Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist revisits the Filipino revolution

Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Kim Komenich will release his book, Revolution Revisited, featuring his award-winning-photography from the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime this week. Komenich will release 1,000 copies of his self-proclaimed labor of love to honor the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Philippine “People Power” (or EDSA) Revolution celebrated from February 22-25, 2016. His first Kickstarter campaign raised over $30,000 to release the book.

In 1984, Komenich traveled to the Philippines—on assignment for the SF Examiner to join investigative reporter Phil Bronstein. The images he made from 1984 through 1986 led him to win the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. Between 2010 and 2015, Komenich traveled to the Philippines to relocate some of the people he photographed in the 80’s and produced “then-and-now” images, which are showcased in the final chapter of Revolution Revisited.

Through the Cracks interviewed Komenich for Through the Cracks about: his passion for photography, his experience documenting the EDSA Revolution, his experience using crowdfunding to fund the project and his camera gear, of course.

Through the Cracks: When did you first pick up a camera? How did photography become your passion?

Komenich: I grew up in Manteca, Calif and I was fascinated with photography from the 8th grade. When I was 15 and a sophomore in high school Glenn Kahl, the editor of the Manteca Bulletin, asked my photography teacher Bill Forbis to recommend someone to work as the “darkroom boy” for the newspaper. My after-school job was to develop and print the reporters’ pictures. I had grown up reading Life magazine and I knew at an early age I wanted to travel the world and take pictures for a living. My heroes were Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith. Where most teenage boys were hanging pictures of Farrah Fawcett or a fast car on their bedroom walls, mine were plastered with pictures taken by great photojournalists I had cut from Popular Photography and Camera 35. I accompanied reporters on assignments and occasionally the paper published my photos.

My hometown was about two hours from Yosemite and I spent a lot of time trying to emulate the work of Ansel Adams. One day in 1975 I called Adams number (it was in the Carmel phone book) and asked his assistant if I could meet him and show him my work. Adams agreed and I showed up with the most god-awful set of prints that I had made from my first big photo story, about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ march from Delano to Sacramento (I covered about 20 miles of it as it passed through Modesto to my home town.)

In looking at those prints today I can say I don’t know how he kept a straight face. They were printed on the earliest “RC” (plastic) paper, which had terrible tonal range, and they were dry-mounted on 16X20 beige pebble mount board. And there must have been 40 of ‘em! He looked at the ton of pictures I laid on his living room table and found one he could say something nice about.

“This one reminds me of something my friend Dorothea Lange once took,” he told me. I just about fell on the floor. If he had told me what what he really must have thought, I’d probably be a plumber, not a photographer. It was at that moment I realized that kindness and generosity are a teacher’s best tools and I try to follow his example to this day.

Through the Cracks: What is the single most important moment, or event, you documented during the Philippine Revolution in the 80’s?

Komenich: I covered the Philippines as a staff photographer for the San Francisco Examiner from 1984 until the 1986 when the “People Power” revolution brought the 21-year reign of the Ferdinand Marcos regime to an end. I worked with the great investigative reporter Phil Bronstein. I began my work there on the first anniversary of the assassination of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Aquino had spent six years in the U.S. and upon his return to the Philippines in 1983, Marcos operatives escorted him off the plane and killed him on the tarmac at Manila International Airport.

Our stories from 1984-85 showed the human toll of the greed and corruption of the regime. Responding to world pressure, Marcos called a “snap” presidential election in November, 1985, thinking that the opposition could not organize itself in time to win. Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino rose as the opposition candidate and Bronstein and I covered the campaign in early 1986. Mrs. Aquino won the Feb. 7, 1986 election but Marcos manipulated the results and had himself declared the winner.

