For someone who was born outside, I defined Davao City as our destination for buying school supplies and watching movies. There were no decent cinemas where I came from. When I officially moved to Davao to pursue my university degree, way back in 2000, I found myself re-defining the city in a different way.
In 2012, I decided to document the city’s center, San Pedro Street. This project was inspired by academic papers by UP Mindanao professors: one on architectural landmarks by Architect Rowena Delgado, and another on the aspect of urban decay by Roberto Alabado III. Both were published in Banwa, the Multidisciplinary Journal of UP Mindanao. Their point was that since development was sprawling outside the city, the city’s center, where most architectural landmarks were located, was in danger of becoming overlooked and at worst forgotten.
I asked, “Is San Pedro Street overlooked?” I also pondered on what would make people think about San Pedro. Back then, I was exploring street photography and its capacity to tell stories with just a photograph. I decided to take a creative adventure.
However, merely taking photos seemed insufficient. San Pedro’s architectural landmarks have been photographed countless times in various occasions. I began asking myself: what is this project for? what is the story I want to tell? For one not originally from Davao City, I thought of starting with how I experienced the place. After all, I had many firsts in San Pedro Street: I attended my first rally in this area; I got the City Hall beat during my media internship; my classmates and I frequented the bargain stores to buy theater props and costumes and to stock up on pirated art films and Japanese animé.
But I also realized I could not tell it as if it were my story alone. Each of us gives a different meaning to a place depending on how we experienced it. By giving definition to San Pedro, we also ascribe its importance. Maybe, say, if I showed a picture of the Pink Cloud Inn or the nooks where hawkers sold pirated DVDs, people would remember and start sharing their stories.
Mulling over the possibilities, I also realized that San Pedro Street is not merely two-dimensional. It would take more than just photographs to convince people to recall and share their stories. I then decided to include soundscapes in my documentary project. Soundscapes are the various sounds we hear in an area, the background hum we often ignore or consider as noise. But soundscapes can actually create a holistic recreation of place: the pedestrians crossing streets, the heavy traffic, the vendors selling street food, the conversations on the park and inside buildings. These make up the total experience of San Pedro Street.
And that’s how “Urban Sights and Sounds: The Stories of San Pedro Street” came to be. For one week, I took photographs and recorded soundbites. After asking permission from the City Administrator, I even went into government buildings and recorded their proceedings. I also sought the assistance of the City Transport and Traffic Management Office to shoot in public.
Shooting and recording hours were based on the movement of people rather than perfect lighting. Basic photography tells us to avoid shooting with a hard light but foot traffic and pedestrian interaction were always at its peak from 12:00 to 5:00PM specially during weekdays (on Sundays, it would be early to mid-morning). My tools were a Canon EOS 450D 12.2-megapixel camera fixed with a telephoto lens and a Zoom H2n handy field recorder mounted on a separate tripod hanging on my backpack.
The main output of the project, a photo-and-sound exhibit, was first mounted at Abreeza during the week of Araw ng Dabaw 2012. Out of the hundreds of pictures that I took, a total of 22 photographs made it to the final exhibit. My colleague Tess Escano curated the exhibit. I asked Tess to combine visual and auditory stimuli so that people visiting the exhibit would feel as if they were in San Pedro. To achieve this effect, we used four curved-panel boards placed at angles to recreate our own mini-San Pedro Street. For authenticity, we bought all our materials from San Pedro. A replica street sign in the middle of the exhibit area rounded out the touches. For good measure, we invited actual street food vendors to sell their wares for the duration of the exhibit.
We provided Post-It notes, markers, and a wall so passersby could also share their stories. We asked, “Ano ang kwento mo sa daang San Pedro?” I posted my story first and other people followed. Just like San Pedro Street, the postings was a beautiful chaotic mess. People reacted to specific photographs, pinning their stories on the photos they were drawn to. This was the non-digital equivalent of Instagram and Facebook.
The stories were varied, some of them quite dramatic. A family shared their experience from the time when they were caught in a grenade attack at San Pedro Cathedral. There were stories, too, of being mugged and getting caught in the middle of a riot. But most of the time, the stories were very simple and funny: of shopping for bargains, of eating street food, of cheap entertainment, of strolling in the park…. So San Pedro Street was not forgotten after all. It continues to live on
As an adopted son of the city, I feel that it is my duty to spread good images and stories of the place I now call home. Reading comments like “Bring back Oyanguren and Claveria Streets” and “Show more of Davao” tells me I am on the right track. Davaoenos love their city and would want it to be showcased more often. As a photographer and soundscape designer, I have the opportunity to highlight the beauty in the ordinary: oftentimes, the ordinary day-to-day experience can be taken for granted.
Author’s Notes: To access the academic paper version of this essay published in Sage Open Volume 7 Issue 4, you may use this DOI link.
I would like to express gratitude for the assistance of the following individuals, agencies and organisations in mounting this multi-sensorial exhibition: City Government of Davao, City Tourism Office, City Administrator’s Office (Atty. Zuleika Lopez), City Transport and Traffic Management Office, Museo Dabawenyo (Mr. Orly Escarilla), Abreeza Ayala Mall, Thirsty Juices and Shakes, Photoline, Island Grill, Sizzling Chef, Atty. Michael Darwin Bayotas and the Omega Alpha Fraternity and Sorority, Eman Gloria, Aldrin Salvador, and Harvey James Lanticse and family.
Dennis John Sumaylo is an assistant professor of the BA Communication Arts program of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. His research interest includes aural studies, digital technology, visual communication, and disaster communication.