BEHIND THE LENS: Covering Father Pops for the first and last time

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 October) — I never got to meet Father Fausto “Pops” Tentorio. In my lifetime, I only saw him thrice.  First was during a fieldwork in Arakan—2004 perhaps—when I was working with the Philippine Eagle Foundation. If my memory serves me right, he was riding his motorcycle then at the poblacion. It was a bleak day, perhaps it was raining. I noticed him because he stood out in the crowd—a foreigner in a remote community (Arakan felt so remote back then with the bad roads and all). Second was during the mass at the Our Lady of Mediatrix of All Graces in Kidapawan City on the Day of Martyrs in 2009. He was wearing his soutana, like all the other priests of the diocese who came for the event, and an armband with his name on it. And the third time was on October 17—on the day he died—lying on a blue coffin.

I never did get to talk to Father Pops. I did not know him personally. But over the years, I did get to have a glimpse of his life and his work through stories from my husband, Keith Bacongco, who had met and known the great man when Keith worked as a journalist in North Cotabato. No matter how life-changing his works were, he chose to work silently, devoid of media blitz and propaganda, careful not to draw attention upon himself. His work, his life, had always been about and for the people—especially the Lumads—he served and loved.

In July this year, during a shoot in North Cotabato, Keith and I went to visit Father Pops in  Arakan. Keith had not seen him in a long while, and since we were in the area, we planned to drop by. Father Pops used to tease him, “mobisita lang ka ug naa kay kinahanglan” (you only visit me when you need something). And that struck Keith’s conscience, I guess (*grin*).

It was noon when we arrived and the parish workers were having their lunch at the garage where Father Pops would later be shot. Unfortunately, he was not there. We were told he was in Zamboanga City for a meeting. So we left. Keith did not text him to tell him that we dropped by, perhaps thinking that there would definitely be some other time to visit. But later, as we all would learn, there was none anymore.

That fateful Monday, we were there when his casket was first opened. The cries and shrieks of the people he served and loved were piercing. And even as others sobbed quietly in their seats or while looking at him inside the coffin, the air was heavy with pain.

In coverages like this, I always try not to cry, in order to appear “professional,” no matter how arrogant that might sound. And every time, it proves to be quite a challenge (since I am the type who’s easy to tears;  even comedy movies make me cry sometimes). As journalists and photojournalists, we are taught to keep a distance from our subjects and to be impartial at all times. But we are not taught to not feel and I don’t think it is an ethical violation when we shed a tear for a person or an event we cover. We, after all, are human beings.

It is impossible not to feel anything because the love of the people for Father Pops is overwhelming. You could hear them thanking him profusely as they stood over his coffin, tears streaming down their faces incessantly. It feels like they had lost their pillar, as I heard some shoot questions at him like  “magunsa na lang mi padre na wala na ka (what will we do, Father, now that you’re gone),” all too aware that he can no longer answer them back and assure them that everything will be alright.

During his wake, we went back two more times. And every time, it was a challenge to keep the tears from falling. My breaking point came on Sunday, the day he was transferred from the parish church to the Notre Dame of Arakan—the school he built for the youth of the place he dedicated his life to. I was taking photos of people queueing up to see Father Pops for the last time at the parish church. Then I saw this ten-year old looking boy—perhaps he was one of Father Pops’ scholars—going back to his seat, his face buried in his shirt, crying as if he had lost a member of his family—his mother or father perhaps. There is so much pain and sadness in that cry that my tears just flowed and all I could do was to turn back, take a moment, wipe the tears and go on taking photos again. I never felt the compulsion to take a picture of him because in some way I thought it was a moment for him and Father Pops alone. But I think, that image, that memory of that boy in that state of grief will stick with me for a while. If I could categorize the millions of images in my head, that moment will definitely be in “the one that tugs at your heart” category.

In this profession, I do get to meet a lot of strangers. Some would later become friends. Some I would get to know quite a bit. Some would remain just that—strangers. But there are those, like Father Pops—whom I will never get to meet but will eventually quite know well through the people he served and loved—who will leave a lasting image in my head and teach me much about compassion, commitment, selflessness, service and love.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ruby Thursday More is a photojournalist based in Davao City, Philippines. In 2003, she graduated with a degree in Communication Arts at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao and in 2009, she obtained her Diploma in Photojournalism from the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines as a scholar of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. When not out for a shoot, she is busy fulfilling her mommy duties to their eight adorable dogs).