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:))))


2 Responses to “Spotlight 2 : Veejay Villafranca, Ian Parry Awardee 2008”

  1. lesdodis!

  2. What Pao? the Angkor Boys and Girls reunion? yep….Ingat dyan sa biyahe mo:)

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