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Building a better world for autism through photography
by Harley Palangchao

MENTOR PHOTOGRAPHER -- Ompong Tan (right) is one the reasons why the annual photography workshop for people with autism has been sustained for almost 10 years now since he and his gang of photographers helped ASP Baguio and John Chua launched the program. -- Harley Palangchao

“To be successful as a mentor for this workshop, one has to learn that communication is an art form. Understanding is primary, being understood is secondary. Eye contact, hand gestures, and body movement are ways of communicating. The photographer has to learn this quickly. Most importantly listen, not with your ears, but with your heart,”

For almost 10 years now, this was the guiding principle of long-time Baguio photographer-cum documenter Rodolfo Tan, better known as Ompong.

He is a distinguished photographer, and is looked up to by both amateur and professional photographers. But there is one special group that holds him more dearly– the participants in the project The Colors of `A’ Spectrum.

This project is an annual photography workshop for people with mostly kids with autism.

Ompong and fellow photographers Ric Maniquis, Mark Perez, Eliza Consul, and former Baguio mayor Peter Rey Bautista, among others launched Colors of ‘A’ Spectrum in 2009 in La Trinidad, Benguet a month after famous commercial photographer John Chua broached the idea to Belette Vizcocho, president of Autism Society Philippines (ASP)-Baguio.

In this annual fun workshop, one or two volunteer photographers pair with one with autism participant to teach the basic dynamics of photography. Because the situation can be delicate, parents are always around during the activity.

Why people with autism as students?

Chua narrated that the works of Ian Po, a young man with autism, spurred the idea of forming the group Through Po's photographs, which captured the media's attention, Chua had a glimpse of how a person with autism sees the world from his own perspective. This inspired him to open a window in photography through workshops in key cities that will showcase the special way persons with autism frames life around him.

“What makes this annual event memorable is that the photographs and the participants are the centerpiece of the show. People who view their photographs would hardly believe that these stunning images were taken by people with autism,” Ompong said.

Whenever the photographs go on exhibit at SM City Baguio, mentors, proud parents, and documenters are merely on the sidelines.

Back in 2009, several ASP chapters in the country also launched their own photography workshop but it is only the ASP-Baguio that has sustained the event for nine consecutive years now.

A coffee table book

The compelling images taken by people with autism from 2009 to 2014 under the auspices of ASP-Baguio have now been immortalized in a breakthrough coffee table book.

The stars of the coffee table book are Kevin, Kerby, Vaughn, Carlo, Je-remiah, Vincent, Ivan, JJ, Miggy, Patricia, Jerald, Alex, Charles, Karen, Ma. Cecillia, Onel, Talek, Lyera, Lynette, John William, Danielle, Joshua, PJay, Stephen, Sani, EJ, Alexandra, Maverick, Russel, Ryan, Keefe, Kahlil, Sky, Claire, Josef, Ven, Malik, Marcial David, Miguel Antonio, JM, Justin Carl, Anne Marie, and Kaizar.

Bautista was among the first to congratulate these people for their awesome work, saying he is truly blessed to have been part of the annual event.

“God indeed has truly blessed me. My camera allows me to share these blessings. While we are all different, we are still alike in that we have our unique ways of seeing and appreciating,” Bautista said.

“There was a time when in the beginning we assisted these kids in our art. But now it’s them we are learning from. We now see things differently,” added the former city mayor.

The former mayor who is a photography enthusiast said that since the launch of the event, the photographer-mentors have not only captured the moments but also the hearts of people with autism, their parents, and the ASP community of Baguio.

COLORS OF A SPECTRUM -- A compilation of compelling photographs taken by many of the 44 persos with autism from 2009 to 2014 were mounted in a coffee table book. Only ASP-Baguio has produced such project among all chapters nationwide.

Winning photographs

In a span of almost a decade, at least 44 people with autism, mostly minors, have become photographers in their own right with many of them becoming “family and official photographers” in family gatherings and some school, church, and community activities, according to ASP-Baguio chapter president Belette Vizcocho.

“Colors of ‘A’ Spectrum” has made children take photography to a more serious level. Most kids have transitioned from using point and shoot cameras to DSLR cameras,” Vizcocho added.

There’s more.

One of the young participants of the annual photography workshop, Onel Gundran, caught the photography community in Baguio by surprise when he won first place in the Baguio 101 Photo Walk competition in 2010. The following year, Onel won the 3rd prize in the same event. Onel, on these two occasions, bested older photo enthusiasts, hobbyists and some professionals.

The winning tradition continues, as Onel together with fellow `A’ Spectrum photographer Josef Vizcocho were honored as among the top 10 finalists in the non-Makati chapter category of the “Building Connections” photo contest sponsored by the United Architects of the Philippines-Makati Chapter in 2011.

