Veejay Villafranca is one of the top young documentary photographers from the Philippines. Based in Manila, his long-term photography projects tackle stories about Filipino culture and issues, such as the country’s religious practices and community displacement due to climate change and disasters. Veejay won the prestigious Ian Parry Scholarship Grant in London in 2008, and was a participant in the 2013 Joop Swart Masterclass. His work has been published globally and exhibited internationally, including the Festival Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan.
How did you get your start in photography?
I was exposed to the importance of reportage and journalism at a very young age, my grandfather being a journalist for a national broadsheet most his life and my dad working as a photojournalist for the country’s housing agency. The daily grind of consuming current news, reading news articles and browsing through news images became a habit for me. Years after, there was an opening at a news magazine for a staff position, and with no experience at all and a few street snaps as my portfolio, my father encouraged me to give it a try. I was lucky to be chosen and put on probation for 6 months before becoming a full-time staff. I stayed in that company for over 4 years before deciding to pursue the field of documentary photography full time. I was in the first batch of photographers at the Angkor Photo Festival workshop in 2005. It was an eye-opener in terms of the directions we can take our photography. Soon after, I went freelance.
Your work deals with issues and stories from the Philippines. What kind of stories interest you?
I would like to call my generation as the one with the missing revolution. The generation of photojournalists that came before us were moulded by the events in the 1960s up to the EDSA revolution. Most of my influences growing up was a mix of prevailing social economic issues meshed with the quirky and mundane of daily life.
The passing of my father and the birth of my son, Caeden, were pivotal moments in my photography – these events influenced my visual approach.
I like old cultural practices, animism, mythology and the subgroups and communities formed by the clash of the Spaniards and the locals. I also like intimate daily life stories that talk about the youth and the prevailing generation and how they face the changing environment. For the past 5 years, I have been following communities displaced by the changing climate and how they cope with daily life. I like psychology and how the brain dictates a person’s disposition in relation to the difficulties they face, may it be death of a loved one or a traumatic experience from a calamity or physical abuse. I like religious practices and how it is adapted to suit society today, and also the communities that stand by it.
With your wide ranging interests and the wealth of stories that the Philippines has to offer, how do you even begin to chose which story to start work on?
At first it was my news photography background that helped shape my view on things and my reaction towards news events. Then I got burnt out shooting news that was laundered; you wash it and you see the same news all over. After I crossed certain milestones in my life, I started to follow a unifying train of thought for most of the stories I was shooting. That was how I started to look for projects that I could go deeper into.
I am looking for something that my generation can relate to.
For example with the Faith above Fate project and Against the Dying of the Light projects, which is not about news urgency but more an introspective and philosophical narrative on the Filipino way of living. Faith above Fate is a narrative on how the Philippines with their animistic, traditional influences and spirituality are infused with the colonial influences of the Spanish. It also looks at how traditions intersect with modern living practices, whether in religion or daily life. For me, this is part and parcel of how Filipinos search for their identity.
It was only recently that I started to position these projects to form a larger, long-term project. Like with Trent Parke, who has only been shooting in Australia for the last 10-15 years, and all of it is part and parcel of his life in Australia – how he is living as a photographer and as a family man. The work is also fuelled by his personal experiences. It was only through talking to other people, like writers, poets and cultural artists, that it started to make sense to me. I need to put everything into a specific perspective. My influences are the photojournalists who covered the major news events in the 70s-90s and who were more focused on the urgency of the issues and what was currently happening. But in contrast, with my generation of photographers, we never experienced that kind of crisis. I am looking for something that my generation can relate to.
Baseco, your project on the lives of former gang members in Manila, was the breakthrough project that won you the Ian Parry scholarship. How did you get started on it?
It was after a bit of research on what story to pursue for my Photojournalism course at the Konrad Adenaeur Foundation in Manila. I wanted to do a contemporary issue that wasn’t hard news. I remembered covering this children before as Baseco was our go-to area to illustrate stories. It was a slow process of getting to know the gang members but they eventually took me in and let me photograph their daily lives. It was a process which took a little over two years in all.
I would send pitches to different publications and 90% to 95% of the time, they don’t reply.
Was there a time in the project when you felt like an outsider looking in?
Always. A friend had told me, if you are trying to make yourself a part of your subject’s life, it would come out as fake, unless you came from the same background or the same place. I was a city boy, a normal bloke trying to tell a story. I would never be a part of that community, but I stuck with the responsibility of telling stories as they are. I’m a story-teller and that’s my job. For me, I am focused on my photography, the authorship and how I can share these stories to other people and make them understand why I am shooting these stories.
