Part 3: What I Learned So Far...

I learned to pay attention when a wake up call arises in my life. It simply means that either the mind, the body or the spirit is in need of healing. The old ways are no longer working and the universe is saying choose another path. A friend of mine once told me "life is about making choices and you make the choice." These powerful words have stayed with me and I have applied it in all aspects of my life. The path is long, untrodden and downright scary but I've learned that committing to a choice and taking those small steps make all the difference in the world. Once healing occurs, I've learned that I no longer have the desire to go back to the way I once was and the only direction to take is forward.

Part I

Part II

Monument Peak at Ed Levin County Park. Milpitas, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Monument Peak at Ed Levin County Park. Milpitas, CA/©Stella Kalaw

Chasing Bubbles

I was fascinated with this kid chasing bubbles at the Treasure Island Flea market this morning. I could certainly learn from him. This past three weeks, my mind has been pre-occupied with thoughts of the past or the future that I neglect to focus on the now. I captured these images to remind me of this lesson.

Treasure Island Flea Market. Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Treasure Island Flea Market. Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA/©Stella Kalaw

Treasure Island Flea Market. Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Treasure Island Flea Market. Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA/©Stella Kalaw

False Alarm

At about 10:30 yesterday morning, the fire alarms went off in the building. I slung my bag on my shoulder, followed my colleagues up several flights of steps and exited the side entrance. It turned out to be a false alarm. The mexican restaurant located below the building forgot to turn on their exhaust system while they cooked. This was not the first time it happened. As we headed back, more employees streamed out of the building and onto the street. Some took their cigarette break while waiting for the all clear announcement.

Employees Gathering on Stevenson Street. San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Employees Gathering on Stevenson Street. San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Waiting for the All Clear. Stevenson Street San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Waiting for the All Clear. Stevenson Street San Francisco, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Triggered Memory

By late afternoon, the rain came in a heavy downpour. When darkness fell, Meo filled the steel drum with dry leaves and coconut husks then set them on fire to deter the mosquitoes. Thick smoke billowed out and fogged the dining area where we sat. Meanwhile, Lucinda poured citronella oil on the concrete floor. Suddenly, I remember being in Bulacan on the set of a horror film where I used to work as a production assistant. The scene just brought back memories! I thought of Peque and the rest of the crew with all its idiosyncracies. It made me smile just thinking about those good old days. I then took some inspiration from those memories and photographed these images.

Early Morning Drive

T drew the curtains and stood by the window. "You think it's to safe to drive out there?" she asked. Dense fog shrouded the field just beyond the parking lot of the hotel. "I think so. We're very close to the freeway and we're not driving on any two lane roads. We should be fine." I replied.

We did a last sweep around the room just to make sure we did not forget anything. We closed the door behind us, walked a few feet to the elevator and rode it to the ground floor. After loading our bags in the car, I told T I wanted to take a few shots of the fog before we headed out. Unfortunately, my attempts were unsuccessful. I couldn't nail my compositions down."Let's just go." I said.

For several minutes, I stared at the window watching the moody scene pass by. I tried a few more times but still couldn't get it right. As T made the turn to Highway 12, I wondered if I could capture something that evoked what I was looking at instead of recording the actual landscape. So I turned the ISO knob to its lowest setting and clicked the shutter a couple of more times.

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw


Gorm. El Cerrito, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

It was scorching hot in Saint Louis, Senegal when my travel partner Allyson and I met Gorm in July of 1996. He was sitting with Mauve at one of the tables in the veranda overlooking Point Faidherbe Bridge at Hotel dela Poste. We were wandering aimlessly that afternoon and happened to walk inside the hotel, probably looking lost and confused. He invited us over for a beer. He just finished working with a local organization as part of his masters degree program in health services. We told him we were students photographing in the area for a school documentary project. During our conversation, we asked if he could share a few tips since we were staying for a month and half in the city.

"You know, there is this American who comes by every day around 6:00pm and uses the phone in the lobby. I don't know her at all but you might want to come by tomorrow and see if she's there. She may be able to show you around," he replied.

He left for the States the next day. We took his advice and met and became friends with Lisa F, a peace corps volunteer stationed in Saint Louis for two years. She spoke the local language and was able to help us with translations. She gave us tips on how to navigate around the city and dished out common sense advice on handling various situations. We also hung out together when she was available.