If I were to point to a single event, it would be the four sleepless days and nights from Feb. 22-25, 1986 when the Filipino people took to the streets to lay their lives on the line to face the Marcos military and protect their democracy. It became known as the “People Power” revolution and it served as model for oppressed people around the world, showing them that peaceful mass action, covered live as breaking news by CNN and other networks using technological breakthroughs in satellite technology, could topple authoritarian governments. The whole world WAS watching and soon, oppressive governments around the world were falling, thanks to the example set in Manila in February 1986. We have the “People Power” model to thank for the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union. Breaking news reports about peaceful mass actions changed the world!

Through the Cracks: What film camera were you using when you made these pictures?

Komenich: It’s hard to imagine a time without digital technology. There were no cell phones or digital cameras and doing journalism boiled down to darkrooms, Telexes and hand-written phone messages. Journalists usually worked out of Associated Press or United Press International bureaus, but Bronstein and I liked to keep our stories to ourselves. I brought a darkroom with me. I’d turn my entire hotel room into a darkroom by gaffer taping black painter’s plastic over all the windows. Over the three years we covered the story I developed 1,100 rolls of Tri-X film in hotel bathrooms, made 8X10-inch prints on a Leica Valoy enlarger and sent them over hotel telephone lines back to San Francisco using a glorified fax machine called a wire photo transmitter. It took eight minutes to send one black and white photo.

In the film days I always carried two Leica M4-P cameras, one with a 21mm lens and the other with a 35mm lens. I used Nikons for telephoto images. One of my favorite pictures of Ferdinand Marcos giving his final speech before fleeing to exile was made with a Nikon 500mm mirror lens while I was hanging from a scaffold 20 feet off the ground.

Through the Cracks: What inspired you to revisit your work in the Philippines between 2010-2015? Did you continue to shoot with Tri-X film to produce the then-and-now photos, or did you switch to digital at some point?

Komenich: A photojournalist rarely gets assigned to go back and see how things turned out. In 2010 I decided to send myself back to the Philippines to find the people in some of my favorite images and to ask them three things: What was your life like under Marcos? What were you doing when I photographed you? And finally, did the revolution matter? The project came into the digital age when I was teaching multimedia at San Jose State. I wanted to see how my original work from the 80’s could be used as source material for exhibitions, an interactive website, a book and a documentary film. I hired two former students to scan each roll on a flatbed scanner, and soon we had 1,100 digital contact sheets containing about 30,000 images. I found Adobe Lightroom to be an amazing tool for editing these scans— we were able to blow up any image from our high-res contact sheets into 8X10’s for editing purposes. Once we had chosen the “keepers” we scanned nearly 700 of them on an Imacon for use in the projects.

The interactive website was designed by grad students in the Interactive Interface class at the University of Miami. It proved to be an amazing tool for finding people 25 years after I lost touch with them. It also allowed me to connect with other journalists and researchers who helped me check my captions and give context to the photos I’d taken

I connected with about 30 of my 1980s subjects in all, and did portraits of them as well as hour-long interviews with most of them for the upcoming “Revolution Revisited” documentary. I used the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III for the stills and video. Over the years I’ve used the Steadicam Pilot and the Movi M5 for stabilization as well as the Kessler Pocket Dolly for motion. I used the Kino-Flo Diva Lite Universal for most of the sit-downs.

Our 2015 interview with current Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III was shot with the Diva and supplementary LEDs. We use a Marantz 661 with a Sennheiser  MK66 for the boom and a Tram TR50 lavalier hard-wired for audio. I will be shooting my new projects on a Sony F5 and an FS5.

Through the Cracks: What strikes you as the biggest difference between the work you produced in the Philippines during the 80’s, and the work you produced when you returned between 2010-2015?

Komenich: My work in the 1980s was always shot on deadline for same-day publication (the Philippines is 15 hours ahead of San Francisco) and it was always shot with the readers of my newspaper in mind. Today, my projects can take five or six years to complete. It’s the difference between immediate and long-term gratification. When I worked as a staff photographer for a metro newspaper I lived in an environment where I knew I had a paycheck and health care. It was a cocoon that allowed me to concentrate fully on my work and to practice what I did with great intensity. In March of 2009, as the newspaper industry continued to implode, the Examiner offered a buyout and I decided to switch cocoons. I didn’t have any job prospects, but I had just completed my masters at the University of Missouri. By fall I was hired as a multimedia professor at San Jose State. I loved my newspaper job and I didn’t have to go, but the sequence of events with the degree almost made it a foregone conclusion.

