The Tagbanua in Culion, Palawan

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2010 by ayshey

I was hanging out at Mog Wai in Cubao X one night with friends in November 2009 when I met someone who suggested I do a story on the Tagbanua in Palawan . He found out I was going to Palawan for Christmas break. So I said yes.

I decided to go to Coron first and then from there would meet up Raf,  friend who was based in El Nido and then we would go to Puerto Princesa, our last stop before heading home to Manila. I had 3 other friends with me on that trip. We had booked our tickets on the Superferry 3 months before the vacation. There were no promo plane tickets left so it was either get on a boat or no Palawan! So on Dec 25 at 5pm, we left the Manila pier along Roxas Boulevard and got on our Superferry for Coron. It took us 13 hours. We slept well on the boat. Coron looked promising when we got there at 6am the next day. The Palawan adventure had began.

I first met the Tagbanua schoolkids on Dec 27, on our third day in Coron.  We had to go and see them on their island because they had no way of coming to see us from where we were on Tending island. The Tagbanua kids photographed here were all students of Mina, a teacher hired by an NGO in Culion to do a LITNUM (Literacy-Numerals) program for 3 months. This short encounter with the Tagbanua made me ask questions of myself. First, did I want to tell their story? How do I begin? What story must be told? Do they want their story told? Who will be interested in their story? I knew that I needed more than just a day’s encounter for me to know what it was that they were really thinking. They would not  answer directly when asked.  I asked a friend who was with me in Palawan and she helped me think about the issue more deeply. It is not a new issue for me. Since I started traveling around the country in my early 20s, I had encountered the same issues of Indigenous Peoples (IPs). One stark memory I have is that of the MANGYAN people in Mindoro. They have always been discriminated against by the lowlanders whenever they see them in the center of town. They wore g-strings, were usually thin and unkempt. But you would never laugh at them once you see how fast and nimble they are inside the rainforest! They are also soft-spoken and have an ironic sense of humor. I have many stories of the MANGYAN which I hope to talk about in another page later.  But the issues that the Mangyans faced then , the Tagbanuas face also today. Issues of discrimination by  mainstream Filipinos, their lack of skills of negotiating when it comes to selling their skills or whatever crafts they have–they are almost always cheated, these are all current problems together with their health and their very existence on the islands of Palawan. They are  quietly looking at extinction, I think.



Dark Clouds over Mindanao: Stop Killing Journalists!

In Culture, Landscapes on November 26, 2009 by ayshey

Mindanao has always been a fascinating travel for me. I have climbed its highest mountains and played in its white beaches. I have also been to some dangerous places (Pikit refugee area)  to co-teach photography to young Muslim teenagers. Davao is a favorite city. Then, last February 2009, I went to Cotabato City with a filmmaker friend to document an urban community that was doing something good for the improvement of their lives. I was happy to see a community that was formerly from a  slum area try their best to get themselves out and set new homes in a better locale outside teh city. When we finished shooting one day and we strolled back to the only decent hotel in the city, we noticed the expensive-looking vehicles parked outside the hotel compound. We saw  the women dressed in their best. It puzzled us that luxurious looking vehicles would be found in a city that was poverty-stricken. It was such a deep contrast to the general landscape. I relayed this observation to a friend who had grown up in Mindanao. She said it could only be two things–drug money or political power. That’s it. You either controlled the movement of illegal drugs or was a member of a strong politically influential clan or both.  The Ampatuans have sat in power for long. What happend on Monday when 100 gunmen killed 57 (as of last count) people –where 2 lawyers and 21 members of the media were also brutally straffed and dumped into ready-made graves seems to point out how  politically-embedded , wealthy, powerful Muslim families and clans like the Ampatuans can easily forget and get so drunk on their seeming “immunity” from the law. They are  the prime suspects in a crime that can only be described as heinous, an atrocity, an inhumanity that is also unparraled in journalists’ history, according to the Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.

Talking to a friend from an international NGO, she wondered  why  journalists were killed  in this  country when in the West, they would be there to “protect” the people who are being harrassed. They would be feared because they would tell the truth. Ideally, that’s what journalists are taught to do–to uphold the truth. Here, journalists who try to tell the truth are silened forever.

