IF I HAD NOTHING
My journey started March 2019. God damn I wish it was 2019 right now, or at least 2021 so I can forget this current cluster fuck of a year and I can go again on this journey I am about to explain.
March 2019, I had some downtime between some commercial shoots, I sat down in front of a computer and did a bit of googling. I wanted to do a charity expedition somewhere far and wide away from London. I wanted to something worthwhile, for people that had nothing and needed support and assistance. The only requirement for me, I wanted to utilise my photography and filming skills and offer this service as well.
Having done a ton of research I found the company Kaya who place westerners in vulnerable places who require people like me. I settled on the Philippines. I had never been before. Furthest east I had been was Thailand. Bit cliche.
Philippines is a little further east, not much further but their culture and land is completely different. (if you discount Manilla that is)
I confirmed my place with the local charity on the ground, Volunteer For The Visayans, paid the holding deposit and then got back to reality and back to shooting commercials. My trip, for 4 weeks was due to take place 4th November 2019.
In the mean time, I did the usual tourist research, and then immersed myself more into local research and what to expect. I was staying with a local family who are paid to host me by the charity. Staying in a house with the family is the best way to fully immerse yourself. So far from western amenities, this is what I was fearing the most, but I am a big man and have no place on this earth to complain. I did have to shower out of a bucket of cold water everyday, which I wasn’t looking forward to, but when you have to sleep in 35 degree dense heat, it became very welcoming, once you get over that initial squeal my mouth made after the first pour that is.
I am going to do another write up on my entire experience in the Philippines for another day but I wanted to write about one particular experience and shoot I was commissioned to do by the charity.
I was based in the city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte in the Eastern Visayas. The city is famous for two main things, it was the site of US General Douglas MacArthurs Gulf landing, who famously took safe control of the Philippines from Japan during World War II. Secondly and most recently the entire city was devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It killed 20% of the cities population. Even today, 7 years later the city picks up the pieces.
My first commission with the charity was to photograph a school they support in a remote rural part of Leyte. They knew my style of work, how I capture portraits and create quite an iconic filmic tone, and this is exactly what they wanted here. I rocked up to their head office with a large medium format camera, a huge octa bank and a huge flash light and diffusion. Their jaws dropped. I will never forget it. Firstly they had never seen a camera like this, and thought it was a teeny weeny bit of an over kill. I said “Don’t worry, I got this” they said “the last photographer could put his camera in his shorts pocket” HA HA. I am quite nimble with my gear and shoot on the road a lot so it didn’t bother me lugging it around. They said “just wait until you get on the bike to get to where you are going” Ah bugger.
The rural elementary school is 100% supported by the charity through teachers, books, materials and children’s welfare. Without the charity, they wouldn’t exist. The charity needed my images to be able to advertise and market to bring in donations. (no pressure then, meh)
The school was 90mins drive away in a rural village, 2km west of Tanauan. To get there, I had to make my own way. I am useless with directions. Proper bad, until I have done it a few times. I had to get on a Jeepney for the first 45 mins. A Jeepney is a battered and bruised bus that can legally carry 20 people, but always squeezes in 70. They aren’t designed for a 6ft 3 broadly built man. Back and neck had to be arched the entire journey. It was fun, I ain’t going to lie. I get off the bus and onto a motorbike. This is where I should have had a camera that fits in my pocket. It was me, the owner of the bike and another random person. Now these bikes aren’t no tourers, they are 75cc Hondas that you usually see Deliveroo bombing it through Soho.
I strapped my gear to all my free limbs and hugged the driver like he was my Mum. 45 mins later, and with somewhat battered bollocks from the potholes, I reached my destination.
The school, it was a slice of heaven for the children in the middle of their mud and tin shacks where they live. As I got off the bike, 100’s of kids ran towards me. Shouting and screaming. I felt like a celebrity, I sort of liked it. The kids had been prepped about my arrival and why I was there. They couldn’t wait to have their portrait taken. A lot of them had put on their Sunday church clothes which are super important to them.
It is rare they get their photo taken, even more rare they get to see it, and even more rare it will be taken in a makeshift studio. Looking around the school, it was incredibly basic. Bare concrete walls, mish mash of chairs and wonky tables and the basics to run a school. Never though, have I seen children so happy, so blessed and at peace with what they had. It put our Western similarities to shame.
I looked around the school to find the perfect back drop. To be honest each side of the compass was stunning. I did find a little cave like area next to the school which was framed so beautifully with tropical plants and trees that naturally grow here. It protected the children from the beating sun and gave a nice shelter for me to guide the children through their shoot. One by one the children lined up. The children that could speak English (because my Tagalog ain’t too pukka) stood at the front to go first. They did this so the children who couldn’t speak English could watch and learn before it was their turn. Great leadership skills there.
The ages of the children ranged from 4 to 13 year olds. In this particular school they mixed the school ages so they can learn from each other and the older children can help out. It was such a warming human thing to do. I did come across a 8 year old in the school who brought her 2 year old brother to school with them so her parents could go to work. Blown away.
As I photographed the first few children the line of kids behind me began to sing and laugh with each other. After realising how easy and fun the process will be they all relaxed into themselves and were raring to go. I kept my lighting set up as simple as possible with the children to not to overwhelm them. I placed a largish size octa to the left of them, brought it quite close and placed on low power so the flash didn’t shock them. To the right I had a small kicker flash to fill in any shadows and then a slight bleed of sun light coming in through the trees.
Each child would step up to the same point and smiled from ear to ear. My brief was to make them not smile. To treat them like a model and make their expression more fashion. The kids loved the guidance and took the abnormal with grace. Once I reeled off 10 shots or so I would walk up to them and show the captures. They were blown away by seeing an image of themselves instantly. Fingers and thumbs all over my camera trying to get a glimpse of more. It melted my heart how simple pleasures would overwhelm them. It just encouraged me to shoot and share more.
In total at this particular school I photographed 35 children. Each with their own unique and wonderful stories. There were challenges shooting at the school, the temperature for one. It was 39 degrees tropical dense heat, with no breeze. I worked around it and just lost 10lbs in sweat. You had to be extra sensitive with the children. They all had varying troubling encounters in life and managing this was pre planned and thought through.
If I can say one thing about the children. They are loved so much, by their family, by the charity and by the people around them. In return they give that love back to every person they meet. They are focused on making people happy. It shows you don’t need much in life to survive and be happy and it really shows how much we have, how much we rely on commodities, objects and money to get by. Take all this away and we would fall apart. If you never had it to begin with then you will always be happy and loved.
The images throughout this story are a small selection of the children. Throughout my commission in the Philippines, I had 6 separate shoots, each covering the sectors the charity supports. I know one day I will return to help out again. The people are what makes it, they filled my heart with love and gratitude.
I would love for you to see the rest of the work. You can see it at www.goodboywolf.com and I am offering print sales from the body of work, with all the money going to the charity, with each print sold, I am matching that value in a donation as well.