from balai in batangas, derek and i dropped by george gascon’s house in tagaytay. they go back a long way—back to when the observer was still in existence, around 1987, when i was still in my third year of high school and saving my money to buy the Arcadia album. according to derek, george taught him “humility and simplicity; focus and determination, confidence. he’s the only person who said, ‘derek, kahit tapatan mo mga puti na yan, hindi ka mapapahiya dyan.’ he was the only one who gave me confidence in my work. he used to say to me, ‘given the same situation, you would’ve taken a better photo.’
“as a young photographer, it built my confidence, especially in a culture where we are taught that the white man is superior. even before digital made photography a level playing field, i knew i could compete with anyone from the west who believed he was superior—given my background, i see things a certain way.
“it’s not about ego, it’s about seeing things differently—or allowed to see things differently, and george taught me that.”
george joined the singapore straits times in 1993, where he won photo of the year three times in a row, but—as people believe—because of his being a filipino, the highest he got in the company was senior photographer, the highest a photographer could ever reach, but never management level. known for his humility, george was a favorite of lee kwan yew. on his last day, lee kwan yew invited george and his wife sylvia over for lunch so he could properly say goodbye. in the history of singapore, no photographer was closer to lee kwan yew than george was. he could’ve asked to be the former prime minister’s personal photographer, but he preferred to come home and build a farm.
derek joined the straits times in 1996, for which he covered southeast asia. george continued to mentor him, even if, in derek’s word, he was “an asshole and cocky…but george just let me be.”
both mentored each other. over beer, they would talk about photography and each other’s work, encouraging each other. it wasn’t just derek who george mentored—young singaporean photographers would flock to george, and, according to derek, “he has such a charisma, and he would just give and give. he has such a generous heart that he would just encourage and give.”
the afternoon we visited, george cooked nilagang baboy, into which he dropped lettuce leaves freshly picked from his farm. he also served kohol in coconut milk and ginger. he and derek talked about old times, and their current lives as well. marriages, births, new paths. i only met george three years ago, and can only take derek’s word for what a good soul he is, but i believe him. his manner is quiet and dignified and kind and open.
one can only be so lucky to have a man as a mentor, and a friend.