Rene B. Lumawag: more than just Duterte’s photo chronicler, he documented Davao, Mindanao history

You don’t belong there,” I told Tatang Rene Lumawag upon seeing him lying on a hospital bed afternoon of June 12, admitted due to pneumonia. He could still speak despite the oxygen mask, and was his usual jolly self, even cracking a joke when Mindanao Times editor in chief Amalia Cabusao arrived.

The next morning, I was to learn from son Skippy that Tatang (others refer to him as Tatay) had been transferred near midnight to the Davao Doctors Hospital, specifically at the Intensive Care Unit. He would stay there from June 12 until his transfer to a private room on June 27, where he spent his last hours with family and friends. He breathed his last at 6:23 p.m. on the 1st of July.

Rene B. Lumawag of the Presidential Photographers Division, from 30 June 2016 to 01 July 2019. Photo courtesy of TOTO LOZANO

I could not visit him in the ICU because I had colds but was grateful I couldn’t because I do not like seeing anyone attached to tubes. But I saw how he looked through photographs posted in the chat group created by Keith (Kitoy) Bacongco for easier communication between the Lumawag children — Renee Belle (Dimple), Melanie Ruth (An-an), April John (Skippy) and Tyron Kristoffer (Tyron) — and members of their extended family from media and from the Camera Club of Davao. Kitoy is the photojournalist who helped archive Tatang Rene’s files of photo prints, negatives and external hard drives.

Tatang’s family knew the end was near. On June 15, while awaiting the results of my mother’s laboratory tests in the same hospital where Tatang was brought, Mother Minnie (Tatang Rene’s wife, Minerva) called, crying, “Ca, si Tatay.”

ICU Complex, where Rene B. Lumawag stayed from June 12 to 27, 2019.

I found her at the stairway landing near the ICU Complex, crying on the phone while talking to a doctor-relative.

“Tatay has no chance for survival na Ca,” said Mother Minnie, a nurse. The pulmonologist had just informed her that the cancer cells had spread to both lungs and if the life support system were removed, he would be gone in 24 hours. Tatang had prostate cancer but was in remission for a couple of years.

Tatang also knew his end was near. He had asked his photographer-friends for big files of their photos of him, in case that would be the photo that would be used during his wake (there would be many). In May, he told Kitoy he would cast his vote in this particular school and voting precinct, as it “might be my last,” and he did vote, on a transport chair.

He had also told Kitoy about the photographs he wanted included for his next exhibit.

EXODUS. Residents from the interior villages of Pikit in North Cotabato evacuate to the town center following the early morning aerial strike near their villages on Sunday, 10 August 2008. Photo by RENE B. LUMAWAG

Mother Minnie said Tatang did not want to spend his last days in a cubicle inside the ICU where family and friends could only visit briefly but not stay. She had hoped Dimple, their eldest daughter, would be able to come home from Michigan with her children, Emma and Ben and that Tatang would be moved to a private room so he can be with family until the end.

Tatang Rene had an appointment at the US Embassy in Manila for his visa interview sometime in June. After years of delay, he was supposed to visit for the first time his two grandchildren. But that would no longer happen. Dimple did come home on June 21, with daughter Emma and Ben’s favorite toy.

The transfer to a private room on June 27 after a tracheostomy gave Tatang the chance to spend his last days with his nuclear and extended families.

On June 30, the day before Tatang moved on to the great beyond, Dimple greeted me outside Room 2006 with news that her Tatay was fast slipping away. “Deteriorating na talaga Ate Ca,” Dimple said. They knew he was going soon, they had accepted the inevitable, but before he goes, “all we want is just to make him comfortable.”

I wanted to make excuses not to enter the room and see him with those tubes but it would likely be my last glimpse of Tatang so I went in and handed over to An-an the hot pilipit and cinnamon bread I had brought.

The Lumawag women were around – Mother Minnie, Dimple and Emma, and An-an, Skippy’s girlfriend Joan, and Mother Minnie’s sister in law. Badi (aka Joselle Badilla) was also there (her sister Joy arrived after she left). Mother Minnie’s Catholic priest-brother also came and gathered the family at Tatang’s bedside, as he blessed Tatang, a Protestant who did not impose his religion on his family.

The other Lumawag children, Skippy and Tyron, were up for duty that evening. Gene Boyd, the second child, also a photojournalist and MindaNews’ photo editor, was killed in Jolo, Sulu as he was returning to the hotel after photographing the sunset in November 2004.

Minerva Lumawag attends to her husband Rene on 30 June 2019 in a private room in a Davao City hospital. Behind her (L to R) are Emma, An-an and Jo-an.

