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Our Town
By Jon Melegrito

Paul Tanedo: Transitions

Hanging in our living room is a framed black-and-white photograph of an old woman, most probably in her late 90s. Her face is so deeply wrinkled it's hard to tell where her eyes are. I bought it from Paul Tanedo in 1989, shortly after his "Silent Souls" photo exhibit at the Martin Luther King Library. The woman reminded me of my maternal grand mother who lived for more than nine decades. Each time I look at it, I could feel her spirit, her soul.

A Washington Post reviewer, blown away by the series of black-and-white images, prompted this comment: "It sometimes seems there's enough of only one thing in the world to go around: misery. This seems borne out by a number of heart-wrenching photographs by journalist Paul Tanedo."

The reviewer further noted the "painful portraits of Filipinos, largely impoverished shanty-dwellers, teeming in muddy, unpaved streets, praying, working or just sitting and staring with vacant eyes. They are very hard to look at."

Before immigrating to the US in 1985, with wife Susan and their first-born, six-month-old daughter Francesca, Paul had his first solo exhibit of 70 black-and-white photographs at the Philamlife Center in Manila. Entitled "In Pain," the collection featured beggars, drug addicts, scavengers, refugees, a-go-go-dancers, the fringes of society coping with their harsh existence. Their faces, according to one reviewer, conveyed pain and reproach, sheer pathos and vulnerability. This theme of despair and defeat continued to dominate Paul's photographs over the years. In a 1998 one-man photo exhibit at George Washington University, he captured the misery and loneliness of aging Filipino World War II veterans, whose struggle to regain their honor and dignity became Paul's own rallying cry, involving himself personally in the community's advocacy for justice. Each time I close my eyes to retrieve those images in my mind, I am haunted by the sense of sadness and outrage in their faces, their eyes staring back with a question: "Why?"

Of these powerful and compelling images, Paul once said that they "evoke what I feel about them, their soul and spirit. Their names and occupations are not as important as the anguish of their lives."

And that's the place, "a dark place," Paul had been focusing his lenses on since he took up the hobby at age 22, in his hometown in Tarlac, a hobby that quickly became a consuming love, his one passion in life that drives him to explore the depths of human misery and suffering. His camera has recorded thousands of images of anguish, of pain crying out in black-and-white.

But something changed a year ago. He wanted to show the same black-and-white pictures at the Green Spring Gardens Horticultural Center in Alexandria. But Dorothy Norpell, the curator, thought that the images were "too depressing," although powerful and compelling. "This is a happy place," she says. "Every year, about 7,000 children pass through our outdoor classroom to learn about plants and wildlife. We want to educate and inspire everyone who comes here, and enjoy the many gardener's delights that this park offers."

In that setting, Paul's pictures were simply out of place.

Feeling rejected, Paul spent the next few months walking, just walking around his neighborhood in Annandale, along wooden trails and gardens. He started taking pictures of trees and shrubs, leaves and bulbs, flowers and blades of grass. It was a totally different experience, he says, this transition from anguished faces to vibrant flowers. Imagine a gray, cold winter day, alone: trees are bare, the wind bites and there's a threat of storm in the air.

Then imagine a bright, balmy day walking down a path with someone you love, shaded by trees in full autumn foliage, the rustle of leaves under your feet and a gentle breeze caressing your hair.

It was like day from night, dark to light. And that's how "The Other Side of the Fence" photo exhibit came about, a labor of love one year in the making. "I wanted to explore what's on the other side," Paul recalls.

Going through his collection of images, he selected ones that could possibly hang inside the Green Spring Gardens art center and presented them to the Curator. "I was blown away," Norpell says. "They went beyond my expectations."

A dozen of these photographs now hang in a ramp that welcomes you as you enter the building.

Paul's latest work reminds me of Pacita Abad's trapunto paintings. The vibrant and dazzling shapes and colors captured in boxed frames transport one to a different world, this time devoid of the misery borne out by the heart-wrenching photographs of earlier works. A world where a child's playful imagination can roam freely, discovering the grandeur of nature's many mysteries in a single flower or in a bed of leaves.

The day the photographs went up, Paul recalls, a woman came, stood quietly before one of the framed images. She was moved to tears. She said it felt like standing before a stained glass window in a church.

Anguished faces, bright flowers, dark emotions, vibrant petals, lonely souls, the breath of every human being, a blade of grass. Somehow, they are all intimately united as one energy, "the substance of life," as Irish missionary and author Diarmuid O'Murchu puts it, "the unrelenting wellspring of pure possibility, escalating and undulating as in a great cosmic dance."

Go see Paul's photographs and be delighted, inspired and transformed.

Send your comments to jonmele@aol.com

Green Spring Gardens Park Art Curator DOROTHY NORPELL with Paul Tañedo