Friends are saying this could be white-washed by Gloria Arroyo’s government. But people are so damn disgusted now. They better not do that. Our Facebook pages, emails, text messages are littered with the outrage of the nation. I dont want to think this will be so easy to forget–as we usually do. On the net, I find that the Philippines just supplanted Iraq as the most dangerous place in the world. How can that be? Its a maddening, saddening event in the country’s history.

But we will not forget. We should not forget.


Covering Cory’s Funeral and Wake

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2009 by ayshey

I started stringing for X news recently under Luis L., a great photog. He will most probably be the next photographer I will talk to on Spotlight, the section here where I ask informal questions from photogs and some people in the industry. So anyway, as a stringer for this Chinese news agency, I had fun and got my muscles flexed again. My instincts are getting there. I made many mistakes but Bogs, another friend who is also contributing to X, said its just birthpangs . Onga. Haha. So anyway, the fun-nest day was the Cory funeral. My buddy was N. She shoots for Bloomberg. Yes, she is a veteran when it comes to these things. But it was a real day of laughs ( police shouting at us, etc.)  and full of adrenalin ( trying to get on a media truck,etc ). We started at 630am and ended our day at around 4pm. We started filing our pix by that time. Then it rained hard again. The streets were empty as we sped through Taft and Quezon Blvd. Ahh, the nation did mourn the passing of Cory.

_-25 copyHere are some pix._-86 copy_-291 copyCoffin o1Cory Aquino Funeral


The Calayan islands: Chasing a Humpy Tale

In Adventure, Culture, Environment, Hiking /Trekking, Landscapes, People, Photography, Portraits, Travel on August 8, 2009 by ayshey

Bigger Fish

I got back fifteen days ago from a wonderful but exhausting trip to Aparri up north in the province of Cagayan Valley. We also ventured into the un-touristy areas of Camiguin and Calayan Islands–both part of the Babuyan Islands. In fact, the Philippine maps are wrong when they refer to these islands as the Babuyan islands when in fact, they are the Calayan Islands. I should look into this again soon just so I can be more firm about my facts.

We left the bedlam of a Florida bus station in Espana at 10:30 in the evening. We were waiting for H  who was late–should I say, again? But she arrived in time and we then settled back into our nice Super deluxe seats. J had the misfortune of being seated next to a hyperactive little boy who wanted to befriend everyone that night. The Holy Week season always sends stressed-out people from Manila into the places we call “provinces”. And so  the bus rolled out of Manila and into the highway to the North.

It was the usual gang of R,C, J,H and myself. R had this brilliant idea of looking into these islands that no one seems to know much about. She asked someone from her Makati office if anyone knew of the area where the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) volunteers had sighted the humpback whales, where they do research. Looking back now, I think R wasn’t really into the humpbacks really–and there was no promise that we would see any since it was already April and they usually come around the Philippine waters in February and March. The idea was just to check out the islands because we have never been there before  and it was a “let’s just see what the place has to offer”. I think that was the attitude. That was good enough for all of us.

Canon G10 performs

I had a Japanese dinner with N and T –it was almost their birthdays, these photographer friends of mine. And then Wena arrived with her brand new Canon G10 and there was a short lecture on how she can maximize her camera while on her Tibetan trip–yeah, this was  another adventurous Pinay friend who will be traveling on her own to China. It’s a trip i would also like to do. But that’s for another time.

We arrived in Aparri at noon the next day. We went straight to St Patrick’s Hotel. We got this idea of staying at this hotel in Aparri from a guy we met on the  bus. He seemed to be the team leader of a group of backpackers. St. Patrick’s was reasonably priced and it was AC! Aparri was terribly hot and any cool air was welcome. That evening, we bought our supplies for the next few days. We also bought lunch and bottles of water for our boat trip to Camiguin, our first island for the trip. We enjoyed  the sweet custard cakes at Criselda’s. Later,we  decided to buy big plastic bags at the market  to protect  our food supplies and our backpacks when we cross the big blue sea the next day. R had to work so she went to a nearby cyber cafe. The rest of us went back to the hotel to repack our stuff and to take our much needed showers. Wake up call the next day was at 4am but we put our alarms at 3:30am. Geeze.


