Volunteer photographer chronicles WWII veterans’ struggle

By RODNEY J. JALECO, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Feb 25 2009 01:33 AM | Updated as of Feb 26 2009 04:25 AM

Paul Tanedo volunteered to chronicle the struggle of Filipino World War II veterans in Washington DC since the early 1990s

WASHINGTON D.C. -- He’s a familiar face at Philippine Embassy functions for World War II veterans, snapping away with his camera. He’s been volunteering the photography for over a decade.

Paul Tanedo, a commercial photographer who lives in Anandale, Virginia, said he started taking pictures of Filipino veterans in the early 1990s.

“It’s passion, it’s something I feel strongly about,” he tells ABS-CBN’s Balitang America.

“You see these old people and they kind of remind you of your own parents,” Tanedo explained.

He arrived in America in December 1985 to be reunited with his wife and 6-month-old daughter in Richmond, Virginia.

He worked as a photographer at Philippine refugee center which helped process and prepare Vietnamese “boat people” for resettlement to the United States. He was hired to document and develop audio-visual materials for the center.

He worked as executive producer and director of photography for “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” – an 11-hour feature film written and directed by Lavrente Diaz that won the Gawad Urian award for best picture in 2004.

Tanedo has staged one-man exhibits both in Manila and Washington D.C.

“After leaving the Philippines, I felt detached from the things I liked to photograph,” Tanedo recounts.

He said he left the Philippines anticipating the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos. “I considered myself a refugee too, like those I photographed. But they had it better because they got help. For me, I was on my own,” he remembers.

As a newcomer to America, Tanedo experienced the rude awakenings of culture shock.

About two dozen Filipino World War II veterans stage a civil disobedience protest in front of White House in 2004 that led to the arrest of four of their leaders (Photo by Paul Tanedo)

“It was blank, I had to subject to photograph, everything was unfamiliar. I couldn’t relate,” he averred.

He now looks back with a certain amusement that the very first subject that he became drawn to was the garbage in America.

“I walked the streets of Manila in the early 70s when I was just starting. If you look at my work, it’s mostly about regular people, street children, it’s about poverty. Most of my pictures are sad,” he explained.

He was surprised by how Americans disposed their trash. “Wow, ang ganda ng basura dito!” he recalled telling himself.

“I saw how beautiful the garbage was here - that carton box could have been someone’s home in Manila,” he remembered absorbing his first impressions of America. 

“It was really weird,” Tanedo declared, laughing.

He immediately found an affinity for the aging World War II veterans he met while mingling with the Filipino community here.

“Many of them spoke my dialect,” he intimated, adding that growing up in Gerona, Tarlac and working with the Bataan refugee center in Mariveles, Bataan, he was well-versed with the bloodiest episodes of World War II in the Philippines.

“It kind of pulls you, knowing the issue. I started doing some research, a lot of reading. I have a strong connection to these images. They’re very typical, like your father or your uncle or your neighbor,” Tanedo said.

 The fight for justice for Filipino World War II veterans catalyzed the Fil-Am community in America, fueling protests that crossed generations and geography (Photo by Paul Tanedo)

He has the most extensive collection of photographs about the Filipino veterans’ struggle on Capitol Hill.

They easily add up to thousands of photographs, including the sustained protests that, at one time, led to the arrest of elderly veterans outside the White House.

But Tanedo rues at how slowly Filipinos appreciate the need to chronicle that protracted battle.

“It’s a little frustrating because the people organizing these things were not too receptive to the idea. I don’t think they saw the value,” he averred.

But he vowed to continue photographing the veterans’ struggles.

“I don’t know if there’ll be something coming up. I’m not really trying to finish something. I don’t even know what to do with materials now.”

“I think I’ll end when I die donating them to the Library of Congress. Maybe give them to my children, maybe come up with a book. Who knows? I really don’t have any plans for it,” Tanedo said.

If after a hundred years Filipino-Americans look back to the fight of the veterans, they can thank Paul Tanedo for the rich images, perhaps providing clues of the truly epic struggle their ancestors waged against injustice.