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Jun de Leon has a new life–and it’s under the sea

The country’s leading lensman, who has full command of celebrities, now shoots underwater creatures—which don’t really care who he is
By: -Contributing Editor
/ 05:04 AM April 17, 2018

Jun De Leon

Rock star. That’s a title Jun de Leon favors nowadays. He still jokingly uses it to refer to himself, one of the country’s most awarded and respected—and feared—photographers, who never thinks twice about giving his subject a piece of his mind, albeit for good reason.

From our glossy magazine days, shooting glamorous celebrities, there was that time he walked out on a heartthrob who arrived three hours late. De Leon actually waited for the fellow to arrive, before declaring, “Pack up!” as soon as the actor walked through the door.

Or the time he respectfully but unflinchingly told a past president that he couldn’t take any pictures, because the chief executive was obviously having a bad day, and it would show.

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The president paused, nodded, and agreed to reset.

“Rock star,” though, is most often reserved nowadays for De Leon’s year-and-a-half-old son, Eli, a long-haired looker with an attitude, his dad says. Eli and big brother Irijah, now 16 and thinking of going to film school, are De Leon’s kids with wife Abbygale Arenas-de Leon, former model, beauty queen, and in-demand image consultant.

Abby and the two boys are a huge part of De Leon’s new life, which we’re enjoying, upon his invitation to join him for some weekend scuba-diving.

A hairy frogfish says “Aaaahhh” for the camera. —PHOTOS BY JUN DE LEON

His city studio, with its bright lights, scampering assistants and De Leon’s constant commands, is now often replaced by a world of elements way beyond this erstwhile holy terror’s control: the sunlight, the current, the water visibility.

De Leon says, chuckling: “I want to yell at the critters, ‘Don’t you know who I am?!’ I always get what I want above water. Underwater, wala.”

He claims he still has very little patience—but with this new preoccupation, that’s not very likely.

Different world

We’re in De Leon’s second home, Aiyanar Beach & Dive Resort in Mabini, Batangas, sipping iced tea by the sea, facing the sunset, and he is relaxed—and oozing, well, contentment.

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“My world is different now,” he says. “When I’m here, I don’t think of much else. I just want to enjoy my life.”

De Leon, a believer in Stott Pilates, reworks his body on a full trapeze Pilates reformer.

The silvery-haired De Leon is in great shape, with no hint of a pot belly and with the straight posture and smooth gait of a man many years younger.

A lifelong smoker, he’s a rather surprising sight now, puffing on an e-cigarette that smells of a pastry shop in the early morning. Smoking, a long-time habit, is just one of the vices he has eliminated from a now squeaky-clean lifestyle.

In the mornings—he’s up by about 6—he sits on the balcony at Aiyanar, gazing at the sea, catching up on e-mail, sipping French-pressed coffee and praying, he says, before doing some deep breathing.

In Manila, he does Pilates three times a week, resistance training or yoga on other days. He has stopped eating rice, drinks a lot of water, and has never been into alcohol.

“I don’t want to become a bent-over, sick old man,” he exclaims. “We never know how much time we have left, so I want each day to count. It’s about quality of life.”

Wonderful arc

It’s a wonderful arc for a 43-year career that began when he was a working student, taking pictures while finishing his Fine Arts degree at the University of Santo Tomas. He quickly made his reputation as a photojournalist—stubborn, daring, uncompromising.

“And I’ve always been arrogant,” he adds with a laugh.
He almost lost his life in the 1972 Colgante Bridge tragedy in Naga, when over a hundred devotees drowned after the bridge collapsed during the fluvial parade in honor of the Virgin of Peñafrancia. He had just stepped off the bridge, dazed and presumed dead by his editors, but he managed to bring back images that would win him awards.

A baby octopus pauses on the sand. —PHOTOS BY JUNDE LEON

He was in the newsroom when Daily Express, a tabloid in the ’70s, was to roll out its issue bannering the declaration of martial law.

As late as 2015, he even made a trip to Mamasapano, which resulted in a moving exhibit, “Children at the Crossroads,” De Leon’s personal statement on the obscenity of war. It was still the photojournalist in him.

He smoothly made the transition to shooting celebrity portraits, fashion, glamour, turning his back on photojournalism and trying not to look back.

The next phase was a crazy one, marked by mercurial obsession with his art that almost burned him out.

“I was impossible to work with,” he says now with a grin. “Nobody else could touch my negatives.”

Meeting Abby, he reveals, “I don’t know how I got so lucky. Maybe it was also the right time.”

He found a match in a partner who works as hard as he does, and like him, doesn’t dwell much on the past. De Leon hasn’t even held on to his historic transparencies.

Seven children

De Leon recalls being almost in shock when he realized he would be a father again, when Abby became pregnant with Eli.
Today, though, he keeps in close touch—even taking family pictures!—with his seven children from previous relationships: Christine Nordeña, Oliver de Leon, Timmy de Leon, Patricia Berdos, Katrina de Castro, Niccolo Leviste and Isabella Borgers.

Seven years ago, upon being commissioned to photograph the sprawling, comfortable Aiyanar for a brochure, De Leon decided to literally take the plunge and learn to scuba-dive—and never quite got out of the water, so to speak. After 20 dives, he took a camera down for the first time.

Nowadays, though he usually brings the family to the resort—Abby and Ijah are also certified divers—he’s also wont to escape for solo weekday trips, relishing the silence.

All is well

All it takes is a dive or two, De Leon says, and all is well in his world.

A “Pikachu” nudibranch seems flecked with gold.

The critter pictures on these pages, taken with a Canon Eos M3 (De Leon is a Canon ambassador), were from quiet dives with only his spotter, Raymond Salamillas, for company.

“I’m a slow learner,” he says of this new hobby. “I like it that way. Maybe because even at my age, I’m still trying to learn new things and improve in whatever I’m into.”

Whereas he admired the likes of Romy Vitug during his photojournalist days, De Leon now looks up to premier Filipino underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason, and National Geographic explorer David Doubilet, arguably one of the best underwater photographers on the planet.

Our dive

Finally, it was time for us to dive on a lovely Sunday morning. Slipping into a black wetsuit, De Leon stretches and limbers up before the dive—always a good idea when you’re about to carry several pounds of lead weights, gear, a steel air tank, and, in his case, a camera set-up.

Initially, it’s like the same old Jun de Leon for a while—excited, wide-eyed, breathing fast, and after stabilizing for a moment, finning rapidly to get moving.

He wants to check out the school of jacks near another resort, but by the time he gets close, they’ve gone deeper. I can almost hear him yell—but he doesn’t.

Instead, with his target beyond reach, his bubbles slow down, and he hovers like a meditating monk above some sunlit corals. “I’m always telling myself, ‘Jun, chill,’” he tells us later.

Not the same guy

It’s on the second dive that I am convinced this is not quite the same guy. This time, at Twin Rocks, he’s going macro. At about 30 feet, divemaster Kim Mendoza points to a lovely lilac nudibranch about two inches long, sitting atop some bubble coral.

De Leon waits motionless for the moment, his fins on the sand, focusing his camera. Suddenly, the creature slips into the coral and disappears, and De Leon’s shot is lost. He moves on and finds other subjects—but that one certainly got away.

Some 54 minutes later, as we surface, I ask, “Did a nudibranch just tell you to f—k off?”

“Yes!” Master Jun de Leon says with a loud laugh. “I love it!”

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