Next morning, while our bodies wanted us to continue lying in, it was Day 1 of our journey to a place /places we had never been before. We gathered our packs and struggled down to the main lobby with our  plastic bags of  food ( vegetables,red and white eggs,canned goods of corned beef,sardines,a bottle of gin,etc. ). We were ferried to the pier by a white pick-up which was probably owned by one of the guests, we really didn’t ask anymore. It was 4am! The pier was dark and there were voices speaking in Tagalog. I could hear the locals saying in Ilocano that the small banca will be bringing the visitors to the bigger boat first. The rest of them will just have to wait. Hmmm. That was so Pinoy –to think of the “bisita” first before the locals. But it was the rule of the morning it seemed. We got on the small banca with our stuff. It was still dark but light was coming up soon in the distance. Then we were on the boat called The Saint Vincent. We sailed for Balatubat, Camiguin island at around 7:30am after a Coast Guard inspection. The other locals had to go down because we were too crowded. J sighed in relief. Maybe I should have too but I was too busy thinking of things to shoot, what the stories will be about.

Balatubat, Camiguin. It is the center of Camiguin island. It is also where we would be based for the rest of the days but we didn’t know that yet. We went straight to the house of Manang Awit whose husband was waiting for us. Manang Awit’s son Jun Jun helped us with our stuff as we got down the smaller boat to land on Camiguin. Manang Awit’s house was the usual base for WWF volunteers, we learned later. It had a kitchen,a bathroom, rooms and beds and plenty of water. It was also near the beach where we spent much time playing around with our cameras. It had  great sunsets too.

Camiguin is just like any island town in the Philippine archipelago. There were rice paddies, mountain vistas,a water falls (Tappao Falls), and a fiesta.We arrived on the day of their fiesta. We did not go out to check  the action later that night. We were tired and had agreed to go to Calayan island the next day after R talked to the boat captain…After lunch, we ventured out to the   settled down and made our beds on designated areas of the house we were in. Our food that night was vegetables and adobo

After lunch, we ventured out to the   settled down and made our beds on designated areas of the house we were in. Our food that night was vegetables and adobo

That same afternoon we arrived, we went to eat halo-halo at the nearby center of town. The fiesta mood was just beginning and the ice drop, the junk food, and other food was being sold.

I will just post pix  here so the story will be more complete. Enjoy!

Wreck 1

Wreck 2

I spent much time shooting these metal parts from some ship or other. I enjoyed the quiet time i spent on the beach. Great travel. Thank you, Ranhel for fixing this trip. Much appreciated.


Spotlight 2 : Veejay Villafranca, Ian Parry Awardee 2008

In Culture, Photography, Travel on August 28, 2008 by ayshey Tagged: ,

Kat: Hi Veejay, we’re at a section called SPOTLIGHT which is a short and informal Q&A with Pinoy Photogs. So, welcome to SPOTLIGHT! Congrats, VJ–for winning two things–the Ian Parry Scholarship Award and for qualifying for the Joop Swart Masterclass! I know it is a NEW level for you and I am so excited for you …Ano yung unang inisip mo nung malaman mong panalo ka?

VJ: Well it didn’t sink in right there and then… I was in my usual hangout (Oarhouse) celebrating the birthday of a friend when suddenly my phone rings at around 1am. The first thing that the guy on the other end of the line told me was  “Welcome to the Ian Parry family” then they passed the phone to all the jury including legendary war photographer Tom Stoddard, Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen, 2 brothers of Ian Parry and other prominent members of the jury. Then I got down after I went to the small room at the back of the kitchen to hear clearer. I was stunned and then my friends asked who called and why I looked shocked. I told them briefly then I shouted and bought whoever was inside Oarhouse a round of drinks (good thing there were only a few!).

Kat: Hay buti na lang! hahaha. So, where will you use your Ian Parry grant winnings? I know you said in a previous email that you will use it in Myanmar but is there a particular project that you want to do? Can you talk about it, share it here?

VJ: I will do a documentary on the border countries surrounding Myanmar. India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand because as I said in my proposal, I believe that the people who are yearning for a better life push themselves to the border hoping that they will manage to find a way to cross to the other side.

Kat: What was your story in Myanmar? What was it like? How was it like being a Pinoy photog in Myanmar?