After I got back to Santa Barbara, I sent Gorm a thank you note and included two matted polaroid transfer prints that I took in Saint Louis. He was thrilled to receive the photographs. I thought that was the last time I would hear from him but he sent an email four years later in 2000. By this time, I had settled in the Bay Area. He told me he had relocated to Sydney with his partner and he was in town visiting his parents who lived in the East Bay. He brought along his mom and briefly stopped by the office I used to rent at a photo studio in SOMA. 

Fast forward to June 2011. I received an email from him via my website and he commissioned me to take portraits of his family. As I drove to his parents' home on the day of the shoot, I thought how amazing it was that we met in such a remote part of the world and he had stayed in touch all these years.

"You must come and visit me in Australia!" he said. A cousin of mine moved to Sydney several years ago and it has been on my list of places to visit. I hope to take him up on his offer in the near future.


During the Applause

P invited us to a voice recital this afternoon in Berkeley. As I read through the program, this caught my eye: If you plan to take a photo during the recital, please snap a shot during the applause--not during the performance.

Toran. Berkeley, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Toran, Berkeley, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Claire, Tony and Daniel. Berkeley, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Claire, Tony and Daniel, Berkeley, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw


"When will you come for a visit?" Tita E would bring it up whenever she called or emailed around my birthday or during Christmas. Sadly, I am unable to give her a definitive answer. Daily life takes over. Sometimes, resources are low. In spite of my desire to take a vacation, plans somehow take a backseat. She often commutes between the US and Asia so our schedules never seem to match up. When I had an opportunity to visit Seattle in 2007 for a group show at Wallspace gallery, she was out of town.

Finally the stars aligned and we reconnected two weeks ago.

One roll. That's all I shot while I was there. I learned that sometimes putting down the camera is not a bad idea. I listened more and shared many stories. I felt more present in the moment. Usually, my mind is distracted thinking about how to compose the frame, figuring out the light quality in a scene or finding the best expression. Half the time, I miss details in conversations.

It is hard to do and I sometimes cannot help myself. For instance, a moment of silence came between us. While she was deep into her own thoughts, I quietly reached for the camera nearby and took this photograph. The yearning to record is always there.

Tita E. Seattle, WA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Tita E. Seattle, WA/ ©Stella Kalaw


From afar, I saw balloons tied to nearby picnic tables gently swaying while T & I hiked around Lake Temescal last Saturday. I walked over and asked the woman sitting there if I could take pictures.

"Of course, go ahead!" she cheerfully replied.

I fired a few frames and struggled with my composition. "Whose birthday is it?" I asked, trying to buy more time so I could find the right angles.

"Oh, it's my daughter's...she's turning 18 today." I pressed the shutter a couple of times, still couldn't quite get what I wanted. "It's actually a surprise..." she continued. "I thought about it on Thursday and wasn't sure if I could pull it off. This spot is not reserved so I had to be here when the park opened at 8 am." 

I pulled my camera down from my face and turned to her. "Oh, you did a wonderful job! I love the colors you picked for the balloons."

She smiled. "Thank you! These are actually the colors of my daughter's bedroom. She's going off to college this fall."

Then her phone rang and she picked up the call. I turned around and continued to photograph. Once I was satisfied with my images, I waited until she finished.

"Thank you again for letting me take some pictures. My name is Stella, by the way." I held my hand and she shook it. "My name is Deborah."

"Nice to meet you." I smiled.

Then I walked towards the edge of the lake where T waited for me.

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

Visiting Pinnacles National Monument

I caught a tweet early last week with an announcement that all national parks were waiving their entrance fees until April 24th. A day trip to Yosemite instantly came to mind but rain was in the forecast for the weekend. Driving there would be complicated especially if it snowed. We may need to rent tire chains for the car and any delays will force us to stay overnight. Securing last minute accommodations were highly unlikely during Easter. “How about the Pinnacles?” T suggested. Our friend J took his family to the park and recommended it. Logistically, it made sense. The drive was two hours south in the Salinas Valley and the weather seemed favorable in that area.

The Pinnacles National Monument did not disappoint. We were treated with a variety of visual textures from the red rock formations on the mountains to the graphically twisted tree branches against the lush greenery. Colorful wildflowers grew along the trails and when we stopped to rest, we heard bees buzzing around us. Along the way, we saw bird watchers, rock climbers, families picnicking and people resting near the reservoir.

I will share more photographs in next few posts.

