#100Days writing about photos | interested in documentation practices, digital archiving workflows, and archival research

Day 16: Welcome to our home

The house that I grew up in is pretty big. It is bigger than most houses I have been welcomed into. I imagine it must be the size of the apartment complex where I live now if the units were combined. This house was previously an apartment complex after all, owned by my grandparents, my parents then occupants of only one of the units, until they acquired the entire lot. Renovations had made these previous divisions invisible. Its design an expression of my parents' class aspirations. There are several areas and everyone has their own room. It was spacious for six people then and it is a very big house for just two people now. 

I took a lot of pictures while I was there from December 2020 to January 2021. I had not been home for that long since 2014 probably. And it was my first time to be there as an adult, to be aware and engaged in everything that was happening in the house. 

Guess I took these pictures to document that. It felt like having new eyes. But I also took these pictures because I knew they had an audience - members of our family who didn't see what things looked like from here. We have family calls a few times every week, but it is still not the same as living in the same house. 

It is almost time to go back. My guess is a lot of the experience will be the same. Will take pictures anyway, the camera I take with me will be different, more discreet. I hope I can take more photos of places outside the house, maybe walk outside a bit more. Sometimes staying in is the result of having any other ideas. 

Day 15: I don't really have a sense of what people like anymore

A selection exercise in manufacturing visual connection, in weaving a believable narrative from disparate parts. To a viewer, nothing is out of the normal, it is a plain series of photos. To the author, there is tension in knowing this is not where the photographs belong. They wouldn't have found their way into this order without the author's deliberate hand. 

To a documentary filmmaker, this crosses into the territory of non-traditional. Having workflows that organize footage into dates, locations, persons, and issues. 

The selection was visceral as well as maybe a play on color (particularly green and pink). The scenes are "unattended" - no person looking to the camera, objects appear as they are. 

The central object is the growing plant. Growing unstructured. Filling unruly portions of the image. Taking space in an unexpected manner. Underwater, on a vacant lot, on some seedling bags, along the street. It is growth on various stages. It is a display of various species and each growing differently. 

There could be more of these. 

Day 14: My father is all over the place

Positions of my father's red cigarettes and purple lighter lying around the house and in various combinations. 

Day 13: Many of us

A short exercise on selection. Outtakes of meetings and day-to-day tasks at a labor center. 

Day 12: Ethics

The house, children, and pets of Catherine Apas in Laguna, Philippines, who I might never see again. Members of Altermidya interviewed Catherine for a segment on government aid as part of Alab newcast's Labor Day special. 

The other day, my partner attended a free webinar on photojournalism ethics. I think I was cooking or washing the dishes at the time, but nonetheless I feel like I inherited part of the experience because of my partner's responses to the speaker's unpreparedness to discuss the topic with any depth. The speaker was an accomplished photographer who had a career in photojournalism going for him. I told my partner I had heard that this photographer was once asked to contribute photos of a victim of Duterte's drug war, but he couldn't remember documenting the incident. We joked that maybe he remembers his photos better based on where they get published. 

On the topic of ethics, I often wonder about the guilt, or whether it registers to others as guilt at all, when photographers take someone's picture and never see them again. We invite ourselves to people's homes, see where they eat and sleep, we may feel like we are entitled to this information in the course of doing a "story," while as photographers we don't reveal much about ourselves. I only wish this is something we can collectively be mindful about when we carry our cameras, but I also understand that the power dynamics imposed by carrying a camera may just be a primary contradiction in any documentation or media work. It is not so easy to resolve, or rather, photographers must prepare to regularly confront this contradiction throughout a lifelong practice of taking photos. 

Still on the topic of ethics, I have heard, in other webinars, that a basic improvement to the practice could be properly introducing one's self as a photographer and the work being done. Taking the time to explain and giving subjects the agency to decline, even at the expense of the story. After all, it is egoistic to assume that a media ID or the name-drop of a big organization suffices for mutual understanding of the task. There's also multiple strands of considerations of ethics on what to do after the story is published, in continuing correspondences with the people and communities one has documented. But maybe the topic is for another day. 