VJ: The original plan was instead of waiting in Bangkok for a visa we might as well peek into the Burmese culture and head for the Thai-Burma border. I stayed in Mae-sot alone for a week finding my way around and crossing to the Burma side twice for day trips since they don’t allow tourists to stay there overnight. And then my editor in Philippine Graphic came (this was a special project by my editor for Philippine Graphic by the way) and I showed her around and interviewed refugees in the camps.

Then we tried our luck in Bangkok and attempted to apply for a visa. But what do you know, the Myanmar embassy was burning down, well actually just a part of it which was the old building behind the visa section. So my editor decided to head back to Manila but told me to stay put and try again in a couple of days. As luck would have it, I was granted a visa and first thing the next day, I took the first flight heading to Yangon (Rangoon).

I had mixed emotions going to Myanmar. First, I was excited because I will have a first hand  view of what most people had only a glimpse of,and second, I was a little apprehensive because I know for a fact that this will be my most challenging assignment to date. So I landed in Yangon only to be greeted with a hard downpour.

My three-week stay inside Myanmar is considerably my most challenging assignment to date. There were a couple of factors that was making my shoot hard, initially it was the general rule of the junta that ‘foreigners’ aren’t allowed in the delta area. This was a big hindrance since the story is there. There was little news coming out because all journalists were being deported if not followed by intelligence. The next factor were checkpoints, there were at least 7 military checkpoints in the span of a 4-hour ride and this was putting unwanted pressure on my back since every time my vehicle will be stopped I thought it was the end but luckily I got through this. And lastly the constant threat of being detained, marked as a journalist and getting deported and blacklisted will be like putting icing on the cake.

Every time I went to the delta I was always with my guide and of course each time there was a threat to me, it doubles for him since he’s local. That’s why it was such an ordeal to execute just a day of shooting in the delta but again I was just lucky to get through that.

The intensity of grief and emotion of the people living in the delta region made it another setback in shooting. Most of the time I talk and interview subjects first and then ask permission to shoot. Maybe, its because of their isolation in the main towns that makes them very protective and aware of other people entering their world.

Kat: Wow. Hirap pala, VJ…after that story, pasensya na sa sunod naman na tanong ko  – anong mga pagkain  sa Myanmar na ma-recommend mo?

VJ: At first I tasted the national dish that is “Mohinga”. Rice noodles with pork vegetables and the dreaded fish paste. Of course what is the point of getting to know one’s culture if you wouldn’t try their food right? So I did and that was the time my stomach turned to mayhem. The sanitation process of their ingredients probably adds that “distinct flavor”. But don’t get me wrong, you can get mohinga in other ‘clean’ establishments. My favourite is the Shan noodles! Fresh rice noodles with pork/beef/chicken sesame seeds vegetables and other ingredients that make it so yum!

But when I want some comfort food and some beer I go to 50th street bar and resto which is quite near my guesthouse. They have American comfort food such as burgers, to-die-for pizzas and some local delicacies as well. And as Lonely Planet says, it is like you have been transported back to your favorite watering hole in your hometown.

Kat: I saw some of your works on the Chinese Mafia in Tondo–I didn’t know that they were Chinese–akala ko Pinoy yung mga yun? How did you know of their existence? What was your strategy to be able to document their world?

VJ: I met a group of rugby boys when some friends and I were street shooting inside Baseco compound. Then when I was chatting with them I asked if they had a group and they told me that they were the Chinese Mafia Crew which had its heyday as the most dangerous gang in the place before the compound caught fire a couple of years back. Then after several visits I found out that the kids were just kidding, maybe its from the glue, then they introduced me to one of the last remaining senior members of the group, Kryt.

He was the one who introduced me to the rest of the members of the group that included the number one holdapper in Divisoria market, an ex convict, drug peddler and so on.

I wasn’t worried at first that they might reverse roles and turn on me, I thought that if  I make have enough connection with these guys,I can do a documentary on them.

So after several visits again they got used to my facewhile I was on their turf and a couple of drinking sessions later one by one they were spilling their guts out on how they lived before and how they wanted to remove the stigma that the public has marked on them. So I developed the story during my course in Ateneo then edited a sort of a final essay for my final portfolio that I which I then submitted to Ian Parry.

