In our mostly-Catholic country, the Lenten Season is celebrated either in the rural areas where a lot of religious traditions like the prosisyon keep up, or in the city where the burned out appease themselves in staycations and traffic-free routes through their Visita Iglesia. But for freelance documentary and editorial photographer Martin San Diego, his way of “repentance”—if you may—hails back two months earlier. It has been the same for eight years now—to be exact, by covering the annual, always-teeming and literally crippling event called the Feast of Black Nazarene.
“It's a treasure trove of stories!,” says Martin, 26, who also sidelines as a lifestyle photographer. He is describing the beauty he finds in the chaos that year by year marks the historic feast, an event that reenacts the 1787 translacion of the poon from its nest in Luneta to Quiapo Church. Since 2011, Martin has borne witness to how millions of believers gather in hopes of getting a blessing from the image. Come to think of it, the content of his photos haven't drastically changed in his yearly series. Devotees wrapped around the barely moving statue atop the Ándas, devotees clasping their hands onto the rope to help move it, devotees bringing family including their little children along, devotees spending the night before the Feast inside tents, devotees having difficulty breathing and sustaining bruises and wounds, vendors selling prosisyon necessities, cops attempting to ease up the traffic, media men immersing themselves in the muddle, feet getting smeared, souls being vindicated in a way. All these, with the Black Nazarene statue helplessly carrying his cross and staring into heavens. “Everyone—every devotee, every vendor—has their own story to tell," Martin reveals. "There are ironies here and there, from drug pushers by night to devotees in the morning.”
Martin graduated with a Network Engineering degree from DLSU, but has since pursued his passion for the lens especially when he worked for his Alma Mater’s publication The LaSallian back in college. He narrates, “As staffers mature in the publication, we start covering issues of national significance, from rallies to the manila bus hostage taking.” He eventually became the publication's photo editor on his second year as a staffer.
In fact, Martin started covering the Feast solely for The LaSallian, and it was something he could say trained his eye and prepare his, well, energy. “There's a certain appeal to it for photographers. It's a nice event to practice for beginners, a great way to produce your 'best' photos for hobbyists, and a treasure trove of stories for practicing photojournalists,” he recounts. “I was hooked the moment I saw the carriage approach on my first try. Everyone raised their towels and shouted, ‘Viva! Viva! Viva!’ It was such a surreal experience I'd feel bad to miss.”
The artist in Martin yearned for more of the same in the next years, wanting to go “deeper” and “intimately” experience the entire event. He’d cover the Feast in his next two years as an undergraduate, and would continue it in 2014 for his work portfolio and for his contributions to news publications. It has gradually become a routine for the veteran-to-be Martin who explains his ways around the procession, “In my mind I survey the area, look for important and interesting people, and try to get to spots other photographers won’t be in.” He’d then caption each of the photos before sending them to the desk editors.
As what his profession entails, Martin doesn’t let his biases in faith trouble him. He covers the Feast more for his creative pursuits over religion, so to speak—“I think I’ve been more observant on how people practice their beliefs.” (He has covered the Papal Visit in 2015, oh so cleverly without media accreditation!)
Yet, Martin’s most inspiring story from a coverage of the Nazareno would have to be witnessing little children thrive amidst the religious commotion without a peep. “I was about to call it a day when I heard someone shout, ‘Kaya pa?’ Then a bunch of kids answered back, ‘Kaya pa!’” he says. “These kids aged seven to 14 were carrying their own kid-sized version of the Black Nazarene! They were on their way to join the procession as their panata.” It’s this kind of stories that—even without the not-so-satisfying contributor’s fee he’d get for his coverage—makes it all rewarding.
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Photographs by Martin San Diego