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

Boat Ride to Sabtang Island

Even though we were told that the sea was calm this time of the month and it was possible for us to make the crossing to Sabtang Island, the waves swelled so high at times that we could not see the horizon from the distance. Meanwhile, the boatman who steered us through the maze of currents was happily whistling tunes throughout the 30-45 minute journey.

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

©Stella Kalaw

Morning Walk with Dad

My dad usually starts his morning exercise around 6:30 am. He used to walk 3 kilometers a day but since his back condition deteriorated this past year, he can only manage to finish half his regular route. At 78, he refuses to undergo surgery and opts for a combination of physical therapy and pain medication instead.

"Sana, may sampung taon pa ako, Anak." He remarked.  (I hope I can live ten more years, Child.)

He has not traveled overseas in years so my siblings and I take turns visiting Manila to spend time with him.

I brought a camera with me this particular day so I could remember his vigor.

My Musical Past

Prior to picking up the camera, I was quite active in music. I took piano lessons when I was a kid but quit a few years later due to a string of teachers that just didn't work out. But that love for music remained. In 7th grade, my older sister and I taught ourselves to play the guitar through a chord book of Beatles songs that our driver lent to us one summer. We were able to play well enough to accompany the choir during mass in school.  I even attempted to compose a few original songs for the annual music fests but cannot for the life of me remember them. I remotely considered majoring music in college but I knew that with my rudimentary skills, it would be impossible to pass the entrance exam.

I haven't picked up a guitar nor played the piano in years. Sad but true. These days, however, I do get to re-live my musical past  through our friend P, a piano teacher, who regularly invites us to watch his student recitals and musical concerts at a local high school in the East bay where he works as an accompanist for their music program. 

 Winter piano recital. Pleasanton, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Winter piano recital. Pleasanton, CA/ ©Stella Kalaw

Short Visit

Yesterday, I pulled up at the SFO international terminal to drop my brother off.  He was catching a flight back to Budapest. "You know that movie Up in the Air?" he asked me. I nodded. "The way George's character was always traveling–that pretty much sums up my life for the next four years." he added as he opened the trunk to retrieve his luggage.

I gave him a hug, whipped out my camera and took a portrait of him before he entered the terminal.

He was in Santa Barbara for a few days for a regional corporate meeting and then he flew up to the Bay Area to see me. We spent a day in a half together sharing stories in between trips to the 99 cents store to buy some activity books for his friends' daughters, to Oakland Chinatown for some roast duck and egg foo yung and finally to a bookstore to purchase books and a copy of Nurse Jackie Season 1 DVD.

His visit was short and sweet.

I miss him already.

My brother at the International Terminal, SFO / ©Stella Kalaw


My brother at the International Terminal, SFO / ©Stella Kalaw

I (sort of) witnessed history!

The crowd at the San Francisco Giants' World Series parade celebration filled the wide sidewalks on Market Street. It was impossible for me to see the players, let alone take pictures of them (I'm "vertically-challenged"). Instead, I focused on photographing the crowd. There are no screaming fans here, only the calm before and after the storm–people milling about or waiting around, some kids sulking even. I thought there was something interesting here. These images are certainly not the type that get picked up for the front page of a newspaper or magazine, but I had fun taking them as the anticipation built up. I went home that night and caught the highlights from the parade on the evening news.

First the Crows, then the Parrots

I received an email message from my good friend Gail from Santa Barbara this morning. This was her response to my previous post:

Mike was right about the crows– We also have a group of green parrots living in the area. Are they ever noisy! I counted 13 at one point. Isn't it nice to be retired? Nothing to do but watch birds.
Gail at home. Santa Barbara, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

Gail at home. Santa Barbara, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

Morning Walk and Meeting a Stranger

As soon as I began my morning walk around the loop at the park, I saw this man wearing earphones quietly trimming the bushes at the side of the trail. I paused, held my camera up to frame my shot and took a photograph. He looked up. I smiled and introduced myself. His name was Mike and he had been working at the park for 25 years. I asked him about the crows and why they were cawing. He pointed to a tree from a distance.

"See that hawk over there?"

I squinted my eyes but could not make out its shape.

"They're calling on each other to guard their territory. They're trying to prevent the hawk from preying on their nests." he explained.

I nodded a few times then thanked Mike for the information. I took two more pictures of him looking straight at the camera.

"Maybe I can use one of them for my facebook profile." he joked.

I asked for his email address and promised to send him his portraits. He handed me a piece of paper with his information then I went back on the trail.  After I finished my route, I stopped to take a breath by the parking lot near the water. Then a flock of crows flew a few feet away from me, landed on the grass and ate worms. I waited until they were in midflight.  I took a few photographs before driving back home.

