Photographing the Real Philippines

What it’s like to be a native photojournalist in a country that gets only superficial press

Filipinos celebrate Good Friday by crucifying one another. Typhoons sweep across the archipelago and devastate poor rural communities. Muslim separatists kidnap foreigners and behead hostages. These stories hit the newswires every year, portraying the Philippines with striking images and attention-grabbing headlines but little context or follow-up.

The lack of in-depth coverage contributes to an ignorance about The Philippines that Veejay Villafranca wants to dispel. His interactions with people around the world has given him an insight into what outsiders think of his home.

“The country is still living in post World War II situation,” says Villafranca. “That the majority of the country is still using carabaos as a means of transport to get to the next farm. That we are in Latin America. One photo editor whom I met in Arles a few years back critiqued my work and gave a long talk about Latin America, and how photographers did amazing work in such and such countries, only to find out that the Philippines is in the Pacific. That we are ruled by headhunters. Well … some of the provinces were ruled by head hunting tribes years ago.”

Villafranca has created an acclaimed and unique body of work. One that we here at Vantage think needs to be seen by a wider audience. But it comes from the constant struggle to negotiate external pressures and internal ideals. His situation will be familiar to any photojournalist with specialized knowledge or experience.

To counter half-truths and clichés, he tries to add nuance and depth to the assignments he picks up. Unfortunately, few publications have the time and resources for an insider’s knowledge and approach to reporting.

The economics faced by news agencies is especially frustrating for a shooter who sacrificed the security of a staff position to dedicate himself to untold stories.

“There is hardly any interest in my local knowledge or how we can make the assignment better,” he says.

At the same time Villafranca understands the pressures harried editors face. He got his start at the weekly Philippines Graphic and, four years since leaving to chase his own muse, has nothing but respect for his former employer. Media is in his blood. His grandfather was a reporter for a major daily paper and his father handled copy and images for a housing agency.

On his first photography job, a six-month probationary position, he covered then President Gloria Arroyo’s bid for re-election. Reporting was a constant learning process. He was on the road three or four days out of any given week and struggled to file by deadline. Photos submitted without captions wound up in the trash and he had no idea how to write his own copy. The newsroom was a nerve-wracking classroom. Many of the most important lessons were learned at a local bar for journalists.

“There was this bar called The Oarhouse, situated in a former red light district called Malate in the heart of Manila. It was the favorite hang out of journalists, activists, artists, photographers and all types of news-hounds, foreign and local alike. I always say that I had my baptism of fire at the bar as regulars — most of which had at least 15 years of experience under their belt — would often give me flak for being the newbie and ‘idolozing’ Western photographers.”

The assignments he was landing were often sent out to the world without context, everything from religious ceremonies like the procession of the Black Nazarene and Good Friday crucifixions to political happenings like protests and unrest in the Mindanao region.

Citing Mindanao specifically, Villafranca feels that news coverage tends to be perfunctory. The region landed in the headlines this past winter when 44 members of an elite police force were killed during a botched operation. There wasn’t the same interest in the daily deprivations facing civilians caught between government troops and separatists or the risks to local journalists trying to get stories out. He finds the lack of deeper coverage means there’s less pressure on either side and that no one is held to account.

The environment and it’s long-term impact on people is another subject that occasionally gleans attention, and as his project Signos (previously featured on Vantage) proves these stories are near and dear to Villafranca’s heart. But while rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms find the spotlight, related news of deforestation and resource exploitation remain shrouded in darkness.

“I believe these issues have been given less attention than they should,” he says. “Why? Because of corruption. Because the owners of the corporations that are involved in the issues are well connected. Because, sometimes, the corporations have direct links to news publications as well. It takes a major environmental disaster to happen to make journalists jump back on the news wagon and dig up these issues.”

Business realities have created a tough environment for journalists everywhere. What results is that photographers traveling to the Philippines arrive without sufficient background knowledge. Villafranca meets foreign reporters who land without understanding the local culture to shoot projects that have been done.

In contrast, like most photographers with an area of expertise, Villafranca puts a day or two of work into his pitches, carefully laying out his vision of a project built on a lifetime’s worth of cultural knowledge. And like most, he usually ends up with assignments that have no need for the legwork and vision.

Shopping around pitches at foreign photo festivals is also a labor-intensive gamble.

“I get to sit down with them for a brief moment and give my spiel on what I am working on and how the Philippines are in terms of stories. It’s much like being an appliance salesperson where you only have a few minutes to make your sales pitch and get them interested, or at least remember that you are based in the Philippines and to remember you whenever something comes up.”

Villafranca has toyed with the idea of pulling up stakes and establishing himself elsewhere. Other photographers have recommended that he become known as a photographer in Asia instead of just the Philippines, but also warned that media’s budget cuts and shifting landscape would make relocation risky. He thinks that he can cover the issues he’s passionate about anywhere, but acknowledges that handling the business side of being a freelance journalist would be difficult while living abroad.

Starting over would also strip him of the connections he’s established at home. Networks are invaluable, a lesson learned during his first overseas assignment for Philippines Graphic when he was sent to cover Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta following Cyclone Nargis. The governing military junta was refusing assistance from international organizations and chasing reporters out of the disaster zone. He managed to secure a tourist visa, flying in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and the dumbest hat he could find as a costume. The trip proved to be a defining experience, constantly terrified of arrest while working quickly to collect information in an unfamiliar land. He spent the last of his money on souvenirs to fool customs officials.

Villafranca has a two-year-old son so leaving his hometown of Manilla would also be difficult personally, not just a challenging career move.

“This city is crazy, with a lot of drama and frustrations,”he says. “But then again I believe an easy life is not as colorful and as exciting as the life I have now. You know everyone yearns for a better life, especially for our children, but as my father always told me, ‘Be prepared for challenges and never take the easy route’. The grit and color and sound and craziness of this city is what keeps me here.”

Villafranca’s also joined forces with other Filipino journalists to proactively showcase their country on their own terms. This January he teamed up with Jes Aznar and Tammy David to launch Everyday Philippines on Instagram and Tumblr. He hopes that as media consumers increasingly demand a balanced and authentic view into new worlds that the extra visibility will tap into a growing community of diverse storytellers. Maybe it will change some minds about his home at the same time.

“The first phase received a good response so far, and we are excited about the possibilities,” says Villafranca. “This is our main focus for now. We are also thinking of other collaborative projects (online mostly) with other communities and countries to be able to showcase more work from the Philippines and the region.”

All photos by Veejay Villafranca

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