As an interesting extension of photography practice, I have also heard about photographers taking the extra effort of making sure people see the photos that are made of them, and as a step further, furnishing them a copy. On one hand, it sounds romantic to do to say the least, but I think there is a great potential to politicize the practice, to also improve how photographers take photos, since it could be an effective mechanism to receive feedback, closing the loop somehow. But I can't help but wonder what the workflow could look like to make it sustainable. It would entail printing costs, going back to the community, developing relationships and taking time to make conversation even when a photographer doesn't have to anymore. 

This brings me to a memory in 2016, members of lumad communities in Mindanao traveled to Metro Manila to bring attention to their urgent calls to de-militarize their communities. Brian and I visited their makeshift camp at our university a few times, then a man dressed in colorful, traditional wear must have noticed our cameras and approached us to ask for his picture to be taken. 

We asked him to pose and took some shots. After some time, the camp transferred to Baclaran Church and we attended a cultural night on one of their last days in Manila. We brought printed copies of the man's photos so he could take them home. While there, we had to ask the organizers if they could help us since we couldn't find him ourselves. I don't remember seeing him again, but the organizers told us there were many more who wished they could also have printed photos of themselves.

This experience has since become very memorable, and I wish this is something I can go on to continually do. But to do so, I think I would have to liberate my self and my practice with so much of the things the industry burdens on practitioners. It would take a willingness to acknowledge photography as a political practice. 

Entry 12 / #100Days

Day 11: Here

Documenting the routine of watching how protests "land" on mainstream news channels 

Told a friend once, "When I have a camera in hand, it feels like I'm working." I find myself re-visiting what I said. Our cultural assumptions about work, where we characterize it as tiring and empty, or alienating, could interfere with what I mean. In a more neutral sense, I think my body at work when taking photos or operating a camera only means I take a while and some extra effort to step out of the moment. It takes a little distance to take a photo, literally staying still, framing and exposing a shot. In these photos, I think I stopped mid-conversation when I noticed what was happening and actively decided this was something I wanted to take a picture of. I knew what it was going to look like and I knew what it was going to mean to me, so I stopped to put it into pictures. 

Entry 11 / #100Days

Day 10: Gudak

Some time in 2017, a friend came to visit and apart from the usual kumusta, she showed me a camera app that she started using called Gudak. It mimicked the interface and parts of the experience of taking photos using a point and shoot film camera right on your smartphone screen. Comparable in four things: you wouldn't be able to see the photo right after taking it, you could only take a select number of shots per time limit (like the limitation of a roll of film), the touch of a time stamp, and the picture that "develops" could surprise you. I haven't substantially shot pictures in film, but I understand part of the appeal are these "mistakes" that make a picture unique and special. Imperfections that add texture to the image. There is less of the precision that is marketed in modern cameras with their cutting edge autofocus systems and algorithmic light meters, where they lessen the chances you could go wrong. But of course, people shoot, either film or digital, differently. And Gudak was a gimmick, and many other similar camera apps or filters became trendy until now. In my own experience, Gudak did, temporarily, interrupt my use of my smartphone like the smartphone it was so designed. It had me taking photos, waiting till they got "developed," then created a feeling of a cheap thrill in finally seeing them. I didn't use the app for very long. A layer of the experience was that it was performance. It was entertaining and enjoyable to do, until it wasn't. 

These are some of the photos I took in that short while. I don't have copies of the pictures without the filter that Gudak applied. So I can only see them as photos from a certain period and a certain way I took photos. Practices like metadata, data about data. 