The warmth of love was palpable inside Tatang’s room – in how Mother Minnie wiped off something from Tatang’s mouth, in her and the children’s and Emma’s hand holding and pressing and in the laughter shared when Fil-Am Emma asked for a second serving of the pilipit that An-an had translated into “twisted bread.”

I did not know how to tell them I was leaving the next day. But I bid Tatang farewell, silently.

I was at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport I on July 1 awaiting our departure when Kitoy sent a PM that the end was likely near because Dimple had asked them to bring Emma with them. Kitoy said Toto Lozano was in the room.

“To, kamusta Tatang?” I immediately PMd Toto, who had worked as MindaNews photojournalist before he joined Tatang Rene in the Presidential Photographers Division. Toto was Tatang’s buddy and housemate in Manila, the one who would constantly remind him to take his medicines and update Mother Minnie and the kids on Tatang’s medicine and food intake.

Toto’s reply came in a series: “hulat pa doctor te.” “anhi lang dire.” “6:23 p.m. sa ECG. Gi declare sa doc.”

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte meets the family of Rene B. Lumawag during the wake at the Cosmopolitan Funeral Chapel in Davao City on July 3, 2019. (L to R) Tyron, An-an, Dimple, Emma and Rene’s wife, Minerva. Not in photo is son Skippy. TOTO LOZANO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

When I reached my destination the next day, I would read reports describing Tatang merely as the photographer who documented Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s rise from OIC Vice Mayor to President. I PM’d Kitoy and Toto complaining about how unfair that description was and could not understand why other colleagues who should have known better, also wrote similarly. As if that was Tatang’s only achievement.

Much more than that

Tatang was certainly much more than that. He did not only chronicle Duterte’s rise to power, he chronicled Davao and Mindanao history in photographs: the dying days of the Marcos regime, the Welgang Bayans and other protest actions against the dictatorship; the street celebration and tolling of the San Pedro Cathedral bells to announce the victory of People Power in February 1986, the mass at Magsaysay Park and from there the march to Rizal Park the next day; the post-EDSA appointments of OIC Mayor Zafiro Respicio and OIC Vice Mayor Duterte (Soledad, initially but she declined it in favor of son Rodrigo). (Visit Rene Lumawag’s online archive)

Before EDSA 1986, Davao City was referred to by the military as the country’s “Killing Fields,” the “laboratory of the urban guerilla warfare” of the New People’s Army “Sparrow Units even as a number of the killings then were blamed on the military and police. Residents knew who were the perpetrators by the number of bullets used: one bullet means the Sparrows did it (it had to be a sure hit to save on bullets), more bullets and signs of torture mean the military or police did it.

ALSA MASA. “Long live the Alsa Masa” (Masses Arise), said these residents in a sitio in Agdao, Davao City at the height of its popularity or notoriety (depending on where you were in the political fence) in early 1987. Then OIC Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said: “The Alsa Masa is bound to falter because any mass movement founded on myth is bound to falter.” Duterte said what must be addressed are the roots of the insurgency.Photo by RENE B. LUMAWAG [ More Photos here]
Tatang also documented the rise of the Alsa Masa (Masses Arise), Jun Pala and his “extortion for democracy” and “harassment for democracy” and the mass surrenders brought about by the radio commentator’s anti-communist hysteria and announcements on radio that the houses of those who would not surrender in this particular village would be marked “X” and would be attacked by the Tadtads and a rainbow coalition of cultists – Pulahan, Itoman, Greenan – (and residents came in droves at the parade grounds of Camp Domingo Leonor even if they had no reason to “surrender”), the storming of Pala’s radio station by Mayor Duterte (Pala fled just as Duterte was arriving); the total and partial solar eclipses; the hostage-taking by Pugoy and the death of Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill, the Davao Penal Colony hostage-taking; the Sitio Rano Massacre, Ipil Massacre, the Davao Death Squad, the protests against summary executions, protests against extension of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, the BIMP-EAGA, the New People’s Army,  Kadayawan festivals and before that the Apo Duwaling festivals, the burning of the Singapore flag by Mayor Duterte in 1995 in protest of Singapore’s turning down of appeals to reconsider Flor Contemplacion’s case; the birth of Pag-asa the Philippine Eagle and the death of Mindanaw the Philippine Eagle; the anthropomorphic secondary burial jars of Sarangani; the droughts and floods and bombings; mass evacuations brought about by wars, and the peace processes, and many more.

Rene Lumawag’s photo exhibit in 2009 featured Davao/Mindanao history in photographs.

