09
Apr

Survivors in Manila

Posted by John Keatley / Filed under Personal Work, Travel

This is the second post from my assignment in the Philippines for Arts Aftercare.  You can read the first post, as well as this entire series by clicking on the Arts Aftercare tag.

After arriving in Manila and getting acclimated, my main focus was to document the art therapy training by the Arts Aftercare staff.  Leaders from several organizations in the Philippines and abroad attended the training, which took place over the course of 3 days.  When I was not in the training, I spent the rest of my time trying to figure out who is who, and what direction I wanted to go with my personal work, which would be to tell a story about the sex industry in the Philippines.  We would be spending about 6 days in Manila, and then we would head to 2 other towns and visit organizations working with survivors of sexual exploitation.

One of the things I was hoping for the most out of this trip was an opportunity to make portraits of some of the survivors of sexual exploitation.  Our hosts told us that they thought only a couple of the women would be willing to be photographed, but we would just have to ask and see what they say.  We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and wouldn’t be able to ask until Monday.  It was a long weekend of waiting.  Understandably there are some really complicated issues that come up when photographing people who have had to deal with something like this.  It was important, but also really difficult for me to remember that, as I had my heart set on making portraits of at least a few of the survivors.

When Monday came around, Becker and I introduced ourselves to the group and told them what we were there for, and what we hoped to accomplish.  We walked out of the room and gave them time to talk about it among themselves.  Not long after, someone came out and told us that every single woman had agreed, and they were really excited to be photographed.

I quickly grabbed my gear and set up at a bus stop just down the street from the organization.  It was incredibly hot and humid, but I somehow made it through, on excitement and adrenaline while I shot for the next 2.5 hours.  It was such a fun shoot.

Sexual exploitation is such a heavy subject, but what really made an impact on me was the hope and joy I saw in so many of the women who are going through the recovery process.  After spending time with them, I decided to make the portraits with an overall hopeful feel, which is why I chose the brightly colored wall as a background.  I directed the women a little, but tried to interject as little as possible to allow these images to feel more natural and reflective of each woman’s personality.  I let them pose how they felt most comfortable, and tried to keep things as natural as possible.  These women are so incredible, and they have amazing strength and beauty.  I hope that comes through as you look at these portraits.

My intent in doing this project was to help spread the word about the exploitation of women and children which is going on all around us.  Hopefully by sharing these images and stories, others might feel inclined to get involved in the fight and healing process.  As the week went by, my focus became sharper and sharper on creating great images which told a captivating story.  My approach could be described as a bit selfish at times, as I was solely thinking about what I could do, or where I needed to go to get the shot.  After this shoot was finished, I began hearing from a few people about how much this experience meant to the women.  The big 5 ft. octabank, Curtis holding the big flag, Becker shooting video, and my Hasselblad camera, all made them feel like they were a part of something fancy and exciting.  It seemed pretty normal to me, but that type of experience is not something everyday people are a part of very often.  On top of that, I was working really hard to make the pictures look great from a visual interest standpoint, but to the women, it all made them feel beautiful and pampered.  It was a good feeling to be a part of that, but it still didn’t fully hit me until the next day.

The next day we were back at the house, and everyone was finishing up training.  I was waiting for a ride to another site to take pictures.  The house we were staying at was beautiful, but not a place I felt was conducive to anything I thought would be visually interesting.  As I was watching everyone laughing and going through the drama portion of the training, it hit me.  Forget about yourself and your portfolio for once, and use that camera in your hands to really make an impact on someone.  It’s easy to help others when my portfolio is also benefiting from it, but how about taking pictures that only benefit others.  A totally new concept for me.  I told one of the leaders that I was willing to take pictures of the women with friends, groups, whatever they wanted.  And for the next 45 minutes, we took pictures of people jumping off chairs, human pyramids, group poses, and on and on.  It was so awesome.  They came up with their own ideas, and it was fun to see them take charge and direct everyone.  The pictures are not ones I will be showing, or putting in a portfolio, but they brought a lot of joy to those in them, and that was a powerful experience and a good lesson for me.

These images were all edited with VSCO Film.

Comments

“Amazing strength and beauty” is exactly what comes through in these portraits, John. I just read your first post and this one. What a privilege to see what you saw and ponder what you learned. Thank you for taking the time to articulate your challenges, blessings, and insights. I look forward to the remaining posts.

posted by Jeanne Damoff on 04.09.12 at 6:01 pm

These pictures are incredible paired with the story below John!! What an opportunity not only for you but for these women! Thanks for posting this and their story in a way!

posted by Geoff Heith on 04.09.12 at 8:40 pm

John, this is such an intimate and insightful story. I see your compassion in the photos and hear the compassion through your words. Looking forward to the next story.

posted by Kaye Jackson on 04.10.12 at 6:51 pm

There is so much courage and grace that emanates from these photos. It is so moving that you have chosen to share their stories through your photography. Keep doing what you do.

posted by Anisa Ghadrshenas on 04.16.12 at 1:39 pm

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