More breakthroughs

Their mentors continue to guide them to greater heights and some of the `A’ Spectrum photographers have become the first people with autism to embark in aerial photography in February 2017, courtesy of the Angeles Flying Club Woodland Park in Magalang, Pampanga.

The aerial photographs of the first batch of autism youth namely Karlo, Stephen, and Josef were among those mounted in a photo exhibit held at SM City Baguio in April, which captivated the emotions of the public who viewed the exhibit.

“The annual opening of the exhibits is always an event kids, their families, and mentors look forward to. All is happy and proud to have come up with works worthy of being exhibited at SM City Baguio where friends, acquaintances, classmates, teachers, and the public come to view them. There have been positive feedbacks from those who have viewed the exhibits,” Vizcocho said.

“The very positive effects of the project is how this activity, which started as sort of an “experiment” has touched so many hearts – from the mentors to friends, acquaintances, and corporations whose enthusiasm and passion for helping and supporting PWDs, has rubbed off on others, promoting a beautiful social awareness in the community," Vizcocho said.

When Chua graced the aerial photography exhibit, he said the dedication displayed by ASP-Baguio and its long-time partners has elevated the workshop, which other photography clubs have not done since the event started a decade ago.

He thanked Ompong and the rest of the gang for their unconditional support to the advocacies of ASP-Baguio.

“We watched the miracle unfold. We were doing what most people thought was impossible. We taught persons with autism to overcome their fear of flying and learn aerial photography,” Chua said.

Touching lives, discovering talents, understanding autism

ASP-Baguio said the annual photography workshop is one that the kids enjoy, where kids bond not only with their own family but with other families and their mentors as well – all coming together once a year for a special workshop where the kids get to experience and learn something new.

Regional Trial Court Judge Mao Bañez said that he witnessed how his son, Carlo, learned to conquer his fears and develop his personality and social skills that eventually brought out his skills in photography.

Austeen Danio, a sibling of one of the ‘A’ photographers, said the event has enabled these children to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to the rest of the community.

ASP-Baguio Vice President Bernadette Palicdon, for her part, said the event has helped the children venture into photography. Proud of the fact that his son produced such fantastic photos, he said, "The photos they take give us a glimpse of what they see through their eyes."

Through the event, children with autism, parents, families, and photographers have created a bond of friendship that has blossomed in the nine years watching their kids grow and make progress in their own unique ways. It is something we all appreciate and rejoice in, according to Vizcocho.

A civic duty

For years now, children with autism and their parents have been motivating Ompong and his fellow Baguio photographers and other photojournalists to sustain the photography workshop in the spirit of volunteerism.

As one family member describes it:  “The contributions of Mr. Chua, Ompong, and the rest of the mentors in the field of photography, have served as a strong motivating factor and catalyst for advocacy campaigns. Photography has also been a medium for the persons with disabilities and their families to connect and find a deeper meaning and purpose.

“This activity in photography provides inspiration. It is an advocacy for the community of persons with disabilities and encourages them and their families to “dream big, think beyond the box,” and “reach for the sky!”

PWDs and their families, due to limitations associated with their disabilities, tend to confine themselves within their homes and in their schools or with groups whom they are comfortable with. Parents have reservations about exposing the kids to the public for fear of discrimination or being hurt from unkind reactions, remarks, or non-acceptance from the public,” said Austeen Danio.

“The passion in advocating for people with autism has given the kids and respective families new hope, encouragement, and the needed push to go beyond the limitations, and work hard towards achieving new goals and directions in a very positive way,” she added.

Challenges ahead

While the annual photography workshop has been a resounding success, ASP-Baguio still has greater tasks ahead.

Vizcocho said that ASP-Baguio will continue to work for the empowerment of people with autism so that they may become self-reliant, independent, productive, and accepted members of the community.

“People with autism are capable of doing things, just like the rest of us. Given the opportunity, with proper guidance, encouragement, and patience, they can learn and be good in the areas of fine arts, music, math, culinary arts, and many more,” she said.

“With a little love and understanding, you can change a PWD’s life and make this world a better and kinder place for them to live in,” she added.

Autism is a neurological disorder that hinders information processing often-causing problems in communication, learning, and behavior. Often characterized with social withdrawal and odd behavior, those affected have been found to have outstanding abilities in math, arts, and music given the proper exposure, guidance, and opportunities.

During the National Autism Consciousness Week a few months ago, ASP called on the society to provide understanding and opportunities for people with autism. Understanding means creating a culture of caring, sympathy, and acceptance for children and adults with autism.
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