world has one way or another been in the halls of ICP. Founded by Cornel Capa in 1974 to preserve the legacy of “concerned photography”, ICP is widely revered as “the world’s leading institution dedicated to photography and visual culture.”
Please allow me to tell Bobit’s extraordinary story, and how he’s continued to inspire many photographers here in the Philippines.
From Security Guard to Darkroom Manager
In 1988, a 30-year-old Bobit Afable was in the United States as a tourist. Like most travellers searching for a dream – plus living at a time where immigration laws were pretty lax in the States – Bobit decided to stay and work in a warehouse of a sporting goods company.
“My first job in New York was in a warehouse. Shipping actually. Being undocumented and without the proper papers, I was exploited basically. There was no insurance, the salary was very low, and there I was alone in a big warehouse handling goods weighing over 60 pounds by myself, receiving trucks of shipment. But I was fine because I was young.”
As fate would have it, Bobit’s cousin was working as a security guard at the ICP Museum. When his cousin left the post to pursue further studies, Bobit took over the job.
“I worked for the warehouse on weekdays, and as a security guard for the museum on the weekends. And as museums go, sometimes it would be empty so I passed the time cleaning the picture frames, changing the light bulbs, fuses, etc…“
Hard work and classic Filipino initiative did not go unnoticed. Bobit was soon promoted to take on bigger roles starting as a receptionist and then in just a short period of time, the museum’s assistant operations manager.
While Bobit was enjoying his responsibilities, word got to him that the institution was looking for a maintenance guy to look after the Darkroom. Seeing no real need for ICP to hire someone, he volunteered to do the job without hesitation. His boss was taken a back, “What? Why would you want to do that? You’re already my assistant!” Bobit insisted that he didn’t mind working for the museum in the day, receptionist at night (He enjoyed it as a lot of students came in at night to work) and handling maintenance even if it were just part-time. I can only imagine how bewildering this must have been to his boss.
“So there I was, early in the mornings, as the maintenance guy cleaning the Darkroom at the start of the day. I watched as the teachers’ assistants come in to mix the chemicals for the day’s classes and I learned the process pretty quickly. Soon, I was the one mixing the chemicals as well. I remember the students coming in early to return equipment that they had borrowed. And as the offices were still closed, they would leave it all in my care. Through conversations, that’s how I learned about the machinery used in the darkroom.”
Having realized that Bobit was enjoying (and excelling) in an environment that was never really in his job description – and obviously being overqualified to be cleaning – his bosses officially offered the role of Darkroom Manager to him. Bobit declined.
“I knew nothing about running a Darkroom, and to be honest, my knowledge of photography was too basic.” While his bosses argued that his role was to manage the upkeep of the Darkroom and not to teach, Bobit still was uneasy to take on a role he had no prior knowledge of. He did accept the job eventually but he had a plan. “There was an official in-house photographer back then iatICP. His name was David Spear. Mr. Spear taught the community program where you just register for his classes like Photography 1,2,3… I remember always being the first to sign up only to be booted at the last minute because of course, the program would always prioritize paying students.” When word got to David Spear of Bobit’s failed attempts to join his classes, he reached out, invited Bobit to be his assistant, and taught him one-on-one.
“That was really the beginning of photography for me. And soon, because I was already a manager, I got to enjoy sitting in on various classes. And that’s really how I expanded my knowledge.”
I couldn’t help to butt in and ask about Cornell Capa, “YES, he was my boss! One of the most humble people I have ever met. (Laughing) I remember one time they were looking for someone to clean windows in his apartment. And because of course I wanted every an opportunity to be close to my boss, I volunteered to do the job. Ok, yah. Foolishly I didn’t know what I was doing, so I was naturally doing a horrible job at it. His wife Edith was exasperated, asked me to stop, ordered me to come down, and the three of us just ended up having lunch. They were…simple and so approachable. You wouldn’t have known that they were famous. I admired Cornell so much because I could see that his advocacy was similar to what I wanted to achieve for Fotobaryo. I am greatly inspired by him because he too started from scratch and built ICP.”
I also asked about the many famous faces that came through on his watch and who struck him the most. “Yes, there were a lot of them. Of course I did not know them personally. But because I would help them with whatever they needed from the darkroom, they just knew me as ‘Fernando of the Darkroom’. I admire them. I’ve enjoyed encountering Shelby Lee Adams, Sebastiao Selgado, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Jill Enfield, Joseph Rodriguez, Nan Goldin, Amy Arbus, Brian Young… so many more. To see their work is a great honor.”
Years went by and Bobit’s passion for photography made him think about his own country. Through his years in ICP, there would be a lot of broken/forgotten darkroom equipment, especially as the digital age came rolling in. Feeling bad about throwing them away, Bobit asked permission if he could send some back home to the Philippines instead, where he would find help to get them fixed. When word got around that Bobit had a desire to replicate the same nurturing photography community he experienced in ICP, and build a Darkroom in the Philippines, support came in fast. “Of course I also became friends with a lot of photographers from all over the world and they too started donating equipment.”
I think I need to get it out of my system when I say I almost fell to the floor when I first entered Fotobaryo. It was like a time capsule of one man’s intimate history with photography. Over the course of 7-8 years, Bobit used his life savings, and with the help of his friends, a lot of “balikbayan boxes”, and containers, he amassed a collection in Tanauan, Batangas.
In 2006, Fotobaryo was born – a mere 70-sqm space that can only be described as the ultimate haven for film photographers. Hundreds of books (a lot of them signed), collectible cameras, films, equipment, and photographs given to Bobit over the years…
You name it, it’s probably there.
