He has been in the photography industry for 13 years, bridging the film and digital eras. He first worked for a studio as a print lab assistant before becoming an apprentice for a veteran photographer who eventually gave him the break he was looking for. Eternally grateful for the opportunity, he has since vowed to work as hard as he could and someday pay it forward.
His story is one full of hope and determination. Leandro "Pong" Viaje is the featured Focus photographer of the month.
How did your life in photography start? Before photography, what kind of work were you in?
P : I started as an assistant of a photographer then I became curious how cameras work. 2005 'yun. Back when I was still in high school, I worked as an assistant during weekends. Kapag may shoot during weekdays, absent din ako sa class. Kapag walang shoot, I was a tricycle boy at night and during vacation. I also tried selling food. Siomai, chicken, proben, puto vendor. Basta any job na pwede kapag walang shoot si master photographer. Hanggang 2007 'yun, noong ma-train na ako na maging hunter.
For those not familiar with the term "hunter", what exactly are you referring to?
P : "Hunter" ang tawag doon sa kumukuha ng picture ng mga ninong at ninang at mga abay sa wedding tapos ipapa-print at ibebenta dun sa kinunan pagkatapos ng ceremony. Kadalasan doon pa lang sa simbahan, kapag hindi umabot, sa reception na.
How did you transition into being an events photographer?
P : Pinakilala ako ng brother ko, si Alih Viaje, kay boss Jhun Tamayo. Beteranong photographer na kumuha sa akin at nagbigay ng magandang break. They trained me not just as a photographer but also as a secretary, na kung sakaling magsarili na daw ako, kaya kong gumalaw mag-isa. Parang 'yung nabasa kong quote na "teach a man to fish rather than just give him a fish to live." Hindi ko naramdaman sa kanila na tao lang nila ako, they treated me as a part of the family. Doon talaga ako nagsimula hanggang sa nakaya ko nang mag-cover nang sarili ko.
How do you compare being a photographer to other jobs you've had?
P : Compared to other jobs na napasok ko, dito kasi talaga hindi ako nakakaramdam ng matinding pagod. I mean nakakapagod din pero the moment na makita mo 'yung client na nakangiti while looking or checking your output.. nakaka-proud pong tunay! 'Yung kumikita ka na tapos nakakapagpasaya ka pa. Disadvantage nga lang, ito hindi araw-araw. Hehe.
You cover a lot of types of events. What's your favorite?
P : I love to cover weddings and debuts. Ang sarap kasi sa pakiramdam kapag nagiging part ka ng once-in-a-lifetime event ng isang tao. Lalo na 'pag nagustuhan nila yung output mo. Minsan kasi mas mahalaga sa akin 'yung masaya 'yung client kesa kumita nang malaki.
Apart from the income, what fulfillment do you get in being a professional photographer?
P : I love seeing people that I photographed smiling while looking at their photo. Para na kong naka-bonus 'pag ganun. Masarap din sa mata kapag karamihan ng friends mo sa social media eh photo na galing sa'yo ang profile picture nila.
Are there photographers you look up to or who influenced you?
P : I do have so many idols in photography. Who influenced me? Si boss Jhun Tamayo. Actually wala ako sa industriyang ito kung hindi ko siya nakilala. Sa tagal ko doon sa ibang studio, si boss lang 'yung nagbigay sa akin at sinabing "Gusto ko magkaron ka ng sarili mong gamit para makapagsarili ka." In time, gusto kong gawin at sabihin 'yung mga linya na 'yun sa magiging tao ko in the future.
What is the most memorable event you've covered?
P : Libad Festival 2015. That was a celebration for the Feast of Saint John The Baptist in Calumpit and we had to cover the whole-day celebration of the whole town including the night programs, starting 6:30 AM to 2 AM the next day. I enjoyed the whole day of shooting kahit ilag dito, ilag doon. Tago dito, tago doon dahil mababasa ang gear ko. Until we reached near the end of the parade. I managed to keep my gear dry. So ayun nga. Ang saya ko dahil nalusutan ko lahat ng nambabasa, pero akala ko lang pala 'yun. There was this drunk man na mukha namang harmless, so hindi ko pinansin. Pagtalikod ko may nakatago palang isang timbang tubig sa isang eskenitang katapat ko. Pagharap ko ayun sumalubong sa gear ko lahat ng tubig galing sa timba. Haha. Gusto ko sanang magmura kaso it's their tradition. Tsaka maraming kasama si manong, hahaha. After that tinest ko 'yung gear ko, working pa naman. So balik sa shoot. There was a pageant happening in the town that night so balik sa trabaho. Ayun umabot naman sa Question & Answer portion 'yung gear ko bago tumirik. Hahaha.
What happened to your camera after?
P : Napagawa naman tapos binenta ko na doon sa kumpare ko. Nikon D40x nga pala 'yun.
What's the photo you're most proud of?
P : This photo taken from the summit of Baguio City (shown below). This was my first time to go up there with my gear and shoot with my Focus Bulacan family. Ito 'yung nag-3-day stay kami ng Focus Bulacan in Baguio wherein we went to different places and enjoyed each other's company. Parang retreat, ganern. 'Di ko maalala kung second or third day 'to. Gumising kami nang maaga, mga 2AM para umakyat doon. Naka-van naman. Tapos 'di ko alam na landscape photography pala 'yung activity. Hindi kasi ako nagbasa ng announcement. So ayun wala akong tripod, hehe. Patong here, patong there, patong everywhere ang drama ng lolo Pong mo. Buti na lang mababait ang kasama ko pinahiram ako. Lesson learned. Magbasa ng trip itinerary, hindi arya lang nang arya.
1 being lowest and 10 the highest, how would you rate yourself as a photographer?
P : 8. Kasi hindi naman talaga ako magaling, maayos lang magtrabaho sa mga events.
What advice would you give to yourself five years ago?
P : Dapat taun-taon mag-improve ka. Don't stop learning. And be professional in terms of arriving on time for the event's calltime at magdamit nang maayos.
Most memorable photography moment or experience?
P : My most memorable is 'yung una kong solo wedding coverage sa Kalibo, Aklan. I covered a double wedding, two couples at the same time, haha. 'Yung tipong first time mo na, time-pressured ka pa. Haha buti na lang hindi nag-reklamo. Okay naman daw ang mga shots. Ewan ko lang.
Pong's other favorite photos (Click thumbnails to view in full)
What's your favorite Focus Bulacan memory?
P : Madami eh. Siguro Top 3 na lang. Una, my first Scott Kelby photowalk in Hagonoy. First time ko lang kasi sila na-meet pero I felt at home na agad. 'Yun din 'yung 1st time ko mag-shoot ng street photography, kahit wala naman talaga akong alam sa street photography noon. Pangalawa, the day that I officially became a Focus Bulacan member. Pangatlo, 'yung Baguio.
Your message to Focus followers and applicants?
P : Everyone of us can be a photographer. Use Nikon, they're the best. Haha.
Message to fellow Focus members?
P : To my Focus Bulacan family! Mahal ko kayo! Salamat at sinasamahan n'yo ako kahit medyo hindi ako normal kausap. Mwah!
There's an artist inside all of us. Sometimes, we just need to explore and discover it. Then there's always an opportunity waiting for us. All it takes is for someone to realize our potential and give us the confidence we need to take that next step. Proceeding with hard work and determination - while always being thankful for the chance - are almost always the recipes for success. Pong Viaje's story is a shining example we could learn from.
Every month, we have a feature on our members, our photography idols, and other photography issues we feel deserve a heads-up.