He captured on film the visits of all Presidents from Ferdinand Marcos campaigning for the 1986 snap elections (a makeshift toilet had to be constructed on stage for the ailing Marcos), to Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Erap Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Simeon Aquino III. If my memory has not failed me, he had the best angle of Cory Aquino the Presidential candidate on a truck bedecked with yellow flowers from the Davao City airport to Tagum City, climbing on the side of the truck until he could get the best shot during that rainy morning motorcade.

Imagine history in photographs from 1985 until 29 June 2016, as photojournalist.

LOOK: History in Photographs by Rene B. Lumawag

(As member of the Presidential pool of photographers from June 30, 2016, Tatang documented the first half of President Duterte’s six-year term).

Tatang was good at keeping files and labeling them, and while he did not get to keep or save all, we get to see a substantial part of Davao and Mindanao history in photos through his archives. Thanks to Kitoy, too, and wife Ruby for patiently going through the files.

Rene Lumawag’s many folders, including this one on Cory Aquino’s visit, in his own handwriting. From the archives of RENE B. LUMAWAG

Tatang wrote his captions on the back of printed photos (in the pre-digital camera days, photos had to be printed first before they get published in newspapers), handwritten, and thankfully, with a certain flair.

He mentored many young photojournalists like Kitoy and Toto who in turn mentored him on the newest electronic gadgets. He was generous in teaching how to take good photographs (in the pre-digital age, he would first identify the parts of the camera and what their functions are before teaching the basics). He inspired a lot of camera enthusiasts (“he was our tatay in the Camera Club of Davao,” recalls Fr. Banny Pardillo).

He would document the women journalists’ new haircuts or clothes and was frank enough to say this haircut or this outfit suits or does not suit us. He would indulge our “Tang, picture beh” in the days before the selfies and the groufies. And lucky are we to have been spared time by Tatang for portraits, usually done during lulls in coverage. I shall forever treasure my “rockstar” photo.

Tatang was an artist and his photo compositions showed that. He also painted. At one point in his life he was a caminero, a disc jockey, an embalmer even and the first time I entered a morgue was because Tatang followed a grieving mother all the way there and I was left with no choice but to follow them as well.

He had a gift for languages and this gift would prove very useful in coverages outside Davao City. In the Ipil Massacre of April 4, 1995, I got more details from the residents of a particular area because he translated my questions to Chabacano or Taosug. He spoke Ilonggo, Cebuano, Filipino, Ilocano, a sprinkling of Maguindanao and Meranaw. The armed men, we were told spoke mostly in Filipino.

THE MORNING AFTER Ipil in Zamboanga del Sur (now Zamboanga Sibugay) was sacked allegedly by the Abu Sayyaf  on April 4, 1995, residents check the public market for whatever can be salvaged. The attack left at least 50 persons dead.  Photo by  RENE B. LUMAWAG  (SEE MORE IPIL PHOTOS HERE)

He was the first photojournalist to reach Ipil (then Presidential Adviser on Mindanao Paul Dominguez brought him along on a private plane the morning after; I would arrive at noon). Dominguez left the same day but Tatang stayed behind and joined us (the Philippine Daily Inquirer team then). He and Froilan Gallardo became good friends after sharing a room in Ipil Safety Lodge and sharing the funniest memories amid that tragedy.

We were the last journalists to leave Ipil – on April 13, a Maundy Thursday – Froilan to Cagayan de Oro, Tatang and I to Zamboanga City to catch the flight back to Davao City, rushing to buy sotanghon for Mother Minnie and the kids before checking in at the airport.

As a former DJ, he loved to play his generation’s music, and while listening to it one time after a party in their house, I gave him a flash drive to copy the songs he played — but only when he had the time to do so. I was surprised to receive that same flash drive already with the songs copied, as we were leaving. I labeled it “Tatang’s music.”

THEY GO A LONG WAY. , Mayor Rodrigo Duterte checks the assault rifle of Senior Inspector Ronald Dela Rosa (extreme left), chief of the City Mobile Group, after inspecting a crime scene in Barangay Tamugan in 1997 with City Police Chief Isidro Lapena. When Duterte was elected President in 2016, he named Dela Rosa as chief of the Philippine National Police and Lapena as chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Lapena was later moved to the Bureau of Customs and later transfered to TESDA. This is one of 30 photos featured in “Rody Duterte: Through the Years,” a photo exhibit by photojournalist RENE B. LUMAWAG, which opened at 4 p.m. Thursday, 23 June 2016, at the Abreeza Mall in Davao City. [ More Duterte Photos here ]
Tatang finished a diploma course in photojournalism at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism, third batch. His classmates included Rommel Rebollido and Luis Liwanag.

