An American In Manila
Photographer Kurt Kamka moved to Manila, Philippines for the excitement and growth offered by expat living. He spent 4 years walking through the city’s neighborhoods and documenting scenes that intrigued him. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann learns more about the experience.
EvH: Four years in Manila is a long time — was it your original intention to stay that long, or were you surprised that you ended up enjoying it so much?
KK: After deciding that we wanted to live and experience a culture in another part of the world, my wife and I began looking around for opportunities that might take us to Southeast Asia. Fortunately, the company that she was working for had an opening in Manila that we pursued. The assignment was for two years.
Since we felt that both of us still had work that we wanted to complete to help make a difference in the Philippines and in our careers, we were able to renew that assignment for two more years.
The major reason that we stayed was because of the people we met and became friends with in the Philippines. Fellow photographers, camera aficionados, co-workers, other expats and the people that we met in our daily interactions with others helped us understand not only another culture but a whole lot about ourselves.
Visits to a distinctly foreign place are a great way to experience a distant land or a new culture, but actually living in that place forever positively changes your perspective about how you fit into the world as a whole.
EvH: This project centers on the residents of some of Manila’s poorest neighborhoods. How did you approach people?
KK: Mostly, I just started walking and taking photos. I’m very curious so my photography is simply a photographic journal of the people that I encounter as I wander through the streets of any city — whether it is through the financial district of a western city or the humblest of barrios.
Sometimes I asked to photograph the people I met, sometimes not. But in those times when I didn’t ask, permission was granted through a smile or gesture. My time in the Philippines was greatly influenced by the people that I met in the best or sometimes the worst of conditions.
EvH: You’ve done a lot of street photography and portraiture. Can you tell us about your strategy for capturing sometimes fast-moving people and objects in scenes with a lot of distractions?
KK: I’m interested in photography that is just good photography, so genres end up being too restrictive. I try to photograph what I see. As a result, the photos that I take are simply a reflection of the people that I meet in the streets and neighborhoods of Manila or any other city I happen to be wandering through at the time.
But getting more specific, I’ve always been fascinated with documentary photography and street portraits that have a way of helping the viewer get a glimpse into a place through the eyes and expressions of its people. So my photography is probably a combination of street portrait, street and documentary photography.
I try to make certain that my photography is immersive; connects with the subject and the viewer; emotive; authentic and fearless. In neighborhoods where there are a lot of objects that might be distracting, I often try to find angles with empty walls or streets with less clutter. But when that is impossible, I often use less depth of field in dense neighborhoods where eyes or an expression can carry a frame.
Before approaching a group of people, I always scan the crowd, in an attempt to look for interesting faces and scenes that can provide stories that might be best represented in a single frame.
EvH: Can you share any plans for future work with us, in Manila or otherwise?
KK: I recently relocated to the Phoenix area in the US. I’ve begun identifying long- and short-term projects including an in-depth look at the people of the American Southwest, including the native populations.
EvH: What were some differences between your home life in the U.S. and your life as an expat in Manila?
KK: We had lived in large cities like Chicago in the past, but nothing prepares you for the population density of a place like Manila. The simple act of getting from one place to another in a city with 20 million becomes a daily hurdle. But you learn to adapt by watching how the locals cope with frustration and inconvenience.
Massive urbanization in a place like Manila has meant that large numbers of the population from the provinces have moved to the capital region to find jobs. Even though the region struggles to support such a large population and the resulting disparity in income, you quickly come to understand that Filipinos have such a wonderful ability to persevere through economic hardship, natural disaster, political corruption or whatever else comes their way.
EvH: What was the expat community like?
KK: We had a good amount of interaction with other expats living in Manila. As you adjust to a new place, one of the first things you look for is a certain amount of familiarity to help you adjust psychologically to a different way of life.
Good expat friendships can help you ease into a foreign expat assignment by linking you to people, places and relationships. Most enjoyable were our interactions with expats from other parts of the U.S., Europe or Asia. Those new friends help you gain a better view of how you, your region, or your country is viewed by others with a wide range of experiences of their own.
One of the interesting challenges of being back in the U.S. will be adjusting to a culture that is so focused on itself. You return changed in many ways, but those closest to you are still hyper focused on your old self. You are not better or worse, while they are the same, you are somehow just different than you were.
EvH: What about your time there surprised you the most?
KK: It’s really quite a shame how little awareness most people in the U.S. (including us before we arrived) have of the Philippines or its people. For two countries that have such strong historical ties, most in the U.S. would be hard-pressed to find the Philippines on a world map.
Yet, in the Philippines, the cultural influence from the U.S. occupation at the beginning of the twentieth century is profound. English is readily spoken. Millions of Filipinos have family members who live in or work in the U.S., often depending on these overseas foreign workers for financial support.
U.S. brands, food, movies and television shows are extremely popular. In the heart of Asia, forget soccer or most other sports, for the Philippines basketball is king. Those cultural ties, the warmth of the people and the opportunity to work, learn and photograph in another country were irresistible lures to our family.