Behind the Photograph

Manila, Philippines.

There are a lot of hidden stories in the still image. Rarely do they house one narrative. This is a chance for me to tell you about those stories. 

When I was in my early 20s I took a journey to Manila, Philippines to shoot a couple of photo stories. At the time the best dSLR I could afford was a Canon 20d and even then I could only afford to buy one body. Knowing I would need 2 camera bodies (1 for backup) I decided to shoot 35mm film while there. It made things a little more complicated but in hindsight it was a good decision. I did have to fight with TSA on multiple occasions in order to to make sure they didn't scan my film. But having a 2nd body proved necessary as my main camera broke while shooting. The broken one had autofocus so I had to resort to shooting manual focus the remainder of the trip, something I hadn't done in years. Needless to say, to be safe I took multiple pictures of each scene when possible.

I want to show the reality of their situation. It's obviously not pretty. But at the same time I want to give them dignity by showing their strengths, ingenuity and kindness. 

One of the stories I covered was about the residents of Smokey Mountain. Smokey Mountain is home to thousands of people. It's also a garbage dump. The families here live off refuse. They eat from it, recycle it and turn it into charcoal for the city. Shooting stories like this are difficult because they take a lot of mental and emotional effort on my part. I want to show the reality of their situation. It's obviously not pretty. But at the same time I want to give them dignity by showing their strengths, ingenuity and kindness. 

I don't remember how I stumbled upon this scene. I think a resident may have flagged me down to check it out. As I swept back the curtain to enter their makeshift tent my eyes were filled with darkness as I waited for them to adjust to their new surroundings. At first it looked like a simple game of BINGO. Four women were silent as the sounds of chatter and children danced outside, concentrating on a game they were obviously taking very seriously. As I surveyed the scene I spotted the casket. I'm not used to seeing death displayed so prominently so it was a bit shocking. The last time I saw an open casket was at my grandmothers wake and I barely remember it.

Later I asked someone about this. I couldn't figure out what was going on in that small room for the life of me. They explained most people in Smokey Mountain couldn't afford to bury their loved ones. The family would invite everyone to come and spend money on games, karaoke, drinking, and other activities as a way to raise money for the burial. 

Four women were silent as the sounds of chatter and children danced outside, concentrating on a game they were obviously taking very seriously.

There are several small details in this photo that draw me to it. The cross over the casket that has been cropped to look like it's upside down. It's as if God is sad with the situation and the state of humanity. You have a young boy (peering over the shoulder of someone on the very left of the frame), the two young women, the oldest women nearest the casket, and the deceased in the casket. They show the passage of time. Does this scene show what's in store for the young boys future? The ornate and beautiful candle stick holders flanking the casket that were most likely found in the dump. Just as I dress in my nicest suit to honor the dead when I go to a funeral they do the same here by the presence of these candlestick holders. Notice how the table full of BINGO pages parallels the casket? Is this all just a game? Or do we enjoy our time here because we know there's more than death? And I love the movement in their arms. I can hear the BINGO pieces being laid down.