Monthly Archives: September 2012

Tattoos of San Andres

While I continue living in San Andres, Manila, I thought I’d post some of the dozens of tattoo photos I’ve collected. Tattoo culture in the Philippines is thriving, especially in the last few year. Some of these are merely decorative, while some have gang or prison connotations.

A prison tattoo, designating the name of the jail and the specific cell block.

Posted in Blog, Philippines Tagged , , |

Up Close and Extremely Personal

A disabled woman sits in a squatter’s community in San Andres, Manila. Shot at 17mm, this image required getting very close.

Photography is only interesting if it is showing you something you can’t see on your own. What I have learned since starting photojournalism full time is that taking pictures, mechanically speaking, is not the difficult part. Entering someone’s private space and staying there is what takes it out of you. The Himalayas; an endangered tribe in Papua New Guinea; a disabled person living in poverty, sitting in an alley watching a Bingo game. We want to glimpse something rare, and it we want it to be intimate. Everyone is a voyeur. That’s why so many of your friend’s travel pictures are boring, they don’t really communicate the feeling of being there. They don’t tell a story. To get those sorts of images you have to get close. Very close.

By close I don’t only mean physical distance, though this is often important. I mean you need to be completely involved and interactive with your subject. For a landscape photographer that would mean getting up at 3am and hiking to the peak of the mountain to capture a sunrise that few have ever seen. For me, working with people, it means trying to gain acceptance from a person I have never met in a strange, and typically uncomfortable, environment.

I’m learning this as I go, and I definitely can’t claim to have mastered this craft by any stretch. But what I now realize is that most of the great pictures I have come to respect and love were the product of a lot of work. Where I once imagined that my photographic (or any other creative) idols just turned up in exotic locations with high-end equipment and waited for interesting situations to unfold around them, I now know this was utterly wrong. Opportunities have to be created, not expected.

I’ve been traveling obsessively with a camera for a large part of the last decade, but in the majority of my early stuff the images lack soul. It is only by actively creating opportunities that this becomes possible. I don’t want to say that I am now constantly producing emotional masterpieces, but my pictures are starting to come closer to replicating my experiences. And it is by far the most mentally exhausting thing I have ever done.

It is lonely. In the Philippines friendly people surround me all day, yet I am a definite outsider. I don’t speak the language, and though Filipinos are to be commended for their English abilities, there is a communication breakdown during most conversations. I have to limit myself to speaking in clear and concise sentences, and usually keep the topics to observable facts, like “it is hot today.” I also don’t really know what people think of me. Though I feel welcome, I am unsure if there is hidden resentment at my relative wealth. Or the incredible fact that the local cantinas will not allow me to pay for any of my meals, which both melts my heart and further solidifies my status as separate from the locals, who pay full price.

It is stressful. The communities that I have chosen to focus on – San Andres, Quiapo and Tondo – are not heavily touristed because of the high crime rates. Around the corner from where I am camping, a 13-year-old girl was raped a few weeks ago on the main street. At noon. The rapists sewed her lips together with chicken wire. On several occasions I have been stalked by solvent addicts or drunks, who tail me at a distance as I walk. The families who have taken to looking out for me are constantly cautioning me against walking down certain streets. Though I have had no problems to date, these warnings take a heavy psychological toll on me. Going out to shoot everyday has become a mental battle with myself as I weigh the dangers against the opportunities. Looking for interesting subjects while also watching my back is a skill that I’m learning on the fly, and it is draining.

These are the realities of this job that I was never able to fully appreciate before. As my mentor Zoriah Miller told me, “success in photojournalism is all about what you’re prepared to sacrifice” – and the price is high.

For my current project, True Manila, I am trying to give an honest account of what life is like for the average working class Filipino. Not focusing unfairly on squalor, but a balanced view of life in this city – the good and the bad, the unfortunate and the dignified. While I don’t expect the final edit to be ready until mid October, I will be posting updates as I go. Subscribe to my feed if you’d to get these sent to your email address.

Posted in Blog, Philippines Tagged , , , , , , |

Family in San Andres

Only four years old, this boy has been left in the care of his 85-year-old grandmother.

I’ve been working on a project documenting the squatters communities around Manila, and came across this boy and his family in San Andres. This boy, four years old, and his sister, 5 years old, have been left in the care of their 85-year-old grandmother. Their father is currently in jail and in desperation the mother dropped the kids with their grandmother and returned to the provinces. No one knows where she is now.