Day 09: My 4-year old apartment

My apartment is the third of four side-by-side identical units within a shared compound. Each unit has two floors. The first floor has space for a sala, a kitchen and dining area, a laundry area at the back if so inclined. There are two rooms, two bathrooms. The rent is around $320 a month. I've gone from sharing expenses with three, then two other people, and now I split them equally with my partner. Since slowly deciding to transition to such a setup, we've assumed greater control over how the space is organized. Some small, some obvious things. It has transformed in many ways over the past four years. I work out little corners, more conscious about my relationship with the space. 

Entry 09 / #100Days

Day 08: Life of an outtake

An outtake, a take that doesn't make the final cut, a term that by Wikipedia's radar, originates from film production but can be borrowed for photography. A photo that isn't chosen to be part of the story. But interest was there to take the photo. Maybe improving one's practice diminishes that gap between production and output. The photos you take when you're there, the photos you file for your story, the one where you cater to your assumption of market need (outside of the mainstream fold, no one really tells you what it is) 

Anyway, this is a photo of the tinola meal of jeepney drivers at PASODA-PISTON's terminal in Fairview. Drivers resorted to begging on the streets since losing their source of income. Knowing this situation, a branch of the local LGU sends food for the drivers. It is served in a large kawali for sharing, on the tailend edge of a parked jeep at the terminal.

I didn't get to use this for a photo set I filed for Mayday, where the focus was their meeting ahead of the Bonifacio Day mobilization and their localized protest against the jeepney phaseout. But I think a little further writing and I could have. 

Entry 08 / #100Days 

SIDENOTE: Days are getting busier. I continue to enjoy the exercise of picking out photos and topics to write about, but I'm struggling how to diversify my writing. I notice that picking out topics is not an issue, up to writing the intro is fine, but filling up the body then putting the post to a satisfying close is a challenge. I always end up with cliches. Sometimes I drift away from a central point. For the past week, I work on the entries for probably less than an hour per day, which is not enough to make longer entries or write about topics in a manner that's more fleshed out. When I try to write fast, I produce a lot of run-on sentences. Or phrases. Thoughts I didn't chew. I hope I come up with a better system throughout this #100Days writing challenge so that I don't just go through it for compliance. 


Day 07: Documentation

Group dynamics.

Top: Officers of the Optodev Workers' Union spend idle time at their union office on a Sunday to participate in a focus group discussion about the situation of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Optodev Inc. is a subsidiary of Essilor International, a multi-national ophthalmic lens manufacturing company, with a factory situated in an export processing zone in Laguna, Philippines.

Bottom: Workers of Wolf Fang trucking agency at a labor rights seminar

If in yesterday's entry, I shared about my renewed personal interest in photography, here I would like to talk about coming across its place in documentation work. I knew that I liked taking photos, but I still struggle answering what for? The popular use of photography that I know of is "telling stories," as in the work of photojournalism. But I feel hesitant to position myself along those lines. By design, stories start and end somewhere. Essentially, where they start and where they end are imposed by the storyteller. From my experience, journalism can even teach you multiple mechanisms, like how to construct your sentences, to hide yourself, the storyteller, from the story. Maybe these are things that are being challenged by now.

I feel more comfortable with positioning how I work with photos along the lines of documentation and archives, especially since shifting towards the Library and Information Studies (LIS) field. Putting things on record. What things looked like at a certain time. A story could still be there. Contemporary archival theories are increasingly aware about a record's ability to evolve over time. As the person holding the camera clicking the shutter, my voice and authority over the narrative is part of the record. Then a viewer's alternative interpretation becomes part of it too. Each touch of the record creates a slight change. New meaning, or new knowledge, can be derived from its accumulation in ways a singular view of the record, as in stories, could not have arrived at. 

