Documentary photographer, photojournalist, and photo editor

September 15, 1943 – February 11, 2021

Presciano A. Yabao, widely known as Sonny Yabao, is regarded as the best Filipino documentary photographer of his time. He is fondly remembered by generations of photographers as “The Master.”

Yabao was born on September 15, 1943, in Catbalogan, Samar, the only child of a coconut farmer and a dressmaker. He grew up nurturing a love for both writing and painting and studied A.B. Literature at Christ the King College. However, he could not afford to finish his education. Because of this, he moved to Manila to work and help his parents.

In the 1960s, when Yabao was in his 20s, a friend gave him a job as an assistant at his small portrait studio in Cubao. Inside the dark room, he discovered the “magic of photography.” It was there that his lifelong love affair with photography began.

During the Marcos era, he joined the Bureau of National and Foreign Information and photographed Imelda Marcos on her worldwide travels and encounters with various world leaders.

In 1985, he was named Photojournalist of the Year by the Press Photographers of the Philippines and the National Press Club. In 1995, his work was featured in The Philippines: A Journey Through the Archipelago, a visual voyage of the country by 35 of the world’s most noted photographers.

After Martial Law, he became the photo editor of Newsday from 1989 to 1991. He was the first photo editor in the history of Philippine journalism to work closely with the text editors. There, he mentored a team of photojournalists who would later be counted among the foremost photographers of their time.

After Newsday, Yabao resumed his freelance work. He was the lead photographer for Philippine travel and culture books such as Tagaytay, Town on the Ridge (1996); San Miguel de Mayumo: Growth Decline and Renewal of a Museum Town (1997); Memory of Dances (2002, authored by award-winning journalist Sheila Coronel); Cagraray, a Bicol-island World (2005); and Iloilo: A Rich and Noble Land (2007).

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, his frequent haunt.

Yabao’s photography was notably driven by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” This, and the surrealist movement of the 20th century, deeply shaped his work. He dedicated his personal work to capturing the surreality, magic, and strangeness of everyday life. This shines through in his 2014 photo-essay “Somnambulist.”

He moved to Laguna in 2013 and retired from professional work at the age of 76 to live at the foot of Mt. Makiling, continuing to capture life in Laguna until his last days.

Of his work, he said: “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.”

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