October 04, 2023

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | In Memoriam: John Oranga, the lens that captured greatness

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | In Memoriam: John Oranga, the lens that captured greatness
Twitter/John Oranga

In sports, greatness becomes synonymous with age and experience. We celebrate the seasoned veterans, the storied champions who weathered the storms of competition. But what about when greatness is achieved at a young age, but potential is extinguished too soon? Today, we pay tribute to John Oranga, a remarkable young photojournalist and sports photographer who captured iconic moments in Philippine sports, who passed away this week.

Thirdy Ravena with his arms outstretched like a triumphant gladiator.

EJ Obiena, captured in six stages of flight.

Jordan Clarkson hyping up the Filipino crowd.

Kristina Knott, holding up our flag while bathed in light.

You’ve probably seen these images, even if you didn’t know who took them. As a photographer for Ateneo’s Fabilioh community, and a freelancer for different sports publications, his photos were ones passed around online, reposted by fan accounts, used as mobile wallpapers by fans and athletes alike. From the raw adrenaline after a victory to the silent moments before a race, John could freeze time and reveal the stories hidden within.

In his short but impactful career, John was able to create photographs that became windows into the souls of athletes, immortalizing their achievements. In the wake of his passing, many will say that John’s work will outlive him—but perhaps, no matter what age he left us, his work would have outlived him anyway.

One thing people might not know about John is that he initially didn’t pass the application process to be a photographer for Ateneo’s university paper The GUIDON. He then studied for one term in Europe, where he improved his photography skills by leaps and bounds. After seeing his photographs from Europe, the paper asked him to join the staff.

“John was a risk-taker,” recalls freelance sports journalist Bee Go, then The GUIDON’s sports editor, who worked closely with John to cover UAAP games together. “He would climb over obstacles or put himself in unconventional angles to get the best shot. He was also not afraid to ask for anything, he grabbed every opportunity!”

His secret weapon was his ability to connect with athletes. His friendly manner opened doors, allowing him access to athletes in their unguarded moments—an opportunity repaid by honoring their hard work through his art. “So many athletes wanted to be photographed by him,” Bee says.

As a friend, Bee says: “John was a great friend and took care of people…but what I admire most about John was how he was a dreamer. The last hangout we had, he was asking me how he can get to cover the SEA Games and go back to taking photos after working in the family business for so long.”

While most people know him from his work in sports, he also lent his talents to other endeavors. He volunteered for the Martial Law Museum, taking many of the photographs you will still see on their website today.

“John worked without fanfare but always with passion, with direction,” shares Kenneth Isaiah Ibasco Abante, founding project director of the Martial Law Museum. “John, thank you for your kindness, your courage, your service, your life. Thank you for inspiring us to keep fighting for truth and justice. We will try our best to continue your work.”

Across different subjects, John’s photographs spoke of resilience, of the triumph of the human will in the face of adversity. When the UP Fighting Maroons defeated the Ateneo Blue Eagles a little over a year ago, in May 2022, John posted photos of the Blue Eagles comforting one another after the loss.

“Thank you for the One Big Fight,” John wrote.

As he battled cancer and had to take a break from the work he loved, John took on a “One Big Fight” of his own, sharing updates of his treatment to his Instagram stories. Despite the challenges he faced, John made a point to show his positivity and determination—a reflection of the very athletes he so brilliantly captured.

On his Twitter profile remains one of his older tweets, pinned from 2019, which showed photos from a trip to Mount Pulag, Luzon’s highest peak: “The hike to the summit of Mt Pulag was the universe's way of reminding that in the darkest night, the stars shine brightest.”

John’s spirit lives on through his work, reminding us all that no matter how short our time may be, the impact we leave behind can be immeasurable.