Entry 07 / End of Week 1 / #100Days 


Day 06: 10 years later

A picture of my mom, when I was testing the first lens I ever bought, a Sigma 18-35mm lens with an f/1.8 opening. People like the Sigma lens because of the sharp images it can produce and the f/1.8 opening applies throughout the range of its focal length. The camera body used was the same camera my mom bought for me 10 years ago. In those 10 years, I used the camera with the kit lens that came with it. For some time I did toy with the thought of buying a 50mm prime lens, people often do, but I didn't have my own money then. And in general, there was nothing to push me to upgrade the gear I was using. Eventually, buying the Sigma lens was my partner's recommendation and not even my own. I happened to afford it, to afford thinking about it, because of savings from a side-job. Finally, when it arrived, then taking this photo, it felt like having a new camera. And I will remember that distinct feeling every time I see this picture of my mom, who was also happy that I had bought a camera lens, haha. I think it was because she understood that in every profession, there are investments you have to make to advance your craft. For a long time, I refused to think in those terms, but now, there's not so much resistance, I can understand it comes with advancing anything, that it's worth going for if you can. Throughout that year and even with the pandemic, I went out to shoot more, cover more events, events I otherwise wouldn't have gone to, looked at my photos, edited and experimented with them, shared them with others. I realized, or finally admitted, that taking photos was something I liked to do. 

Entry 06 / #100Days

Day 05: One and another

"One and Another," is the fourth part of The Museum of Modern Art's free and online photography course, "Seeing Through Photographs." It talks about the way meaning is created by various ways of combining and positioning photographs. When cameras arrived at a certain point of accessibility, this naturally became easy to do. You could take more photographs, you could choose and and you could omit, then finally, you could organize them into a series or layout to tell a precise message. 

It is one of the wonders of the medium. And in the everyday, it is exactly like what one does when assembling a photo album, a common staple in middle class homes. Photo albums tell a lot about a family. Access to a camera as early as the 1950s, which is the equivalent of my mother having a baby picture, is telling of class position, another form of hierarchy. Photos can be arranged according to what is valued. Photos of reunions, especially when they are scarce, next to photos of proof of education, next to photos of cultural participation, photos of the living next to photos of the dead. 

These days, our daily consumption of images is curated by the algorithm of our newsfeeds, becoming a much more opaque process compared to a set of photos curated by someone's hand. It is not bad, but it is a new development of the times. And I think the better point is not that there are images that the algorithm wants you to see, but that there are images it chooses to marginalize. Algorithms have access to thousands of data points every second, calculating interest and sales, makes one wonder how stories fare over and above one another. 

People using social media still assemble, combine, position their photographs to tell a precise message, engaging a potential inherent in the medium, sometimes without careful thinking anymore, the more natural it has become. We can decide with our eyes, what photo, what best-foot-forward looks best.  

Day 04: An image of fire

How else does one have a distinct relationship with fire? In Metro Manila, there is a vibrant activist culture of mass mobilizations, also known as rallies or protests, where one of the "ritual" is to collectively witness the burning of the image of a fascist. To see, to record, to chant to. The act is symbolic of a collective expression of rage, not only in image or sound, but in experience. The image tries to be surrogate to the experience, perpetuates the experience in reproduction, and possibly, a way of cataloging experiences. This is my favorite image (that I have taken) of a burning effigy because it tells me the ritual can be experienced differently. It can imprint on memory as only background noise, a faint approaching heat on your skin. 

Entry 04 / #100Days

Day 03: Grief, and photography

Uncle Nestor, my father's first cousin, was "manoy" (big brother) to him. And now, the first person our family loses to COVID-19— a year, a month, and a day since it was declared a global pandemic. When I sent this picture of the last time I saw him, my father replied, "He should have been still alive." 

It's usual and for me, effective, to express grief through the act of searching for, looking at, or sharing photos. It's a task I feel the urge to do when someone passes away. There will be no new photos. And the ones that exist will start to be seen in a new light. Sometimes, there are beautiful photos that perfectly capture what that person was like, you could show it to a person they hadn't met. And other times, we stumble upon a unique strand of sadness or regret that we never took enough good photos of a person. Didn't think of it, like thinking they would never go away. I am increasingly becoming aware of this function of photography. Because everything in our situation can transform in one way or another. Photography, no matter who does it, freezes a point in time. And in doing so, it makes a wealth of other processes and emotions possible. Scientific study, nostalgia, revision, grief. 