It turns out that I love teaching and the freedom I now have to do multimedia stories and films as much as I had loved my 30 years in newspapers. I’m thankful I came along at a time when journalism reinvented itself. What a ride!

Through the Cracks: You took a calculated risk and mortgaged $33,000 to publish 1,000 copies of your book. What does it feel like to reach your crowdfunding campaign goal?

Komenich: I should clarify that universities don’t underwrite films. You have to fund them yourself. Academics are expected to produce research, and in my case it is “creative research” that can take the form of films, exhibitions and photo books. It’s the modern version of “publish or perish”, only it’s more fun. In order to fund post-production of my 2014 film “Cowboys” I was able to secure $22,000 from an anonymous donor.

The “Revolution Revisited” project has been costly. I’ve put a lot of my own money into five trips to the Philippines since 2010, three with crews. All this time I had wanted somebody to discover my project, see its value (and my value) and invest in the film and the book as a big package that could be released simultaneously on the 30th anniversary of the revolution. I realized that I was creating an unrealistic goal that would keep me from accomplishing my dream.

I want to recommend a book. Last year I took a screenwriting workshop from the great Robert McKee. In his opening session McKee quoted from Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art”, which helped me understand why, after so many years of hard work, I wouldn’t let myself complete the last ten percent of my project. My problem was resistance. I was manufacturing scenarios that would let me tell people I was “working on a book” and “working on a film” to get the kind of admiration and encouragement you get from people when you have a work in progress.

Pressfield says that resistance is based in fear. What if the film sucks? What if somebody doesn’t like the book? Isn’t it better just never finish and settle for the little drips of satisfaction you get as the author of a book no one will ever see?

Then reality hit. I realized that my dream of finishing both the book and the film  would cause me to miss the 30th anniversary of the revolution. Somewhere, deep-down, I took my ego out of the equation and realized that my photos, over time have gained historical significance. Momentarily, I had overcome this self-imposed hamster wheel of resistance and I decided to go for it.

So I mortgaged the farm. I borrowed $33,000 from my retirement account to pay the printer and on Jan. 21 I launched a realistic Kickstarter campaign that I hoped would repay most of my investment by the end of the day on Feb. 25, the 30th anniversary of the day Marcos fled the Philippines into exile.

I am a first-time Kickstarter and I didn’t do any advance work. I relied on social media exclusively for the first 22 days and raised $13,000 while I was “perfecting” my direct mail list. (BTW, there is a great Mac app called “Email Contacts Extractor” that reads your whole hard drive and puts everything with an “@“ into an Excel spreadsheet.) Then I hit a long plateau. I freaked out and decided to send funding pitches to the first 25% of the emails on my list using the Mac app “Direct Mail” (990 emails) and got more than 400 clicks that yielded 40 pledges and about $5000 in one day!

As I write this I am $281 short of my $25K goal. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. I should mention that as soon as [I finish answering your questions] this I will go back to writing thank-you emails to my 200-plus donors. My mom would be proud of that.

Through the Cracks: How will you be celebrating the 30 year anniversary of the 1986 Philippine “People Power” Revolution next week?

Komenich: I’m looking forward to next week. On Feb. 23 the Leica Gallery in San Francisco will host a one day “pop-up” exhibition and book event and on Feb.25 the San Francisco Philippine Consulate will open a one-month exhibition of 50 photos from the “Revolution Revisited” project.

As I said earlier, what a ride.

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Lover of coffee, books, golden hour and plane tickets. Freelance writer, photographer and videographer based in La Paz, Bolivia.

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