Some photos are harder to take than others. And some are damn near impossible.
When I first saw the Madonna of Boracay, I knew she would be in the latter category. Though a main attraction of the island, she appears on neither postcards nor brochures. Why not?
The non-stop procession of tourists lined up to “take a photo,” are the main obstacle. And yet, from the moment I saw her, I knew I would try.
I figured the soft light before dawn would be optimal, while the sunbathers and selfie-takers were still sound asleep. So I set my alarm for 5AM and braced myself for an early wakening. What I did not brace myself for was Epic.
“Epic” is the name of a disco on the beach, less than a stone’s throw from my thin-walled hotel.
Epic has powerful bass speakers. “Guhn, Guhn, Guhn,” into the night.
Epic parties until 4AM.
My alarm went off at 5.
No way. I’m sleeping in.
I spent the afternoon wandering around, seeing the sights, and swimming in the clear turquoise water. But in the distance I saw her, surrounded by waders, paddleboarders, and selfie-sticks. She called to me silently, and I replied, “Yes my lady, I haven’t forgotten you.”
Sunset approached. Another lighting opportunity, but also a magnet for every tourist with a camera, smart phone, or tablet. They were out in full force lining the beach. A hundred or more overlooking lady Madonna, another dozen at her lap armed with smart-phones.
I waded into the water to claim my spot. A long shot. A close up impossible with the selfie-posers in place. The sun passed the horizon, colors were made, and a hundred people took a hundred photos that will later be explained, “Oh you had to be there.”
The crowd began to thin out. What they did not know, is that the real sunset, the photographers sunset, happens some time ‘after’ the sun goes down. Maximum color comes 5 to 15 minutes later. I inform no one of this.
The clouds lit back up, pink scallops high into the sky, peak color, critical moment, and I took the shot. I hated it. Why? My intended subject, my lady, was too distant. And still the tourists swarmed her. I am not a believer in overpopulation, but at that moment a half dozen fewer people seemed like a pretty good idea.
The battle was not yet over. There was still light and would be for a few minutes, more importantly another critical moment approached. I waded out further and climbed the rock to join the crowd. They were lined up to have their picture taken next to her. They smiled, they made peace signs, they mimicked her pose.
I didn’t line up. I sat along the railing and tried not to vomit. My inner dialogue went like this, “Make your stupid fucking poses, take your stupid fucking pictures and get your stupid fucking asses the hell out of my way so I can make some fucking art you fucking morons.”
Someone asked me if I’d take a photo for them. I smiled and said, “Sure, no problem.”
Everyone had a right to be there, to take their photo that would never be looked at again. I respect that right and impeded no one from having their turn. I however, was fully impeded. I did not get a turn, because my turn was incomprehensible to the never-ending mob.
I have to stand in a different place. I have to point in a different direction. I need multiple exposures. I need everyone off the rock, just for 10 seconds, that’s all, I’m not greedy, just 10 seconds, but no. Even if I could explain this in the multiple languages required I doubt it would have much effect.
One might think it would make sense to simply stand in place with camera ready for an opportune moment, but that only makes it worse. What happens is people see a guy with a big fancy camera and decide they want to get the same picture as him. Then they loiter around and get in the way even more.
Nope. I sat far away and appeared to be uninterested. Be warned, if you are ever at a landmark and see a rather serious looking guy with a rather serious looking camera sitting at a distance, there is a good chance that he wants to kill you. Approach with caution.
The sky got darker and the tourist cameras were unable to gather enough light. My Nikon on the other hand, could adjust to 3200 ISO, 6400, even 12800, allowing me to work in near darkness if need be. But oh how I wished I had a tripod so I could keep it buttery smooth at 100.
The mob was halfway to the nearest bar as the next critical moment arrived. A young local man in torn shorts climbed the rock, reached behind Mother Mary, and turned on the light that illuminates her. He made the signs of the cross and left.
This was it. Critical moment, while there was still a little color in the sky. But one lurker remained, a young Asian woman with a selfie-stick. I looked to the shore and saw a twinkle in the mobs eyes. They saw the newly lit Madonna, “oh so pretty,” they thought and were headed our way.
I said to selfie-stick girl, “Could I ask you to move over here, please.”
“Oh, you want to take a photo?”
Uhh, yeah. She moved. I took the first two shots, bracketing multiple exposures to be combined later, but I needed two more, facing the other direction. I told her, “Over here now please.”
She looked at me like I was insane. Didn’t I just take the photo? No. I took ‘a’ photo, but I’m not finished ‘making the photo.’ A quick glance beach-ward and realized I had no time to explain any of this. The mob was at the steps. They’ll either be here in seconds or I’ll have to commit a felony.
I commanded her, “Now.”
She moved. Click-click.
The mob swarmed back over Lady Madonna like insects to the light. They lined up to pose, make peace signs, and mimic her. I wished she were a bug zapper.
But my shot was born. A miraculous conception: the Madonna of Boracay without a person in sight, save a few waders in the distance.
Perhaps I could do better, during off-season, on a Wednesday, with climbing gear, a tripod, and a fake security guard. But for now, on this day, it’s the best anyone’s going to get.