Monday, September 25, 2006

Conversations with a Cobra

Kathy welcomed a group of 35 students under Ms. Judy Sibayan, her former thesis adviser who came on a field trip to visit our studio. Aside from showing them around, she regaled them with stories of how she not only survived Ms. Sibayan, but also actually learned how to be a better photographer because of her. (Incidentally, although she did not receive the highest possible grade, her thesis was adjudged best thesis of her batch’s).

Although Kathy’s assignment was to photograph endangered Philippine endemic animals, her thesis adviser wanted her to include the Philippine cobra, which is not an animal on this list. Kathy thought that Judy just wanted to see her dead.

To top it all, her adviser wanted her to use a film camera. It would have been easier to use a digital camera which would allow her to see right away if she got the pictures right.

Reluctantly and fearing for her life, she set up her photo session with the cobra. The Zoo did not have any anti-venom in the premises, and the nearest one was at the San Lazaro Hospital, just a few kilometers away but an agonizing three-hour ride in Manila’s horrendous traffic.

Judy wanted it photographed on a white background, with its wings flared – all poised to attack. With one eye looking through the viewfinder, and another eye watching out to see if her subject was aiming for her, and her hand shaking, Kathy tried to photograph the cobra. Because she was using film, she had no way of checking if her pictures would turn out alright and had to use up the entire roll of 36 exposures and hope that at least one would be sharp, properly exposed and with the cobra within the frame, and doing what was expected of him! It was a tall order for both the photographer and the cobra!

“Aren’t you done yet?” asked the cobra.

“Just one more, please,” pleaded the photographer.

“Okay, hurry up, I’m busy.”

The students laughed at Kathy’s funny way of storytelling, and Kathy continued with her narration.

She presented her photos to her thesis adviser, who thought that it might be better to use a black background. Unable to argue her way out, but convinced that her teacher was resolute in seeing her dead, Kathy cried all the way home but went back to the zoo to re-arrange for another shoot.

“You again? What do you mean, you have to re-shoot?” was the cobra’s reaction. Kathy pleaded with the cobra and explained that her adviser wanted a different background.

“Make it snappy. I get angry when I get too tired. Or impatient.” So Kathy rushed through another roll, careful not to displease her subject.

She then faced her thesis adviser, whom she feared as much as the cobra, and presented her with the second set of contact sheets. Briefly browsing through the new images, Judy chose the very first portrait of the cobra – on white background!

After narrating the story of how she survived her ordeal with her subject and with her thesis adviser, Kathy turned to the students and declared “Whatever does not kill you, will make you…” and she waited for all 35 of them, and Ms. Sibayan, to say in chorus, “…stronger.” “I would like to reassure you that you would live through Ms. Sibayan, as I have.” And with that, they applauded her. More than a talk on photography, it was probably what they needed most to hear.