How these Filipina photographers are lending their eye to our history

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Lita and Ceferina hug during an afternoon in Ceferina's home. Both are part of the group called ‘Malaya Lolas,’ a group of survivors of mass rape during the second world war. Photo by HANNAH REYES MORALES

Nana Buxani was a young, contributing photographer for the Manila Times, shooting celebrities, beauty queens, and politicians for its lifestyle section, when Paul Valentin of Oxfam called her one day, asking her to do a project in Maguindanao. She was to produce a photo essay documenting the life of a farming community, fraught with wars every few years. It was the early 1990s, and her first assignment outside a newspaper. She went; lived in a farmer’s home in the mountains; and, after drinking from a well infested with mosquitos, came home with dengue.

Not long after, in 1993, she landed a project with the Kaliwat Theater Collective to live in Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, for one month, capturing the ancestral sites of the Manobos. “Tapos doon naman, na-ano ako — tetanus!” says Buxani, laughing.

But these challenges on the field did not stop her from persevering. “Isa sa biggest joys ko is yung engagement sa local communities, to hear their stories,” says Buxani, who feels these long form stories give her a deeper understanding of the human condition. Since those first projects in the early 1990s, she has forged a remarkable three-decade long career as an independent photographer, documenting issues in the country ranging from child labor to the plight of homeless and indigenous peoples.

It takes courage to be a photojournalist or documentary photographer in the Philippines, where your work often compels you to be face-to-face with conflict, crime, and suffering. But it takes another level of courage to endure as a woman in this field — which, for too long, has been notoriously male-dominated.

When Joan Bondoc started as a staff photographer at the Philippine Daily Globe in the 1990s, she had to insist on doing news assignments. A male colleague initially told her that her place was in lifestyle. “Hindi ganun kagaan pumwesto sa barkada ng mga lalaki,” Bondoc said in her Women in Photojournalism talk held last March 13 by the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines.

During drinking sessions with other photographers, Buxani shares how she would sometimes witness her male peers catcall waitresses, or talk inappropriately about other women photographers. “At ang mga babae ay na-shock na lang. Hindi maka-react. Hindi maka-respond . . . it takes time to process. Ano ba yun? Sexual harassment ba yun?” says Buxani. “You’re also afraid to lose a job — lalo na kapag boss mo yung nagsasabi sayo ng ganyan.” Both Buxani and Bondoc eventually learned how to say no to invitations to inumans with the boys.

“Maraming naging pagsubok bago ako irespeto — bago ako nagkaroon ng boses para sabihin na, ‘Tama na. Dito na ang hinihingil natin’,” shares Bondoc. For one whole year on the job, she would cry inside bathroom cubicles. She wanted to leave. But a colleague told her she couldn’t leave: it was only now that there was a woman who was brave enough to be with these men everyday. She held on to that. Today, she is still a photojournalist, shooting for the Philippine Daily Inquirer for nearly thirty years.

Globally, the experiences of Buxani and Bondoc are not unique. In 2015, the State of News Photography study conducted by World Press Photo, the University of Stirling and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed the glaring gender imbalance in the photojournalism industry. Compared to men, women photographers were not only less likely to be employed by large media companies, but also assigned less work. More women earned less than the men, despite a higher percentage of women being university educated and technologically versatile. In 2018, the same study found that 69% of its women participants faced discrimination in the workplace — citing stereotyping and sexism in the industry among their biggest obstacles.

Despite such a culture, young women photographers in the Philippines have not only persisted, but succeeded. In 2019, Reuters photojournalist Eloisa Lopez won the prestigious international Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism award, enamoring one particular juror for her “unique vision of compassion” for survivors of the drug war. Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales, who is regularly featured in international publications such as the National Geographic and the New York Times, won the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism in 2020.

Filipino women's rights advocates Sister Mary John Mananzan, Patricia Licuanan, Teresita Quintos Deles, Sylvia Claudio, and Karina Constantino-David photographed by Eloisa Lopez for CNN Philippines Life's Women's Month special in 2019.

Apart from indicating their hard work and talent, their success might reveal small signs of progress. When photographer Kimberly dela Cruz began as a correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013, there were already women like Bondoc in the workplace who had paved the way for her to be seen. “In my colleagues’ eyes, I didn’t have to prove myself that as a woman, I could be good. Because they already knew that,” shares dela Cruz.

However, though there are more women photographers today, she observed how several of her female peers would leave the field after three or four years. Morales witnessed a similar pattern among the women she had once looked up to: “A lot of women left . . . They would be there and then they would be gone, and you wouldn’t understand what happened,” recalls Morales. Both dela Cruz and Morales felt it was not in their place to ask why, respecting these women’s own private reasons.

