A Band of Photographers Ascend Mountains to Take 1×1 Photos

Juan Portrait gives the students of Mount Pulag Elementary School photos that mean much more than a simple ID

What’s in a photo? It’s a question that Juan Portrait has been answering in inventive ways that reach out to far-flung communities. This time around with Project School ID, they’re creating IDs for students. The target is to provide these to around 350 students in elementary schools on the slopes of Mount Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon.

The photographers and volunteers come from a diverse set of backgrounds, from photojournalism and commercial photography to even medicine and law. They band their skills and talents together to take ID photos. The portrait itself may essentially be a simple picture of a person in front of a uniform background, but to Juan Portrait, it’s more than that; it’s worth ascending mountains for.

Today’s crew of 39 people are fresh from a rather long journey: a night bus from Cubao to Baguio, then a three-hour jeepney ride through the long and winding mountains of the Cordilleras, past sharp cliffs, steep inclines, and breathtaking views of rice terraces. What greets them upon arrival is a sight for sore eyes: the wide smiles on the faces of students of Kabayan, Benguet.

At an elevation of 7,748 feet, students of Mount Pulag Elementary School race around nimbly hopping over puddles while teachers usher other children into the classrooms. One by one, the students stand in front of a white cloth background tacked to a blackboard as a volunteer of Juan Portrait snaps a picture. A similar flurry of activity is happening in three other elementary schools on the slopes of Mount Pulag that other Juan Portrait volunteers have been dispatched to.

“What we do goes beyond just merely taking photos of them… It’s a validation of the importance of a student to the community. It creates a sense of belongingness to a school, to a community to have themselves identified,” 

- Chris Linag, Founder and Executive Director, Juan Portrait

An ID itself is something that people in cities like Metro Manila take for granted. To have a passport or a driver’s license at first seems basic. In reality, it’s a privilege that comes with access to institutions or resources that provide it, which the communities on Mount Pulag are geographically far from. Missions to two other schools that were accessible only by a two-hour habal-habal ride had to be cancelled on the day itself due to inclement weather. But that didn’t deter Juan Portrait from their goals.

“They don’t see at first the value of having an ID because nobody is mandating it. Nobody is asking them to show it,” says Project Lead Ura Sevilla. “But when you access government services, it’s a necessity. You need to show proof that you are this person but for people living in highlands, wala silang access to that.” Some of these children are descendants of grandparents born without birth certificates, who measure their age by the height of a bamboo grove or the stories of their ancestors. Living everyday life without identification isn’t an inconvenience, until they have to deal with larger networks of bureaucracy. Even a simple student discount on a bus to Baguio, the closest accessible urban center, proves to be a large benefit.

“It may just be a simple ID, but it’s something far deeper in terms of impact on the kids,” says Lawrence Del Mundo, Director for External Affairs of Juan Portrait. Many children are eager to see themselves in photographs, huddling around the photographers to see the shot. Some even break into laughter or shriek in joy.

“What we do goes beyond just merely taking photos of them. Beyond that we show concern in being one with the community, so that’s what’s important for us,” says Chris Linag, Founder and Executive Director of Juan Portrait. Because the ID is usually a student’s first brush with identity, Juan Portrait puts emphasis on connecting and bonding with the students they photograph. “It’s a validation of the importance of a student to the community.” 

“It creates a sense of belongingness to a school, to a community to have themselves identified,” he continues, “It’s a form actually of recognition that they exist, that they are students, that they are dreamers of Mount Pulag whose goals are to help their parents, to achieve their dreams of, for example, being a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher.”

Del Mundo adds, “Mayroon pang kwento na there were kids, then they got their first ID, they slept with the IDs. And even if it’s tattered and torn already, they still keep it kasi wala pa ang new ID. They still wear it kahit hindi na for that school year.”

For students like Jerrilyn Wa-in in Grade 8, a portrait turned out to be more emotional than Juan Portrait expected. Linag says, “Her mother died when she was young, and she never had a photo of her. Narealize niya agad ang importance ng litrato sa buhay ng tao kasi siya mismo na-experience ang lack of it. Alam niya ang feeling to have a photo of a loved one.” The emotional effect on the kids is bigger than what meets the eye.

“Hindi lang siya tamang pagkuha,” stresses Ley Castillo, Director for Projects. “It’s about human beings connecting to other human beings in the form of a photograph, in the form of an ID, in the form of a 3R picture printed. And telling the story about that picture.” On the IDs are a variety of expressions from hundreds of children: wide open grins, hesitant smiles, lopsided smirks, and the occasional scowl that can’t help but be endearing. An ID photo may be meant to be standardized, but the individuality of each student shines through.

“This is photography-driven, the organization, and we also have to take into consideration that practically everybody has access to photography,” says Del Mundo. “We would like to give a deeper meaning to that in any of our activities.” What has emerged over the years of Project School ID is an expansive document of the students at a crucial time in their lives before they head out into the real world. Every picture tells a story, and the bigger picture is truly more than the sum of its parts.

Project School ID is an annual commitment to empowering the communities on Mount Pulag, and an eye-opening experience for the volunteers of Juan Portrait. Through the art of photography, they enable people with the social mobility that comes with having legal identification. The potential of the medium lies not just in documenting meaningful experiences, but creating them as well.

Author

Mariah Reodica

Photographer

Artu Nepomuceno

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