Remembering Romy Gacad, Filipino photojournalist 2
Photo by Basilio Sepe
Culture

The quiet power of Romy Gacad, titan of Philippine photojournalism

“If there was anyone who I would work alongside in a combat situation, it would be him. Hindi ka niya iiwanan”
ANCX Staff | Oct 31 2021

He had a great eye for capturing a story, was a true professional, and a generous mentor. This is how his friends and colleagues will remember photojournalist Romeo Gacad, who passed away Saturday, October 30, at the age of 62. 

Gacad, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a legend not only among his peers but to a younger generation of photojournalists. “His photos never looked contrived,” says Alex Baluyut who started his own career in photography around the same time Gacad did. “He was always looking for a different angle or a way to present the news photograph as not boring or formula-based.” 

“Artist din siya eh, kaya iba din ang silip niya,” says Tammy David, a Gacad mentee from years back. “He’s such a front page guy. Yung dapat lahat ng info nasa frame.” 

Gacad in Cubao. Photographed by Gil Nartea
"Here is a shooter who stands out with his works. But more than that, he stands tall in the industry for being fair to everyone, newcomer or veteran, mainstream, freelancer or alternative," says ABS-CBN News photo editor Jun Sepe. Photographed by Gil Nartea

And then there’s the other thing that set Gacad apart, David adds. “What makes him great is yung energy niya. Parang quiet power. Andami nabubudol sa kanya na he can get access. Kaya sa coverage, pinipilit ko maging soft spoken o matangkad.” 

In his more than three-decade career, Gacad has covered all the banner events, from the Olympics to the World Cup; from state visits to street demonstrations in post-Ninoy assassination Manila; from the Gulf War in 1991 to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Having worked for Agence France Press for almost the entire run of his profession, his photographs have graced the pages of international publications—including Time magazine in December 2001, with his photos of America’s war on Afghanistan. The pictures would lead to Gacad’s second time on the finals list for the Pulitzer Prize, following his 1989 debut on the esteemed list with his snap of the dramatic finals race between top sprinters Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis at the Seoul Olympics. 

Gacad was among a group of fearless photojournalists who started their careers during the turbulent period following the supposed lifting of Martial Law in the early 1980s—a period anchored heavily on the Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983 and the Marcoses’ fall from power in 1986. “We were lucky to be around during a period of political turmoil in the 80s,” Gacad said in a gathering of photojournalists in 2017. The flurry of events then, he added, “ang nakapag-panday ng dedikasyon ng pagkaseryoso ng mga photographers ng generation namin.” 

The TIME Magazine cover from December 2001.
The TIME Magazine cover from December 2001.

Being a UP student (he was a VisCom guy), said Gacad, helped him locate his place in the world—his schoolmates being always on the frontlines of major demonstrations. “I looked at myself as a photographer. Ano bang puwede kong gawin para makatulong? Ano ba ang aking role as a photographer? We take pictures—for whose pleasure?” he said. “During that time it began to dawn on me na maraming malaking paraan na maitutulong ang photography: to propagate the truth, to see things the way it happens, to deliver the five Ws: who, what, when, where and why.” 

The nature of film photography also helped mold Gacad and his colleagues then to become the astute visual reporters they have become, what with having only a limit of 36 shots per roll of film at their disposal for a single assignment. “You have 36 shots to tell a story,” he said. “Kung ubos na film mo, nakatunganga ka na lang, you have nothing else to do. Tipid na tipid. Hindi mo alam kelan matatapos yung rally, 20 shots na, 30 shots na. That kind of discipline malaking bagay, nakatulong sa amin on being decisive.” 

Romeo Gacad
Gacad (rightmost) in Cubao with Angie de Silva, Melvin Calderon and Benjo Laygo. Photographed by Gil Nartea

Gacad had much to share when he lectured about war photography to College of St. Benilde students 13 years ago, annotating a slideshow of his pictures with the stories behind them, or the decisions that led to a certain shot. A video of the lecture has been uploaded on YouTube and it offers an invaluable peek into the man’s process while on the field: how he turns elements of a scene so that they become symbols that tell a richer story; how he zeroes in on a shot—he studies it and, if he has the luxury of time, waits for the perfect moment before clicking; how he didn't make a distinction between an Iraqi soldier or an American soldier when it comes to taking their pictures. “It’s human life,” he said. 

“We call him Lord, short for Lord Gacad,” says ABS-CBN News photo editor Jun Sepe. “It is not for some strange reason that he is one of the lords in Philippine photojournalism. Here is a shooter who stands out with his works. But more than that, he stands tall in the industry for being fair to everyone, newcomer or veteran, mainstream, freelancer or alternative. Perhaps its the same compassion that translates to his poignant photographs, whether it be war, sports, politics or even culture.” 

“He was very hardworking and had a spartan work ethic, which is hard to come by nowadays,” says Baluyut of Gacad. “If there was anyone who I would work alongside in a combat situation, it would be him. Hindi ka niya iiwanan if you were hit. A true brother in arms. Or in cameras.” 

Sepe brings up an “open secret” among photographers regarding Gacad: that he was stingy. “But the opposite is true when it comes to photography. He was always open to giving advice and talking about the craft,” Sepe tells ANCX. “And this is not only to his peers. He was equally magnanimous to newcomers, to freelancers, to independent media. Perhaps he was stingy with money because to him it was finite. But for the knowledge he can share, he knew that that knowledge can influence a lot of people infinitely.” 

“Tata Romy despite having back pains from carrying equipment and missing his children still delivered good work,” says David who at one point was organizing Gacad’s archives. “He was every inch a professional who mentored brats like me and loved good wine when he’s not working.” 

Gacad, with mentee David, going thru tear sheets of his reportage. Photo from Tammy David
Gacad, with mentee David, going thru tear sheets of his reportage. Photo from Tammy David

According to a statement sent by Gacad's family to ABS-CBN News, the veteran photojournalist died in Thailand of “liver complications related to (gastrointestinal stromal tumor) wild type cancer." His children Raha, Bianca and Sabrina, said in the statement, “Many know our dad for living a fearless and full life. He met the cancer with the same inspiring energy.” 

“Tata Romy had many encounters with death because of his line of work and numerous health issues,” adds David. “So many times I found myself praying for his recovery. But last night when I found out he died, I messaged my former colleagues that I couldn’t believe it since Tata Romy was the kind who would live forever.”