Froilan, Kitoy and Toto had finished the course by then and all of us egged Tatang to apply for a fellowship for what he could still learn from it and more importantly, for what he could share. Someone brought him the forms and when he was accepted, his online classes became a family affair.

Tatang was not adept at virtual blackboards so he had one of his children type his answers for him during class discussions.

Tatang worked very hard for the family he loved so dearly.

But Tatang was a procrastinator, too. He would delay medical check ups, especially if Mother Minnie was visiting Dimple in Michigan. He had to be reminded repeatedly he was due for check up. He also took so long in applying for a passport so he could apply for a visa and actually embrace — not just virtually — his grandchildren in Michigan.  Friends even accompanied him to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ passport section in Davao City in December 2015. When he got his passport in January 2016, he was ready to apply for a US visa, supposedly targeting July for the visit.

But Duterte won the Presidency and Tatang joined the pool of Presidential photographers. He was initially eyed to head the division but that would have meant tying him down to administrative work. The free spirit that he was, he opted for fieldwork.

The big break

Renato “Rene” Bernardino Lumawag’s biggest break into the world of photojournalism was in the aftermath of the October 21, 1985 landslide (not summer of 1985) – the worst ever to have hit the then gold rush area of Diwalwal, Monkayo (then of Davao del Norte province, now of Compostela Valley soon-to-be-Davao-de-Oro), specifically in Buenas Tinago.

But the coverage of that disaster would have turned into a disaster itself had not destiny intervened for Tatang Rene.

Photojournalist Rene B. Lumawag in Diwalwal but this was not in 1985. Photograph taken on June 4, 1995. (From Rene B. Lumawag’s archives; still determining who took this photo). The rolls of film of the 1985 Diwalwal landslide were all sent to Reuters.

The legendary Willie Vicoy of Reuters had asked me by phone (it was called “long distance call” then), if I was going to the disaster site in Diwalwal and if I could bring along Rene to take the photographs. I was going there principally for the weekly newsmagazine, Veritas, but I was also stringing for Agence France Presse.

Vicoy made another request: can I pay for the coverage expense for Rene and he will just reimburse (this was the era when even if wire agencies could easily send money, there were no ATMs yet and no Lhuillier or Palawan remittance offices). Waiting for the Reuters money to come would have meant wasting at least a day.

Vicoy’s instructions were clear: photographs should be dispatched immediately because in the highly competitive world of wire agencies then, seconds matter. Meaning, that even if Tatang Rene’s photographs were the best, what would matter would be the first photograph that would come out of the disaster site. That may not be easy to imagine now with photojournalists or social media netizens able to transmit images real time from the field. But this was Mindanao, 1985.

I had earlier taken a leave from Law School to try, supposedly only for a semester, to do journalism in Mindanao, to find out if this was my “papel sa buhay.” The one-sem leave had ended, and the first semester had started but I was still in Mindanao. I had found my “papel sa buhay.”

I think Tatang Rene, then working in an advertising firm, was searching for his “papel sa buhay.” Diwalwal would launch his photojournalism career.

We went to Tagum City by bus then hitched a ride on a dump truck (fortunately it was new) that was carrying relief goods into the disaster site and arrived there at noon only to find out that the Reuters’ staunchest rival, Associated Press (AP) already had a reporter-photographer there. In fact, he was there a day earlier.

LAKE MAUGHAN /MT. PARKER disaster in T’boil, South Cotabato, 6 September 1995. At least 37 persons were killed. Photo by RENE B. LUMAWAG

I did my interviews and took photos for Veritas while Tatang took his, even jumping up and down as a hysterical mother jumped up and down while crying over her missing son. Tatang captured on film the intense images of grief on the one hand, and “life goes on” on the other (miners and workers in the ancillary services in the gold rush area did their daily routine as if nothing tragic had happened). Exactly how many hundreds or thousands of miners and workers were buried in that landslide, no one could say. In the gold rush, everyone abided by the Code of Silence.

The provincial police commander was in the disaster site, commanding his men to dig, along with volunteers, for trapped victims. I rested my back on a sack between two bamboo poles from where I stood to get a vantage view of the digging until two of the rescuers approached me to say they needed the stretcher (I didn’t know I was leaning on one) as there were bodies being dug down at the other side.

I made a hand signal to Tatang to follow me (the AP guy was busy conversing with the provincial commander) as I followed the two rescuers with the makeshift stretcher.

