Sonny Yabao was born on September 15, 1943 in Catbalogan, Samar, the only child of a coconut farmer and his wife, a dressmaker.


He grew up in a farming village in the province and initially, nurtured dreams of becoming a painter and a writer.


But he would later discover photography and when he did, he was drawn into this art form.


Today, he is considered by generations of photographers as the best Filipino documentary photographer of his time and the only one revered as "The Master." 


At 76, he is now retired from professional work and lives in the foothills of Mount Makiling although he still goes out to document the everyday life in Laguna and elsewhere, whenever he gets the chance.


Yabao studied A.B. Literature in Christ the King College in Samar. 


However, he was not able to finish his studies because his parents could no longer afford to send him to school. He then decided to earn a living in Manila so he could help his parents.


He  started as an assistant in a friend's portrait studio in Manila in the 1960s, tasked to hold the camera and other equipment and to help in the dark room.


Inside the dark room, he discovered the "magic of photography" as images appeared out of nowhere. In an instant, Yabao fell in love with the craft.


He started as a freelance contributor to various local and international publications such as The Sunday Chronicle, Mabuhay, Sunday Magazine of The Manila Times and Now Magazine,  Orientation Magazine and the Hong Kong-based broadsheet the Asian.


During the Marcos era, he joined Malacanang as part of the Bureau of National and Foreign Information, which was created in 1973 under the then Department of Public Information.  During this stint, he trailed Imelda Marcos including her visits to world leaders across the globe. He was there when the former first lady shook hands with China’s Mao Tse Tung, the Palestine leader Yasser Arafat and exiled Iranian strongman Ayatollah Khomeini.


In 1985, he was named Photojournalist of the Year by the Press Photographers of the Philippines and the National Press Club.


After Martial Law, he worked as the photo editor of Newsday, a daily broadsheet that ran from 1989 to 1991. He was the first and perhaps the only photo editor who sat in newspaper’s daily editorial meetings, usually dominated by text editors.


His Newsday team of photojournalists whom he mentored would later emerge as among the country’s best photographers of their time -- Ben Razon, Jose Enrique Soriano and George Gascon, among others.


After Newsday, Yabao resumed his freelance work. He contributed to i Magazine, the investigative magazine of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, headed at the time by multi awarded journalist Sheila Coronel.

He also worked with Coronel on Memory of Dances, a coffee table book also published by PCIJ which profiled Philippine indigenous communities.


His other book projects included several coffee table books such as Tagaytay, Town on the Ridge; Cagraray, a Bicol-island World and San Miguel de Mayumo; Growth Decline and Renewal of a Museum Town published by the Environmental Center of the Philippines Foundation in 1997.


His works have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, Cultural Center of the Philippines and Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines. He also held a solo show at Oarhouse Gallery and Bistro.


Yabao has also worked on several personal projects including Somnambulist and a documentary on the aftermath of the collapse of the Payatas dumpsite.


With a deep appreciation for literature, arts and humanities, Yabao, through his images, gives a realistic view of the world but portrays it in the tradition of surrealist painters. The result is nothing short of enchanting.


Indeed, he finds the surreal in the most mundane of scenes and sees what is strange in the most ordinary moments.


Wittingly or unwittingly, Yabao circumvents the conscious mind to show the deeper realities of the everyday life.


“Through my photos, I am telling the viewer ‘look at this, I have seen something that we haven’t seen before. Take a look at this.’ There’s joy in that,” he says.


He is fascinated by the idea of the decisive moment, coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He waits for that moment and takes it, capturing the magic in the ordinary, everyday lives of people.


At his age, one would think he has seen it all but Yabao is the first to disagree with this. "Documentary photography, it's never done," he says.


Decades of documenting the different vignettes of life in the Philippines, Sonny says nothing much has changed and he feels like he is just sleepwalking with his camera in a tautological world, one that is seemingly surreal but painfully real and true.


"Somnambulist, that's exactly how it feels," he says.





Interview with Sonny Yabao, November 1, 2019, Los Banos, Laguna


Interview with Sonny Yabao, July 2014.


Profile supplied by Sonny Yabao.