The revolution can be photographed

published in POC.

photo courtesy of Tata Gil Nartea

The night might have been redundant, to say the least.

The setting was a nifty joint in Cubao, curiously (or aptly) named Fred’s Revolucion, where the walls are adorned with pictures of revolutionary icons – MarxMaoCheHo, along with a quite out-of-place posterized image of Obama with the hammer and sickle in plain sight. Revolutionary folk songs were on full blast in stark auditory contrast to the regular techno-jumble from a nearby establishment, to the delight of photojournalists-cum-activists, old and new, and the amused tolerance of regular patrons.

But veteran photojournalist Gil Nartea’s photographs on the walls cancelled out any and all measures of redundancy. In a place where “revolution” has been capitalized as mere pop novelty, his works serve as a testimony – a stubborn assertion that the revolution is real, tangible and can be photographed.

Last March 25, Nartea, or Tata Gil to colleagues, students and friends, opened his exhibit, “Sa Tagumpay ng Rebolusyon”, days before the 43rd founding anniversary of the Communist Party-led New People’s Army (NPA). One of the most established photojournalists in the country, Tata Gil began his career in 1980 and was one of the few who were allowed to take photos of NPA guerrilla zones and cadres in the mid-1980s.

Established on March 29, 1969, the NPA became the armed wing of the then newly-established Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). It drew inspiration from the Hukbalahap, the rebel army which fought the Japanese occupation in the Philippines during World War II.

After the fall of the Japanese, the Hukbalahap, led by Huk commander Luis Taruc, continued to wage guerrilla warfare against American colonizers. By the early 1960s, however, the Hukbalahap’s strength started to significantly decrease when majority of fighters, led by Taruc, gave up arms and surrendered to the Philippine government. Jose Maria Sison, then already secretary general of the new Communist Party of the Philippines, broke away from Taruc’s old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (1930) and subsequently reformed the remaining members of the Hukbalahap into the NPA with the help of another former Huk commander Dante Buscayno.

Tata Gil’s stint in the countryside where he stayed for several months at a time is summarized into 16 frames of black-and-white. While artistically rendered, one could surmise that they were seen not through the eyes of a “romantic” for to have been so would have distracted and detached the outcome from the real. Instead, they are matter-of-fact visuals of the realities of guerrilla life.

They are not a bonanza of “action” shots which, without doubt, there are plenty of in Tata Gil’s collection. Instead he chose to portray NPA guerrillas in their day-to-day lives – some unassuming, some even stationary, yet all far from the mundane. Devoid of captions, the photos nevertheless tell a story of their own. Each one is strangely bigger-than-life despite offering a glimpse into what, for most, is still mysterious and far-fetched.

One photo shows a long stretch of guerrillas fishing with makeshift rods, while another has what appears to be an over-sized platoon traversing the mountains in single file. Another depicts a guerrilla unit trekking rocky rivers, the end of their line too far away for the lens to capture. In his piece “Shooting a revolution,” Tata Gil ascribed the NPA’s big growth to the support of their mass base:

Barrio folks would serve rice coffee whenever we passed by their huts, no cream and sugar, but sometimes with sweet camote and bananas…Most of the time, the barrio folks served as our intelligence unit. They would act as couriers for the fast delivery of communiqué to the next camp. Battery-operated two-way radio was not possible then due to lack of double A batteries.

He attributed this to the NPA’s direct service and accessibility to the masses:

During the day, we would patrol the controlled areas in the mountains, visit different barrios, talk to the people, set up medical missions, try to help find solutions to local problems such as cattle rustling and family feuds, and still have time to play volleyball and mini-billiards.

Other photos portray the NPA as, according to Tata Gil, “ordinary people in an extraordinary time in our history.”

The NPA, which started out with only 60 fighters and 34 rifles, quickly spread throughout the country during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. When Martial Law was declared in 1972, thousands upon thousands of students and workers joined its ranks, propelling the NPA to grow into a 25,000-strong army situated in almost all provinces nationwide at the time of Marcos’ ouster in the mid-1980s.

By the late 1980s, the NPA committed grave errors and consequently suffered great losses brought on by internal line struggles within the CPP. This led to the CPP’s launching of the Second Great Rectification Movement (SGRM) in 1992 characterized by party cadres and NPA fighters engaging in “criticism and self-criticism” among themselves and with the Filipino masses, and a “re-affirmation” of the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as its guiding principles. Completed in 1998, the SGRM led to a resurgence of the armed revolution and the “rebirth” of the CPP as a reckoning force in Philippine society.

Since then, the NPA has continued to conduct guerrilla warfare in the countryside along the general Maoist strategic line of a “protracted people’s war.” In its statement on the 43rd anniversary of the NPA, the CPP claims that its now has “a mass base that runs into the millions” and that it “operates in more than 100 guerrilla fronts spread in 70 provinces nationwide,” ready to advance the people’s war “from the strategic defensive to the strategic stalemate.”

In “Sa Tagumpay ng Rebolusyon”, Tata Gil successfully immortalizes the armed revolution in the 1980s. But what the exhibit provokes is not but mere nostalgia. It is not only a testimony of history but an insight of possibly more photos in the offing. And in a time when “revolution” is becoming more justified, pictures as grand as Tata Gil’s are just there; all one needs to do is to take them. ###

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