But how do you get the photographs out? It was late afternoon and there were no vehicles going down. We had no place to stay but Tatang found a way.

As I was interviewing an official of a mining firm that had license to mine there, Tatang found out there was a bunkhouse for workers and the AP guy from Davao and the provincial commander were in fact staying there.

SAN PEDRO CATHEDRAL BOMBED ANEW. After the Easter Sunday bombing on April 19, 1981, where 17 persons were killed and scores wounded, the Christmas bombing (December 26) in 1993. At least six persons were killed and at least 130 wounded in the early evening blast. Photo by RENE B. LUMAWAG

In the morning, the provincial commander was flying out of Diwalwal for Tagum City (56 kilometers from Davao City) and I had asked if we could hitch a ride precisely so we can dispatch Tatang Rene’s photographs in the next flight from Davao City to Manila. Yes, that was how photographs were transmitted then – you send the entire roll or rolls of film to the wire agency or your newspaper via air cargo (V-Cargo) for pick-up at the airport cargo office in Manila, to be developed, printed and dispatched. The early morning helicopter flight to Tagum meant we could send the films by noon.

The provincial commander had said yes but as we prepared to leave for the landing zone several hundred meters away, I could not find Tatang Rene. The provincial commander’s party had moved ahead, along with the AP guy, but Tatang was still missing.

I was angry but Tatang was much older so I had to temper my rage.

When he finally showed up after what seemed like eternity, he said he had to go to the comfort room to do his morning ritual.

I reminded him about Vicoy’s instructions, about how “seconds matter” and that I know he had the better photographs than the AP guy but what if we could not send them immediately?

We headed to the landing zone but midway, I could see the helicopters already taking off, with the AP guy. Seconds matter, seconds matter. If the AP guy sent the films to Manila at noon, the AP photographs would render Tatang’s photos useless as we would be lucky if we could even catch the evening flight.

I became even more angry when I realized we would likely miss the evening flight as the only means of transportation out of Diwalwal was the motorcycle which would be up to downtown Monkayo only.

BRIDGING THE GAP National Democratic Front chair Antonio Zumel chats with human rights lawyer Larry Ilagan and Soledad Duterte, mother of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, in Davao City in 1988. Photo by RENE B. LUMAWAG

But Tatang found a way: we were able to hitch a ride with an officer of the mining firm whom he had befriended, on a four-wheel drive direct to Davao City, arrived late afternoon with yet another problem: we would be able to pass by the airport but could not proceed there as we had run out of cash. I had to take a cab (Minica then) to get home quick, borrow money from my mother for the taxi back to the airport and for the V-Cargo fee to send the films to Vicoy.

Since the cargo personnel had become my friends (this was the pre-internet era and V-Cargo or Valuable Cargo was for sending photographs and articles to Veritas), I asked them to check what time the AP guy sent his films. The immediate response was “wala pa man” (he hasn’t).

God must have loved Tatang Rene so much because his Diwalwal coverage ended up as an “exclusive.”

As it turned out, the AP guy who was also head of the state-owned Philippine News Agency then, arrived in Tagum on helicopter that early morning but returned to the disaster site as then Environment Minister Rodolfo del Rosario was flying to inspect it.

Hours later, newspapers worldwide published Tatang’s photos for Reuters, and two mornings later, all the national newspapers and tabloids carried on their front pages the photographs of Rene B. Lumawag / Reuters.

Tatang’s biggest laugh that day was when a colleague asked him: “Rene, Re-u-ters diay imong tinuod apelyido?” (Rene, your real family name is Re-u-ters?)

The rest is history.

After interment at the Forest Lake Memorial Park in Davao City on 6 July 2019. Photo courtesy of MIKE LI

Tatang’s photographs, when sent through wire agencies, graced the pages of national and international newspapers.

From 1985, he worked as staff photographer in Davao City newspapers San Pedro Express, Ang Peryodiko Dabaw (later renamed SunStar Davao) until he retired in August 2008. But retirement was a strange word for Tatang. Two months later, he joined the Mindanao Times as its lifestyle contributor and photo consultant. He also contributed photos to MindaNews.

Between news coverages, Tatang joined the Camera Club of Davao for photo safaris, including chasing sunrises and sunsets.

He passed away at sunset. He was 74.

Morning has come at Barangay Catagman, Penaplata, Island Garden City of Samal on Easter Sunday, 01 April 2018. p.m. Photo courtesy of RENE B. LUMAWAG

But as youngest son Tyron wrote to announce his father’s death: “Tatay has gone home to his Savior where there is no more night, nor more pain.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)