A Flock of Crows at Cesar Chavez Park. Berkeley, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

A Flock of Crows at Cesar Chavez Park. Berkeley, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

Mike trimming the bushes at Cesar Chavez Park. Berkeley, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

Mike trimming the bushes at Cesar Chavez Park. Berkeley, CA / ©Stella Kalaw

Remembering Miguel

I met Miguel Fabie III many, many summers ago, on vacation in Italy, of all places. We both had cameras hanging off our necks, and recognized each other amidst the crowds.

“Aren’t you from La Salle?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, then we had a brief conversation.

Back at the university, we sat next to each other in class and talked about cameras. Sometimes, he hung out in the black and white darkroom while I worked on my class projects. We saw a Henri Cartier Bresson exhibit together when the show traveled to Manila.  We lost touch after I moved to the States but reconnected online around 2008. Unfortunately, he was in Baguio City when I was in Manila for my show in 2009.

Yesterday, I heard that Miguel passed away unexpectedly. I was shocked and very sad. I wanted to share some of his pictures in this post as a way of remembering him and his love for photography.

R.I.P. Miguel.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Bukidnon, 2010.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Bukidnon, 2010.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Camarines Sur, 2009.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Camarines Sur.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Berkeley, CA 2008.

Photograph by Miguel Fabie III / Berkeley, CA 2008.

“How do you do it?”

A good friend of mine, who, 15 years ago, had given up a career as a medical doctor to pursue her passion for photography, recently found herself changing course again. Her brother who was helping her aging father run their pharmaceutical business suddenly quit. She made the decision to give up her position as a college photography professor to help run the company. We spoke via IM a few days ago:

9:48:38 AM
Me: I think you’ll just have to switch perspectives about your photography. I’m doing something completely different for work, but I continue to have a photographic life.

9:50:45 AM
Her: How do you do it?

9:52:40 AM
Me: At first, I really got depressed because I tied so much of what a “successful photography career” meant to getting paid. But when I dug deeper, I realized that my passion for photography was not dependent on whether I got paid for it. I do it because I love it. Why should “success” be equivalent to monetary gain then? My circumstances have changed, the passion has not. It’s still a constant in my life.

9:54:58 AM
Her: So I’m only going to do the kind of photography that I like and not worry about those demanding clients...

9:55:09 AM
Me: You got it.

9:55:25 AM
Her: No more demanding clients, no more negotiating, etc.

9:55:55 AM
Me: Take the pictures that mean something to you. That’s the key!

A Car Story

My car’s temperature gauge readings had been erratic for a while. Sometimes it rose rapidly after driving through side streets for half an hour, other times it stayed put for the same amount of driving time on the freeway. We would have to crank up the heat, even on the hottest day, to help vent the hot air and keep the engine cool. My mechanic’s response to the symptoms was, “It’s an old car.”

Last week, as I drove home from the grocery store, a funny smell started to come in through the vents. About 15 minutes later, white smoke was seeping out from under the hood. I had dreaded this. Pouring money into repairs for a 15-year-old car I hardly ever used didn’t make financial sense. It was time to let it go.

As I cleaned it out, I found old gas and toll receipts, expired store coupons, pens, coins, and pieces of Kodak Portra film wrappers underneath the floor mats. I started to get sentimental, remembering the many shoots I had driven to, and hauled equipment for, in this car. I also thought of the many unforgettable vistas—two rainbows appearing on the horizon after leaving Santa Barbara for the drive to San Francisco on Hwy 101; the thick night fog just past Novato en route to Petaluma where I lived with my aunt for a few months; the ever-changing views of the bay at dusk, around the bend from the Bay Bridge turn-off into Treasure Island.

I made the call yesterday to donate the car to KQED, our local public broadcast station. T suggested it and I thought it was a brilliant idea. It made so much sense. For years, we’d tuned in to their news and commentaries during our weekday commute. On the weekends, we’d laughed heartily listening to Car Talk while running errands, and This American Life kept us thoroughly engaged while we were stuck in midday traffic. These programs have been part of our everyday and it felt right to make the car donation as another form of support.

Mike from Charitable Auto Resources preparing to tow the car. / ©Stella Kalaw

The empty space in the garage will now give me a place to shoot. I’ve been mulling over the idea of doing a still life project. Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to begin the process, try out a few things, and see where it goes.