“There is a place of perfect peace in each one of us that nothing can harm or disturb. It is waiting for you in this very moment.” ~ Christopher Foster, The Happy Seeker
It was one of the most memorable scenes I’ve experienced as a photojournalist. When I shot this scene everyone was taking photos of a glorious sunset from the horizon. Behind us, however, a thunderstorm was menacingly brewing. And this kid whose expression I have captured, just turned and witnessed Mother Nature’s tempestuous unpredictability at its best. Quite overwhelming when you are at sea.
In a ferryboat filled with people from different cultures, I was snapping away like a madwoman, quietly documenting candid aspects of humanity, from cheerful kids surrounding their mom in the traditional burqa (an outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions to cover their bodies in public), to the rowdy Indian teenagers out on a tropical vacation. One elderly woman with crazy curls was looking at me in silent acknowledgment, as she held an identical DSLR like mine, silently capturing scenes on her side of the fast craft.
We were en route to Penang on a 3-hour journey from Langkawi. Malaysia has a stunningly beautiful seascape and islets dotted the waters as we passed. From a distance, the sun was about to set like a ball of fire slowly sinking into the horizon. Its radiant orange glow caressing our skin, this awesome exhibition triggered a frenzy of camera phones and DSLRs noisily clicking in the air.
We were all orange-y for a special moment. But nothing prepared us for its show of force at that instant, targeting a small hoard of hapless, trigger happy shutterbugs in the middle of the sea. For while Mother Nature was setting a dazzling display on one side of the ocean, she was exhibiting fury at her finest on the other side of our boat. We felt sudden gusts of winds picking up speed, and saw a formation of ominous dark clouds looming overhead. There was an hour left before we were to reach the island of Penang, and a heavy storm was hovering over it.
As the winds started howling, everyone made a scramble inside the boat, leaving me to gather what I normally do, collecting a salvo of crazy scenes at the very last minute before a mad downpour. Thunder and lightning ensued. The woman with the camera tightened her hold on her jacket and dashed inside as well. I was left gawking at such formidable dark clouds in fascination.
This kind of stubborn (or stupid) stance brought me a damaged Canon 7D in the past for wading into sea to document a fisherman casting his net from a boat. I also pursued a wild stallion in a ringless horsefight in the mountains where everyone was running for cover and the horse galloped back at me (vividly etched in my mind was its set of chunky teeth hee-hawing towards my transfixed state, until I was pulled rather roughly to safety away from its thundering hooves). I also flew into storm clouds up in the Banaue Rice Terraces where I kept shooting from inside a fragile chopper being tossed about, and I stopped myself from flinging wildly against the glass in fright.
There was also that moment when rain fell in torrents inside the dense Agusan Marshland while we huddled in a tiny wooden boat, mindful of Lolong, the once largest crocodile (20.5 feet) captured and recorded in Guinness, still lurking peacefully under its murky depths. I hovered from a chopper above the active Mount Mayon on alert level, spewing its dark fumes while the pilot was telling me we couldn’t go any nearer because we may inhale its sulphuric smoke and lose consciousness.
I have this strange fascination for beauty amidst danger. In every dangerous moment I was in, shooting was my therapy. It kept me from being scared of the unknown, and diverted my attention to life-threatening incidents (escaping from a flash flood in 2011 that swamped our house and damaged everything, I took photos from the overpass that kept my family safely from a raging river that overflowed).
Every time I felt my life was at risk, I would console myself with the ridiculous fantasy that someone will find my damaged camera, retrieve my memory card, and hopefully upload shots that will go down in history (think extreme closeup of a crocodile’s gaping mouth with sharp, jagged teeth). Or maybe simply give my last hurrah some posthumous credit (think Vivian Maier, my idol. Go on, google her). So much for morbid thoughts.
An hour later, we arrived safely in Penang. The storm has passed, the waters have calmed down. My batteries have drained. Life goes on. Some people think of the “calm before a storm”, I prefer to concentrate on the “calm after the storm”. You have to take the bad with the good, achieving a kind of inner strength and serenity that you have to go through in order to understand and accept life’s uncertainties.