Though a caring woman, the grandmother is getting too old to properly look after the children, often leaving them on their own for hours at a time while she wanders the neighbourhood. They rely on the charity of the San Andres community to eat, and some church groups who provide vitamins for the kids.

If anyone is interested in contributing $5 to help these kids, use the paypal “donate” button on the right-hand column of this blog page, and add the note “for San Andres family”. I will give whatever money is raised to the local community representative to organize a support program.


Posted in Blog, Philippines, Poverty Tagged , , , , |

Life on a Fighting Cock Farm

An illegal cock fight in San Andres, Manila. The fights usually last around a minute and all evidence is quickly carried away to avoid problems with the police.

In an odd twist of fate I now find myself living on a fighting-cock farm in the lower class neighbourhood of San Andres, Manila. In an empty lot between two houses, Floren, the caretaker of the farm, allowed me to pitch a small tent. I share the space with around 15 fighting cocks, a pair of Chinese chickens, and two turkeys. The cocks and turkeys are in a constant state of feud, harassing each other and skirmishing endlessly in the small space. I can’t help but feel sorry for the turkeys. Despite their larger size, they are vastly outnumbered by an opponent that is born and bred to fight to the death. They stick close together and pace the yard cautiously.

The sound of 15 roosters is deafening, and they usually get me up by around 5am. There is nothing much to do but drink coffee with the large posse of elderly women who sit on plastic chairs on the street outside the farm’s front gate. By 9a.m. the first of the day’s cock-fights have usually started, and continue until there are no more competitors.

Fast and violent, one of the fighters is generally dead within two minutes. Sometimes the winner will also bleed out minutes later.

10cm curved knives are attached to the feet of the roosters before the fight. They are sharp enough to shave with and have resulted in human deaths when the cocks are not carefully controlled.

The loser of the fight is given to the winner’s owner to be eaten.

It looks like I’ll be staying on the farm for the next month or so, so expect a more comprehensive story on the underground cock-fights soon. Animal rights activists be warned: there is very little sympathy for these animals, and the images will be gruesome.


Posted in Blog, Philippines Tagged , , , |

Matao Salajendo in Eight Frames

Matao Salajendo, 29, is an unemployed construction worker living under the seawall along the Ermita Boulevard in Manila, Philippines.

He sleeps underneath a piece of bubble wrap paper and must remain in a sitting position all night due to the cramped conditions under the wall. He searches the rocks along the bay for found objects which he either keeps to use for himself, or sells for whatever money he can get.

For three years Matao was a construction worker on a fifty-story skyscraper project in metro Manila, but when the job was done he found himself out of work. Now homeless as well as jobless, Matao cannot gather enough money to renew his medical certification, which is mandatory for work on building sites. Neither can he afford to travel back to his home province, where the rest of his family lives on a coconut farm.

I met Matao a few days ago and spent most of a day with him. This series is a look at one day of his life in eight frames.

Matao sits under the seawall along the Ermita Boulevard in Manila. He sleeps here in a sitting position due to the cramped conditions.

The seawall is constantly wet, and Matao uses only a piece of bubble wrap paper as a shelter

Matao struggles in the wind to unwrap his bubble wrap shelter as heavy rain begins to fall.

Since Matao lost his job he has little to do during the day other than wander through Manila’s streets and parks.

Matao’s criminal clearance, one of the documents necessary for him to find a new construction job. The second document he needs is an $8 medical check which he cannot afford.

Matao searches the rocks along the seawall for items which wash up in the bay that he can use himself, or possibly sell.

Matao enters the large Robinson’s mall for the first time, despite living only a few hundred meters away.

Matao shields himself from the rain. Having no money, he is not able to travel back to his home province where the rest of his family lives on a coconut farm.



Posted in Blog, Philippines, Poverty

One Life Photo contest

Squatters in a half-constructed building. When the money for building projects falls through, families move into the empty shells. This image is from my Dhaka Life project.

I recently entered the One LIfe Photo competition for the chance to have some of my projects funded and possibly even an exhibition in New York. Though these things are tedious and I hate to ask, you can potentially change my life with the click of a mouse. Independent photojournalism is a costly affair, with travel, food, equipment and accommodation. The chance win this prize money could make all the difference in my ability to share stories with you.

Take the time, if you can, to follow this link and click the “collect me” button at the top.

Thanks in advance.

Posted in Blog Tagged , |