“Fotobaryo was born because I had all this equipment from kind benefactors and I really wanted replicate what ICP was doing for the community. That meant having programs to share photography. And for me, it was most important to share it with kids and province-based photographers who didn’t have the means to. So, we actually started with children living along the railroads. We started in Sagada and together, we documented the Igorot.”
[The Igorot are indigenous people residing in the mountains of Luzon. Their communities are fast dissolving today].
It went on for years: Bobit would invite his friends to visit the Philippines and take part in the teaching. A lot of them chose to leave equipment behind for Bobit’s mission.
Just the other day on FilmFolk’s Facebook page, as I shared photos of Bobit and I, a commenter left a note, “YES! I know him! He taught me and my siblings photography when we were kids!” That was really nice to see.
Life would eventually take control and over the past few years, programs were on and off. Bobit today has decided to go back permanently to California with his family. Between the travels to and fro, it has come to the point where Fotobaryo is in need of another generation to care for it.
“I want… Fotobaryo to live on. I want that passion to live on. It needs continuity.”
Any enterprising individual would immediately ask the question, “Why not sell it?” I asked that too. And in hindsight, it was a callous remark to say to someone whose whole work is about generosity. Bobit gave a simple answer, “I will not. All… everything that you see here was given to me by my friends and ICP who believed in Fotobaryo. We knew coming in that this is not a moneymaking enterprise. It should be freely enjoyed by the community and taken care of by people who understand Fotobaryo.”
So here we are. Me, my friend Jason Quibilan, and Nana Buxani (a well-loved Filipino Photographer, ICP alumni) sitting at Fotobaryo’s table, beers all around, and in the company of some of the greatest books ever published on Photography. I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the collection. Bobit heard of my work with FilmFolk and Sunny16Lab, and offered to outfit our new lab with enlargers plus everything in between and more.
It was… the best gift of 2017.
Preserving a Legacy
I can’t end the story there.
As Nana Buxani described of Bobit, “He is just the most generous person. And I know he has helped so many people.” Sharing Fotobaryo’s past is one thing. But to do it and its patron justice, I need people to also hear about its future now that I want to be a part of it.
While Sunny16Lab will take on Fotobaryo’s darkroom legacy, my friend Jason and his Shutterspace Studio will house Bobit’s library. Together we plan to create a collective that will cater to photographers’ needs/interests end-to-end. Our goal is to preserve Fotobaryo’s advocacy and make it accessible now that it’s in the heart of the city. We hope to couple it with modern programs that are inclusive and timely. But our real dream is to one day bring in international personalities, a lot of whom are looked up to by the young shooters here in our country.
The Philippines is a little off of the film industry’s radar, and with this article I am waving my hand to the international community to let you know that we’re also full of gusto and actively preserving/enjoying the flourishing medium.
I asked Bobit what he thought about the “resurgence” of film in photography, he answered, “I am a happy because the art of photography is in film. With film, you really need to know how to use your camera. YOU’RE the artist. With digital, it’s a computer who becomes the artist. Nothing against digital but film absolutely makes YOU the artist. To be honest, I thought at one point that film was dead. So my thinking was even if film itself is dead, I can preserve the process by teaching old techniques or alternative processing like cyanotype, platinum, palladium etc… So how do I feel about film coming back? I am very happy that it’s thriving once again.”
As a man who has been in the front-lines with the best in photography, I ended the interview with the most clichéd question, “What is your advice to kids or anyone who interested, or wants to pursue a career in photography?”
“FOCUS. Focus in finding and making your own style in Photography. Make it recognizable because sometimes everyone’s work looks the same. Take inspiration from someone, but in the end, make your own style. Continue on a path where you’re most happy. Don’t get bugged down by others’ opinions of you. And don’t hesitate to shoot what makes you happy and everything else will fall into place. Feel free.”
“And for the young Filipino shooters here in the Philippines, yes, to shoot film means you need to shell out money. But I want you to know that there are many ways to learn and enjoy film. Volunteer in a studio. Find a mentor. That’s how a lot of great photographers in ICP started out. Most of them volunteered as teaching assistants, they struggled, never gave up, and look at them now. They’re Magnum photographers!”
Mr. Afable would like to thank his family and friends for their years of unfathomable generosity, support, and friendship. To his dear friends – Amor Rodriguez, Tommy & Vixen Hafalla, Cress & JJ Yulo, Nina Gonzales, Pinky Urmaza, Rina Malonzo, Emily Schiffer, Daniela Mariño Tanya Delarama, Giuelleta Hextall, Josie Miner, Farley Andrews, Gabby Santos, Tina Puno, Lisa Gutierez. To his team in the ICP Darkroom – Bern Nobel, Adam Eidelberg, Shauna Church, Bernie Palais. And to his family – Dr. Felipe Afable & Anita Afable, and Dr. Florentino Afable.
As for me, I would like to thank Mr.Afable. I’ve had…the most fun being in your company these past few months. I’ve never met someone who, in such short a time, has already in just a few moments put every thing in perspective. I hope I have given your story and generosity justice. To Mr. Jason Quibilan and Ms. Nana Buxani, thank you for introducing me to Bobit. Next round of beers are on me.
Note: This interview was conducted in Filipino. I have done my best to translate it in English. Should there be variation in structure or tone, I have made sure that the context is intact and true to message.
~ Aislinn Chuahiock
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