A new generation of print enthusiasts have Fernando "Bobit" Afable to thank.
In many ways, this is the culmination of Fernando "Bobit" Afable's life and work.
Rare tomes and vintage machines share shelf space in this place. A Spirit 600 Polaroid sits comfortable on a copy of New Color by Harry Callahan. In one row, Helmut Newton is neighbors with Robert Mapplethorpe. Stacks on stacks of books from photography's old masters are free for the curious to peruse. There's even one shelf where it's just old cameras and rolls—Leica, Ilford, Mamiya.
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You could mistake this space, Fotobaryo, for a museum or a hoarder's personal collection of paraphernalia, and once upon a time, it was the latter. All those books and cameras once belonged to the personal collection of the photographer Fernando "Bobit" Afable. Bobit worked as a security guard at the International Security of Photography since as far back as the 90s, eventually earning, by way of enthusiasm and initiative, a position to manage ICP's dark room.
Whether he was a guard, a receptionist, or the dark room manager, everybody loved Bobit. Ask literally anyone who's ever met him. "Oh my god. Bobit was the most generous man. I think he helps everyone. He's the go-to person ng photographers who were all studying sa ICP," says photographer Nana Buxani, who was studying in the ICP at the time, in 2002. “Big heart si Bobit eh."
Generosity begets generosity. And with his ineffable charm, Afable learned about photography through Filipino and American photographers who were taken by his enthusiasm. Friends would gift him with photography books. And when ICP planned on discarding materials like books and prints related to analog photography, Bobit stepped in and offered to take it all. He was so committed to protecting the material that while he was living in New York, he rented a storage space to keep them.
Bobit ended up shipping his collection of books and cameras to his hometown of Tanauan, Batangas in 2008, with the hopes of recreating for his fellow Filipinos what ICP did for him. That move took a lot from his savings, and took a lot of balikbayan boxes. But the effort actually resulted in the first iteration of Fotobaryo, a space where established photographers would spread the gospel of analog photography to the community, hold classes, and even have a dark room and library. "I think that's what he wanted: to give back," Buxani tells me. "For all the years he spent away."
But things changed. Bobit kept going back and forth between Batangas and the US before eventually deciding to settle in Los Angeles. "Parang nasayangan din siya, tingin ko, doon sa ginawa niyang dark room, and the library, tapos siyempre mga taga-Maynila, yung based dito, bihira makapunta doon," Buxani says.
If it weren't for photographer Jason Quibilan convincing Bobit to move shop, we wouldn't have Fotobaryo as it is now, comfortably ensconced in Jason’s Shutterspace Studio in Katipunan. It has a big library — that collection of books that moved from the US to Tanauan — a beautiful collection of cameras on display, an extremely high quality printer, and a dark room where those interested and experienced can develop their prints. A dark room!
"We will also offer workshops in the future for beginners and advanced photographers," says Abby Madriaga, manager of both Fotobaryo and Shutterspace. "Right now we're actually arranging talks where we're gonna invite curators, photographers, and other enthusiasts, where they can actually come in and then just listen."
The interesting thing is, Bobit hasn't even physically been to the space. A celebratory launch was held in his honor, and all shipping and construction were made in coordination with him, but he has not once stepped foot into this amazing thing he helped create.
One thing anyone who comes into Fotobaryo should realize is that all of it, all the books and words and pictures and equipment, were a whole life, a man's soul. Buxani tells me it took Bobit three years before finally deciding to ship his collection from Tanauan to Manila. There was a thoughtful effort to let go of a thing held close. Only the most generous souls can do that. Perhaps it takes that kind of generosity to keep the medium of print alive.
Photos courtesy of Shutterspace Studios