Why Look Away? One Filipino Photographer on Why Local Authorship and Representation Matters in Photography
This guest post is by Veejay Villafranca, who was born in Manila. He started out in journalism as a staff photographer for a national news magazine covering the news all over the country. He became a freelancer in 2006 and worked with several international news/wire agencies and publications before shifting to full-time documentary work. He tackles issues on Filipino cultural and religious practices, the youth and street culture and climate displacement and other environmental issues.
Children flash their bright smiles atop debris, workers wiggle their hips whilst carrying shovels and brooms, dancers sway and break dance in and around rubble to the tune of Pharrell Williams’s single hit “Happy”. This video from 2014, one of the many “Happy” videos filmed around the world that year, may seem like another representation of a global hit pop-song. But something feels amiss when the setting is the devastation left by the world’s strongest recorded typhoon, Haiyan, with a death toll that exceeded 10,000 and caused hundreds of millions of pesos worth of damage in the Philippines.
The “Happy” video was made by a foreigner and illustrates an issue I often notice: well-meaning but uninformed outsiders producing stories with photos and videos without properly identifying cultural sensitivities. These stories are, at worst, factually inaccurate – and at best, culturally inappropriate, often adding to the stereotype of ‘Filipino resilience’.
This “Happy” video could have been an attempt to highlight resilience – a buzzword to describe displaced communities, almost always in marginalized areas. But using pop culture to show humanity’s kindness in a period of grief and recovery doesn’t do justice to the image and identity of Filipinos and other survivors and displaced people. I am certain a Filipino who’s aware of the sensitivities of the people would not have produced a video like this.
In my opinion, the success of any kind of media – a video, a written story, a big campaign or any collaboration, relies on consultations with local photographers/visual journalists early on. Representation and authorship of photos and visuals – who is photographing, in other words – is important. This is especially true with international aid agencies: it is important to bring local storytellers into a project at the beginning, when they can add important context, and not at the latter part, when the project is about to pack up.
In the Philippines, a developing country constantly faced with natural disaster emergencies, I have seen an increase in NGOs hiring local photographers to document their work. International aid agencies like the U.N., Oxfam, Save the Children and Greenpeace amongst others have an annual meeting with consultants, including photographers, where they invite people to explore possibilities of collaboration. I believe these meetings are important and also a good venue to push conversations on issues of representation and authorship. The annual meetings are usually publicized in news outlets as a call for interested contractors to sign up and attend the half-day event that briefs them on the programs of the organizations. This can be their opportunity to connect with communications officers and program leads. This is good. But this is not enough.
Photographers who work for NGOs usually must abide by the commissioning organization’s guidelines. There’s hardly any collaboration with regards to planning and execution, as a brief is usually handed down either from the regional office or the head office, usually in the European Union or the United States. Specifically during emergencies, I feel that there is a lack of openness to collaboration with local photographers. The fear of losing the assignment also pushes some photographers to agree with irrevocable contract terms, even foregoing their ideas on the project. Local photographers often feel frustrated by all this.
These observations aren’t new. In 2012, two former aid workers-turned-photographer-and journalist started an Instagram initiative called Everyday Africa as a way to fight against the prevailing negative image of Africa in the media. Their goal was to encourage local photographers to post more images of daily life as a way of representing what happens on the ground that the news missed covering. This project and utilizing the approach of the ‘Everyday’ resonated worldwide, provided a platform for ample discussion of all kinds of issues and gave rise to several similar Instagram accounts around the globe. The success of Everyday Africa paved the way for photographers – and the general public, too – to be more assertive in pushing for more and better representations of diverse voices in photography.
In the Philippines, Tala Photo Collective is the first photography collective to tackle issues about women by women photographers. Although most members come from the new generation of photographers, they are guided by Nana Buxani, an established photographer who’s navigated the male dominated industry for over two decades. She has worked with local and international aid groups through her career and says that one of the most common problems is photographers hardly have the chance to express their vision when on assignment. In addition, images often end up unused and unpublished. Tala Photo Collective was formed to address these problems by showcasing work by women photographers.
For example, one of the more pressing issues happening in the Philippines is the rising numbers of extra-judicial killings of those suspected to be connected to the drug trade. As foreign photographers flock to Manila and other parts of the Philippines and cover the story, a group of mostly freelance Filipino photographers has banded together to push more nuanced stories. The photographers, who have adopted Night Shift/Crawlers as their nomme de guerre (taken from the term used by those covering the night shift newsbeat where most crimes happen), continuously document the families of the victims as evidence of atrocities that are often left unsolved.
The Night Shift/Crawlers have been successful in engaging grassroots organizations and faith-based organizations to show their ongoing work in public and private locations such as malls, private galleries and other artist-run institutions and to talk about the updates on the cases and what is currently the situation on the ground. This led to grassroots groups to organize and focus on the families of the victims and provide psycho-social support. Their daily coverage also provide leads to other organizations in monitoring cases and areas of concern. The photographers have also picked up the idealism of the Everyday community and started Everyday Impunity to widen their reach with online communities.
I believe the success of the Night Shift/Crawlers shows the importance of exploring creative and nuanced ways of illustrating social issues. For NGOs, this means reaching out to their audience and delivering their message using portraiture, collaborations amongst visual artists, collaborations with subjects themselves and multimedia projects. And of course, this means working with local photographers who understand the issues affecting their own communities.
In a world where images flood our social media feeds, and traditional modes of communication compete for our attention, it’s more important than ever to produce images and stories that reach out and really engage with people without misrepresenting or being insensitive to communities. Going back to the the “Happy” video as an example, using resilience to show audiences a stereotype of displaced Filipino communities not only gives a wrong impression on how we Filipinos survive the devastating effects of calamities, but also adheres to the underdeveloped image that our colonizers painted of us.
It is my hope that photographs and visual stories can find more things that binds us and show our true identity rather than keep us in a template and divide humanity even further.
Top photo caption: A mother cradles her newborn baby while awaiting visiting health workers in Southern Philippines. © Veejay Villafranca