There was no fixed strategy on shooting my story. And neither one of them were Chinese gang members, Italian mafia nor American crew. They are lost men who are trying to find their way back to the main road. There were times when I was visiting them just to have a chat and drink a couple of rounds of cerveza. So it was just like most personal stories where you are trying to put your feet into their shoes. I was very curious about their world so I devoted time, money and effort for this on-going project.

Kat: Hmm….pati yang kwento na yan, exciting!:)

So, you will be joining 12 other young photographers in the Netherlands for the WPP Masterclass. For photographers worldwide, it is such a big deal to be part of that elite group. How do you feel about that?

VJ: Kat, I am just as good as nominated for the WPP-Masterclass program but not yet included in the 12, so I will do what I do best and shoot the stories that I have in mind and develop it. My preparation for next year’s Joop Swart program will be included in my daily groove but not to shoot and live just to be able to fit in.

Kat: Sounds good, VJ…

Ok,let’s dream a little more here. Inside a big camera shop in Singapore or Hong Kong–o sige na nga sa NYC din–the owners tell you that you can grab a complete photo gear in just 1 hour which will be yours for free–what will you bring home?

VJ:  Leica M4-P, Leica M8, 24mm Sumillux f2.8, 35mm Summilux f1.4, 50mm Noctillux f1.0. A thousand rolls of film, chemicals and a sleeping bag so I can sleep comfortably wherever I am doing my project. =) And the new D700 of Nikon and a couple of lenses wouldn’t hurt.

Kat: Yahoo!!!Kelan ka magpapainom sa nga Angkor boys and girls? Hahaha….

VJ: Hindi lang ako magpapainom!!! Si Wawi ACC scholar!!!!! Wuhooooo!!! Lesdodis!

Kat: Ok! Salamat, VJ! Again, you deserve it, wooohoooooooooooooooooooo!

PS…Last I heard, Veejay will be at the Perpignan Photojournalism Festival in France (the biggest in the world that happens each year! ) this September. Hmm…that’s a good one to score, VJ! Again, my best:))) Mwah:))))


JK Rowling Speech at Harvard June 5/08

In Inspirational on June 18, 2008 by ayshey Tagged:

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

June 5, 2008

J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, delivers her Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination, ” at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.

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Text as prepared follows.

Copyright of JK Rowling, June 2008

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain , without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’ s headquarters in London .

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.


Spotlight : Photographer Nico Sepe in Sri Lanka

In Culture, Photography, Pinoy Photographers on June 18, 2008 by ayshey Tagged: , ,

Nico Sepe is a Pinoy photographer currently based in Sri Lanka with his wife Maeve and kids Lucas and Olivia. Please check the nico sepe galleries at /

When I first started taking pictures with a Nikon film camera, Nico was one of my first critics. He did not believe in sugarcoating his words when he looked at my first attempts at picture-making. But one learns and becomes challenged to do better. I emailed Nico to ask him how he was doing and this is also a way to thank him for being there when I was first starting out with a camera.

Tate Gallery,London

Robert Frank Show, Tate Gallery, London. Photo by Nico Sepe

Kat: What do you think of Robert Frank’s : “It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.” Do you agree?

Nico: I do. It’s an instant reaction to what you saw and how it affected you and at the same time you’ll also think how you’re going to compose and present it. Everything should come together at that fraction of a second and space in time. Instantaneous behaviour talaga ang photography, even if you’re trying to conceptualize a documentary or a photoessay. Still, you can’t predict your pictures, unless mag-drawing ka. That’s why if you haven’t been shooting for a long time you tend to get cranky or “kinakalawang”. And sometimes you even find it hard even just to take a picture. You’ll just realize that it should have been a good picture, but its gone because you didn’t react instantaneously. Even with the whole fiddling of the camera, if you haven’t been using it for a long time you become a stranger to it so what happens is if you see a picture opportunity you can’t react instantly. That’s why photographers like Josef Koudelka or Garry Winogrand –they always shoot, whatever, whenever but its not just clicking. Your picture should always carry your philosophy behind it, whatever it is so it’s not just a slice of an image.

Kat: They say you are a good cook. What food do you like cooking? In short, ano niluluto mo dyan sa Sri Lanka?

