Snapshots of a life well taught

Beyond his commercial work and larger-than-life adventures, renowned photographer John K. Chua was most celebrated for his many advocacies, where he told stories through his visual work
/ 07:14 AM January 14, 2018

BIRD’S EYE VIEW Chua onboard a Huey chopper —Kathy Chua-Grimme/Contributor

Up to his last moments, John K. Chua was chasing the light.

On the first Saturday of the year, the renowned photographer was in his favorite corner room in a Manila hospital, one that gave him a view of the idyllic Manila Bay on one side, and the Rizal Park and the National Museum of Natural History on the other.


At 4:56 p.m., Chua drew his final breath just as the sun began to set — a photographer’s golden hour.

His passing, as if well-timed, was in harmony with the larger-than-life adventure he had lived, family and friends said.


One of the country’s leading figures in photography, Chua passed away on Jan. 6 after a long battle with colon cancer. His ashes were interred at Heritage Memorial Park. He was 69.

A self-taught photographer whose career spanned over four decades, Chua was considered a pillar in different genres of photography, including advertising, industrial and aerial work, and earned the moniker “Magic Eye.”

GETTING HIGH IN THE HIGHLANDS Topping Chua’s many advocacies was preserving the Banaue Rice Terraces and promoting the rich culture of the Igorot in Ifugao province.—Pet Salvador/Contributor

His bird’s-eye shot of the ruins of Guiuan town in Eastern Samar province, where Supertyphoon “Yolanda” made first landfall, landed on the front page of the Inquirer on Nov. 13, 2013.

Three days after the typhoon, Chua hopped on a helicopter on a rogue relief mission to deliver goods to Tanauan, Leyte province. As survivors swarmed the chopper, his photos captured not only desperation, but also the lengths to which Filipinos would go to help others.

His wife Harvey described Chua as a “very spontaneous” man, always on-the-go and quick on his feet, whether for work or fun, which often blended together.

Beyond his commercial work, Chua was most celebrated for his many advocacies, where he told stories through his visual work.


“He had enough energy to support dozens of advocacies,” said his eldest daugher Ching.

Love for Banaue

Topping the list, said Harvey, was his love for Banaue and its famed rice terraces whose preservation he pushed even early in his career.

“I introduced him to Bill Beyer and the Ifugaos at Nayong Pilipino,” said Harvey, referring to the son of anthropologist Henry Otley Beyer, whose work focused on indigenous peoples.

“His fascination started the first day he laid his eyes on the place … and before I knew it, every weekend, he’d go to Banaue to help people there.”

Chua was such a frequent visitor that the Ifugao community accepted him as family. During his wake in Taguig City, at least 30 Igorot people came to pay their respects. They offered him a traditional blanket and a “bahag” (g-string) and sent him off with a traditional dance.

FAVORITE SUBJECT The Banaue Rice Terraces fascinated Chua the first time he saw it. He visited Ifugao so often that the community accepted him as family.—John K. Chua/Contributor

Ching said Chua’s last big project was a photo exhibit about Banaue in the National Museum that showcased the Igorot people and their heritage. Family and colleagues said they would continue the exhibit’s in his honor.

Those who knew Chua well, however, noted that someone who would miss him the most could not make it to his wake: Maali the elephant.

For nearly two decades, Chua was the special caretaker of the country’s lone elephant in Manila Zoo. It was his second daughter Kathy, then a zoo volunteer, who influenced him into taking care of Maali since 2000.

In an article he wrote in 2011, the photographer shared his deep understanding of Maali. Learning the complexities of her stay in the zoo, he pored over lessons on better care for elephants and even went abroad to learn more about her kind.

“While I don’t own Maali and Manila Zoo provides [her space], I do my share,” Chua wrote. “Even in the middle of a typhoon, I am always there for her to make sure she is OK.”

Special needs

In 2008, Chua organized photographers all over the country for another advocacy: children with special needs and persons with disabilities (PWDs).

Harvey said it was a chance encounter with Ian, a 25-year-old man with autism, that opened Chua’s heart to those with special needs.

After Ian showed interest in photography, Chua brought him to Manila Zoo, where he taught him how to shoot.

“They say children with autism don’t know how to communicate, but maybe photography is the way they can tell us how they look at the world,” Chua’s wife said.

Chua established “Photography With a Difference,” which partnered with PWD organizations such as Autism Society of the Philippines, Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines, and ADHD Society of the Philippines, among others.

MEETING MAALI For nearly two decades, Chua became the special caretaker of Maali, the lone elephant in the Philippines that calls Manila Zoo its home. He pored over books and even went abroad to learn more about her kind.—G-nie Arambulo/Contributor

In 2011, he established the “Reach for the Sky” program, where children with special needs and volunteer pilots from Angeles City Flying Club take to the skies on an ultralight aircraft. Images taken by volunteer photographers, including Chua, raised awareness and understanding of PWDs.

Defying limitations, his group also launched “Photography Beyond Sight,” where visually impaired children were given photography lessons.

“He made me realize that even a PWD like me can have the ability to dream big and work for that dream to become a reality,” visually impaired Randolf de Leon, a car photographer, said in a letter to his mentor. “He helped me accept myself for who I am.”

Last spark

Late last year, while still battling illness, a message from a photographer returning from overseas and seeking advice on transitioning back to the country gave Chua one last spark to share his legacy.

Pooling friends and resources from commercial brands Canon, CameraHaus, Columbia, Nikon and Fujifilm, he organized a gathering called “Dare to Dream With Me.”

Ryan Hernandez, a former Inquirer photographer, said it was Chua’s way of bringing his old friends, colleagues and aspiring photographers together, while introducing them to camera companies that could help them with tools for their craft.

“Organizing this workshop gave him a sense of purpose. When you’re dealing with a lingering illness and pain, purpose helps you focus on something greater than all of that,” his daughter Kathy said.

She added, “It gave him great joy to see the photographers attend, and maybe in some small ways make a difference in their lives.”

The veteran photographer’s drive to share his experiences and his work was evident in G-nie Arambulo, who had been under his wing for 26 years as his mentee and protégé.

Arambulo said there were big shoes to fill with the photographer’s passing, as she takes over leadership of AdPhoto, a commercial photography studio that the Chua couple established in 1973.

“It’s a big, heavy, flaming torch … and I cannot equal his work,” said the award-winning commercial photographer of his father-mentor. “But I will try my best to continue his legacy.”

Chua is survived by his wife Harvey, daughters Ching, Kathy and Sacha, and three grand-children.

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