And you’ve wrapped up the Baseco project in 2010?
I put a cap to it at 2010. The stories continue. They are still trying to get out of the cycle inside the slum – the poverty, violence, drugs. But from a narrative perspective, I think it’s done and it was time I shared the stories of this community.
Another of your long-term, on-going projects, Signos, is on natural disasters and their aftermath in the Philippines. But these stories are more than just about changes in weather patterns, what other issues do they present?
This project started out as a news reportage rather than a personal project. But simply covering the aftermath of a typhoon destruction is getting redundant as it lacks context, which is why I decided to pursue this as a long-term project. It is more than just about displacement; the project Signos dwells on the daily experiences of the communities being displaced. It is also my examination of the much used development term – resilience. Displacement causes a string of issues including, but not limited to, women protection, human trafficking, psychological trauma and PTSD, and how communities have to change their living patterns in order to survive the changing climate. I’m starting to push this climate refugee project to the next level and produce a book. I hope it will come out in the last quarter of this year.
With Against the dying of the light, you documented different cases of terminal cases while relating the despair, hope and acceptance that come with it. The project has a lot of personal meaning for you as well, can you tell us about it?
The idea for Against the dying of the light was triggered when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. He passed away five months later. The experience of having to deal with therapy and medical practices is a reflection of what it really means to face this kind of personal problems. I went to organisations and communities that were taking care of terminally ill cancer patients in the south of Manila. The reflection was to see how other families cope with the illness, the healing and pain elevation, and how each family describes the experience. This was also the project that I used for the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2013, which ironically had the theme of hope. The passing of my father and the birth of my son, Caeden, were pivotal moments in my photography – these events influenced my visual approach.
How have these personal events influenced you in your visual approach?
Back then, I would see projects by other photographers that were very much anchored on family and personal experiences, which to me, I wasn’t particular about. I was more a reactionary photographer, following the news and telling under-reported stories.
But when these two monumental events happened to me, it directed my personal vision. I think it opened up more emotional doors. Now I try to draw something out of a personal experience and try to illustrate and find reflective scenarios that will narrate this mindset. I hope the work will hit closer to home for the audience and give them more connection to the stories.
What are the challenges for a working photographer in the Philippines?
That the stories are often out of context or sensationalised cliches due to lack of support or interest from the commissioning publications and agencies. Also, the respect for visual reportage is still under appreciated in most platforms. Commercial photography still prevails as the more famous brand of visual communications.
Now that you have gone freelance, where do you find outlets to tell the stories that you want to pursue?
When I went freelance, I had to go through the contacts that I had built up. I researched for outlets for my stories and as much as I can, I try to visit festivals to meet with photo editors. I network on social media and online. I do the old style of cold-calling, but now it’s more like cold-emailing. I would send pitches to different publications and 90% to 95% of the time, they don’t reply unless I get recommended by friends.
But with the awards you’ve won and the recognition that you’ve received, I’m sure your odds has improved.
(Laughs) No, it’s still around 95% of no replies. It’s also because the Philippines is not so much in the news now. My uneducated guess would be that the international media would only give attention to an area in Asia when there is a devastation or a natural disaster. It’s the same with my other friends, like Rony from Indonesia. If we stuck to covering just straight up hard news as a freelancer, it would be hard as they hardly use the hard news photos. And if there was a big event, they would send their own photographers, which is a practice in the industry. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also something wrong in the system. That’s what pushed me to do more personal projects instead of just being a reactionary photojournalist.
As a freelance photographer, you’re not only expected to do the work, you’re also expected to market it and promote it.
It’s a huge part of it. The effort to get the work out there is probably 80%, and 20% is doing the work itself. Before this, one of the biggest platforms that helped was Lightstalkers. It was a big help, especially among Asian photographers who would compete for assignments coming in. But at the same time, it created some sort of community.
Finally, why do you take photographs?
That is a hard question. Why do I take photographs? With all the professionalism aside on how great or challenging it is to be a photographer, I think what was ingrained in me was the idea that other people’s stories enrich my life and I hope they will enrich other people’s lives too. Like a friend had said, you produce stories not because you want to be famous or be known as the only photographer to make these photos; you produce stories because you want to share a slice of a person or a community’s life, so hopefully someone else will see it, understand it and be happy or angered by it. It is about how the richness of other people’s stories affect your life. I take photographs because our differences as humans can be beneficial to each other.
*the interview has been edited for clarity and brevity