Nico: I’m based in Sri Lanka at the moment, so Sri Lankan ang tune ng cooking ko ngayon. Depende siguro sa available ingredients ang pagluluto especially here, sometimes you’re thinking of cooking something but the ingredients are not available so i try to work on whats available same as in the UK, anyway any-tarian naman kami e’.

Kat: : Any-tarian? Oh, like vegetarian kung veg …hahahaha…

Nico: YUP!

Kat: In your recent exhibit in Plymouth, UK you said the light is different from what you are used to in the Philippines. Kung iba ang ilaw sa England, iba rin ba ang pagkuha ng litrato ?
Nico: Not the style kasi embedded na yun, yun lang pagbasa ng ilaw instead of f16 at 250 usually its f8 at 60 or lower. Maiiba ang composition but the act of shooting, the behaviour is the same.
But one thing that’s different in the UK is, you can’t just take a picture of somebody. Baka mademanda ka. So I guess that’s the only adjustment as far as my shooting is concerned, pero wala pa ring bawal-bawal…
Kat: Digital ka na ba or Leica film ka pa rin?

Nico: Leica pa rin kasi I want to see the actual material (negative) as much as possible not like when your pictures are in the cd and you need a computer to open it, but i’m also using the digital Leica because it has a different application. I’m going to use film until they stop producing it.

Kat: Yes. That sounds a lot like you Nico…Hahaha. So what Leica digital camera are you using?

Nico: I’m using the Digilux 2, dapat ngang mag-upgrade because its only 5+ MP but everything’s expensive. I still like the feel of it, it’s so close to a manual film rangefinder, the handling. I’ll work my way to M8 soon para hindi naman masayang yung lenses ko if ever ma phase- out ang films, wag naman sana!

Kat: May report si Micheal Kamber ng New York Times on the M8. Eto yung link:,_Iraq/Page_1.html

Kat: Sri Lanka seems to be an exciting place for a documentary photographer like you. Ano yung mga projects na nakikita mo dyan na gusto mong gawin? O meron ka na bang ginagawa dyan na pwede mong ikwento dito? What’s the light like over there?

Nico: It is very exciting indeed, but with all the excitement you need time to dwell on it. E , as you know my profession is still a photographer but my career is a full-time Dad, so that’s what’s taking my time 24-7. But I’m still shooting dahil mahirap na ngang kalawangin, so far I’m just doing a general Sri Lanka thing, mga bago sa mata. Although its been done several times I’d still like to do the conflict and the Tamil tigers but so far its been very hard to get access and also if I pursue on this it might jeopardize our stay here that’s why I’m thinking of a different route. The light here is the same as in the Philippines, pareho reading sa metro.

Kat: What’s it like to be a Pinoy photographer in Sri Lanka? Have you gone out to meet the local photogs? How do the folks on the street look at you ? Kwento ka nga ng isang incident sa paggala mo dyan?

Nico: Ok,dito walang hazzle sa daan, malumanay ang mga tao ( maybe because of their religion ) but in some places like touristy spots meron ding mga amuyong!They always suspect me as Japanese (hanggang ngayon ).Yup I’ve had some encounters with local photogs but they are not welcoming and warm as Pinoys, tayo lang talaga ganun.Medyo threatened agad sila sa presence mo, they’ll ask right away, what are you doing here? how long? whose your contact. Because within themselves they also have groupings, me mga “showbiz” din. I’ve tried showing my works with a travel magazine, they love it and promised me an assignment but mukhang na-sistema because they didn’t call back anymore, oh well…

Kat: Ano naman ang paborito mong photo book in the last 5 years? Kung wala, sino ang paborito mong photographer in the last 5 years bukod sa sarili mo ha…:)

Nico:: Maraming magaling ngayon, pero I can say medyo madali na rin kasi pagkuha ngayon. Isipin mo yung dating pagkahirap-hirap makunan na available light (especially night photography) e’ sisiw sa digital, all you need is more imagination. I still respect the works of traditional photographers, you know who they are…
Kat: So it’s still Bresson, Salgado, Koudelka, etc. Salamat sa pagsagot sa mga tanong, Nico.
Nico: Good luck to your blog and thanks for inviting me, sino pa andun?
Kat: Ikaw ang una sa Pinoy Photographers section!

Nico: Basta life goes on for me and still shooting !