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How volcanic rocks changed the life of a photographer

People who appreciate scenic photos should thank the giant rocks of Mayon Volcano which has inspired a lensman to pursue a dream that led him to capture Mother Nature in all its glory.

Sixty-year-old Albert Garcia was the man behind that historic camera which captured the award-winning photo depicting Mount Pinatubo’s destructive explosion exactly 25 years ago today.

The photo, which shows a storm of ash gushing from Pinatubo’s eruption, has reached iconic proportions with no less than Time Magazine and National Geographic, to name a few, choosing it as one of history’s greatest images.

RACE WITH DEATH – ‘It was 25 years ago today. When I took this photo of what would turn out to be one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the 20th century. Sitting at the back of the van, fleeing from the wrath of Mount Pinatubo, the idea of death came to my mind. But I told myself that, if it was indeed my time, I might as well record it. I only had one chance and managed to take eight shots while cheating death,’ recounts Manila Bulletin Chief Photographer Albert Garcia of this iconic photograph of the June 15, 1991 Pinatubo eruption that is now included in Time Magazine’s ‘Great Images of the 20th Century’ and National Geographics’ ‘100 Best Pictures.’ This photo of an exploding Mount Pinatubo also won for Garcia first place in the Nature and Environment Category of the World Press Photo competition in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 1992.

RACE WITH DEATH – ‘It was 25 years ago today. When I took this photo of what would turn out to be one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of the 20th century. Sitting at the back of the van, fleeing from the wrath of Mount Pinatubo, the idea of death came to my mind. But I told myself that, if it was indeed my time, I might as well record it. I only had one chance and managed to take eight shots while cheating death,’ recounts Manila Bulletin Chief Photographer Albert Garcia of this iconic photograph of the June 15, 1991 Pinatubo eruption that is now included in Time Magazine’s ‘Great Images of the 20th Century’ and National Geographics’ ‘100 Best Pictures.’ This photo of an exploding Mount Pinatubo also won for Garcia first place in the Nature and Environment Category of the World Press Photo competition in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 1992.

Currently Manila Bulletin’s chief of photographers, Garcia has fancied being a photographer from the time he learned from his mother where those massive boulders came from.

“Noong bata pa ako, namangha ako sa mga bato na nadadaanan namin everytime na magbabakasyon kami sa Bicol. Yung Nanay ko nagkukuwento na ‘yan anak yung mga bato na galing sa Mayon,” recalled Garcia. “Simula noon sinabi ko sa sarili ko na gusto kong makakita kung paano pumuputok yung bulkan na may lumalabas na ganiyang kalaking bato.”

Garcia comes from a family of photographers as his father also worked as a lensman for Manila Bulletin, the same path taken by his uncle and two siblings.

“Nung makita ako ng tatay ko na may interes sa camera, inaalis niya sa akin kasi sabi niya walang pera dun. Eventually nag-aral ako ng nautical and natapos ko,” said Garcia. “Pero hindi ko maalis sa sarili ko yung hilig sa photography kasi maski nag-aaral na ako, parati akong tumitingin sa mga litrato ng dyaryo.”

Garcia applied as a staffer of Manila Bulletin’s library which he deemed as his stepping stone toward becoming a photographer of the widely circulated broadsheet.

Asked to report for his library duties at exactly 1 p.m., Garcia leaves his Manila residence by 6 a.m. though his office is just a few minutes away from his home.

“Bago kasi ako pumasok, umiikot na ako sa Manila para kumuha ng litrato tapos nagko-contribute ako sa dyaryo,” said Garcia “Dun na na-appreciate yung mga kuha ko hanggang sa kunin akong chief photographer ng Tempo.”

The profession as a fulltime photographer brought Garcia to countless near-death experiences like being chased by a deranged man who ran amuck and killed three people along the way, a myriad of violent demolitions of shanties, and numerous aggressive rallies.

But nothing comes close to the incident of being in the middle of a vicious volcanic eruption that saw them staying beneath a huge cloud of ash the entire day just minutes after he took that momentous shot.

“May kasama akong isang photographer at isang driver sa sasakyan namin. Lumilindol nang madalas tapos may kulog, may kidlat, yung paligid naming madilim. Hindi na kami maka-andar sa highway kasi sobrang lakas ng bagsak ng buhangin at mga bato,” said Garcia.

The whole time, Garcia and his companions sat still and just waited for whatever fate they are about to face.

“Sabi ko kung hanggang dito na lang, ready na ako. Bahala na kasi talagang wala kang makikita sa lugar namin kundi puro abo at buhangin,” said Garcia “Tinago ko na lang yung film. Inspirasyon ko yung isang Japanese photographer na namatay habang kumukuha, nagawa niyang i-save yung litrato na naging contribution niya hanggang sa pagkamatay niya.”

Garcia and the rest of those who braved Pinatubo’s onslaught which included several other photographers on board the pick-up truck in that iconic photo survived the ordeal but not after spending the night surrounded by uncertainty.

“Kahit na ganoon, hindi pa din ako pinanghinaan ng loob na ituloy itong profession ko. Kahit ngayon kung may ganoon ulit na situation, willing pa din ako na sumabak,” said Garcia.