My photo of Uncle Nestor was a "stolen" photo of him, taken with a cellphone. I remember taking the photo because I remember feeling awkward pointing my phone at him. He was showing us around his house-slash-school, a family-run business, and the building's topmost floor was our last stop. If I were to guess what my intention was in taking a stolen photo, I think it was because I knew we didn't get to see or talk to him often because they've lived in Cebu for a long time. For some reason, this moment has become very dear to me. Taking the photo and having it now. 

Entry 03 / #100 Days

Day 02: Trying to answer our own questions

We were trying to guess what the immediate future would be like. Would Duterte's daughter win the elections? Would a 12-year Duterte reign be our reality, or will the ouster movement come sooner? Will a military coup take over when Duterte dies, or when he is ousted from position? Would we see each other again next year and still be unvaccinated? Would other countries be able to move on, while we would be one of the last countries, globally, to see an end to the pandemic? 

The saddest thing would be for nothing to happen at all. It's already starting to feel that way. Our stories qualified by the descriptives "pre-pandemic" and "pandemic." Conscious about keeping interactions under 15 minutes, 2 meter distance. Work from home stations, workflows. Relatives dying, offering a prayer. 

It's possible for mass vaccination to take so much longer because of broken systems. What if the Google-form-literate middle class get vaccinated, move on from the pandemic, and forget about the anxiety felt by the silenced mass population? What if the race to the end of the pandemic divides us further? If this anxiety is never fully articulated, how will the tension one day break? What would it sound like? 

We are young activists with committees in PR and volunteer relations, production and recruitment. Vaguely playing disparate parts in the build-up of a mass movement. Working from home. Day-to-day, also constantly grappling, sometimes barely coping, with the collective experience of rage, uncertainty, and impatience of the current time. Then waking up to another day. 

Entry 02 / #100Days 

Day 01: Taking pictures as if you were talking to the future


I took this photo because I remembered Gino's photo series of the same thing: cars with covers on them. I guess feeling the urge to take the picture was subconsciously honoring that work. I don't even understand what the work is about. I just know that it was a commitment to always remember to take a picture when you see the same thing, in different places. It was a commitment to compile it. Maybe he only started that way and made sense of it later. It must be something striking, after all I remember it, and took a photo too. 

Because I am trying to take the idea of being a photographer a little more seriously lately, I think a lot about how I can develop a personal style or voice using photos. I know it's something that photographers may struggle with their whole lifetime. I feel late to the game, I only started thinking now. It's especially difficult to start now because so vividly, I feel a certain "drought" of opportunities to shoot because of the pandemic. The fear of getting infected, the anxiety of not affording getting sick, the days and weeks you'll lose to sickness, the loss of taste. These compounding fears. I am stuck in my head thinking about photography though a part of me knows you learn by doing. 

Maybe personal style comes from taking photos more conscientiously. On the one and only instance I traveled abroad for work, I took photos of details in the villa where we stayed for a week. I remember taking photos because I wanted to remember. I wanted the photos to trigger memory if I ever looked back at them. It was like talking to the future.   

And the photos that came out of it were specific to the experience of being there. Stuff you would see every day while there. The following photo, if I were to describe it, it's the view you see when it's break time from the sessions, you come out to the villa's front where people smoke or sometimes eat their snacks, you lie down on the day bed and this is the ceiling you see. 

But will the photos mean anything to someone else? Someone who wasn't there? Maybe this next problem is a matter of communication. A way of communicating meaning. A way of trying to resonate, and pick someone else's brain. A photographer's responsibility ends somewhere, at one point images tend to elude an author's intention. Transferred to the viewer, the archivist, the printer, the teacher, the student. What would be a good photo then? 

Entry 1 / #100Days