But with every woman who leaves, what do we lose?

Because modern history has long been captured through the lens of men, particularly white men, Filipino women offer an invaluable, alternative gaze — piercing through lives and worlds with unique intimacy and power.

Dela Cruz’s haunting images of the Philippine drug war’s aftermath restore a sense of dignity and privacy in the children and widows left behind, who are so often reduced to numbers. A boy silently squatting before a candle at a crime scene at night. A woman, dazed, carrying her one-month old baby at her partner’s wake.

“I am always trying to step back and give the people that I photograph some space,” says dela Cruz. Before she shoots her subjects, she converses with them, telling them where the pictures might possibly be featured and making sure she gets their full consent. To her, it is ultimately their story. They should have the power to decide whether they want it published or not. “If they don’t want their face to be shown, then you have to work around it. You have to make it work in a way that everyone feels comfortable in a situation. That no one’s getting exploited for here. No one’s being forced to do this.”

Morales also longed to give a similar sense of respect to her subjects. When she started covering the news, it did not feel right to her that she was only with them for a few minutes or an hour. She wanted to forge deeper relationships with them, so she turned to her home. She began photographing her family’s cook and the woman who raised her, whom she calls Nanay.

Iding, a Filipina domestic worker, sits in the living room of Hannah Reyes-Morales' clan house in Manila. Photo by HANNAH REYES MORALES

Capturing someone so close to her changed her. “Working on that story, I learned a lot about what mattered to me, what kind of feeling mattered to me,” says Morales. “I wanted to make sure that the care that I gave in documenting Nanay’s story was almost the same kind of feeling when I was documenting other people’s stories.”

Related: The photographs we take, the homes that we carry

Her tender images of women who have lived through difficult situations reveal the kind of trust and comfort they have around Morales. Among her subjects have been women displaced by Typhoon Haiyan who ended up in the sex trade, as well as women who survived the mass rapes of World War II. With her, they show the intricacies of their day-to-day lives, the small moments in which they feel safe.

Jojo (center), Gemma (right), and Joanne (left) get ready for a night of work in the bars in Angeles City, notorious for its red light district. Photo by HANNAH REYES MORALES

In her series "Roots from Ashes," the lolas who survived the brutalities of the Japanese soldiers during World War II are laughing with each other, hugging in bed, walking through the sites in which they were hurt. It feels as if the person behind the lens knew them like her own grandmother. It makes this viewer care for them like they are her own grandmothers.

Photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani is familiar with the lives of many of her subjects because she was once in similar shoes. For almost ten years, she lived as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. She started taking street photography on her days off, as a form of release from the pressures of work. One particular series in black and white captures the isolation she felt in the city, alien and alone, walking through its glossy, intimidating streets. Over the years, she has expanded to capturing the lives of other migrant workers — from Filipino human trafficking survivors in New York, to women who escaped abusive employers in Singapore.

A view of Hong Kong’s skyline from the flat where Bacani’s mother Georgia works as a domestic worker. The photo is featured in the cover of her 2018 book, "We Are Like Air." Photo courtesy of XYZA CRUZ BACANI

The latter subject is particularly close to her, as her own mother suffered the same experience. From Singapore, her mother fled to Hong Kong and was eventually employed by a kind, generous woman, who later also became Bacani’s employer. In 2018, Bacani published her first book "We Are Like Air," documenting the lives of eight migrant workers. But central to the book is her mother’s story.

The process of photographing her mother was painful. “There were a lot of tears. There were a lot of wounds that were reopened,” says Bacani. “When I was putting together the book, we started talking about these wounds, these traumatic experiences, so it was difficult. To be vulnerable was difficult.”

Xyza Cruz Bacani’s mother, Georgia. From the inside pages of Bacani’s book, "We Are Like Air "(2018). Photo courtesy of XYZA CRUZ BACANI

But ultimately, Bacani says the project made her a better human being. “It’s scary at first, but showing vulnerability means being courageous in dealing with issues that we need to deal with. Conversations that we need to talk about. Wounds that we need to heal.”

Our country has neglected years, decades, and centuries worth of wounds. Through their courage, these women photographing our history today show us a different way to heal. Women who gaze at our collective traumas not from a distance, but from the inside. They enter into the individual lives of those affected with delicacy and empathy. They share their pain and their strength. In every image shot, an invisible boundary between them and their subjects collapses. In every image shot, they are permanently marked, changed. Perhaps we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to let their images transform us too.