Veejay Villafranca: Respect those who stand in front of your lens

Veejay Villafranca is a documentary photographer based in Manila, Philippines. His work deals with issues of the changing Filipino culture and religious practices, displacement, climate change and the Filipino diaspora. He was the first Filipino to be selected in the 2013 Joop Swart Masterclass program. His work as been published widely and globally and he regularly work with non-governmental organisations. In 2017, he released his fist book Signos, the book features images following the displacement of communities brought about by extreme weather conditions. Native Province caught up with him to find out more about his work, life in the Philippines and the trials and tribulations of working as a documentary photographer.


A short introduction of yourself in your own words.

I was born and raised in Manila and was being taken to Baguio during the summer to escape the heat and smog of the metro. I grew up during the final years of my grandfather as a sportswriter and commentator while my father was working with one of the government's housing agencies. This was my exposure to the world of media and communication. 


What the first ever photograph you took that inspired you to pursue photography as a career? Why did it make such an impact to you? 

I cannot remember which photo actually but I do remember the instance. It was the height of the EDSA II revolution and my father handed me a 35mm camera and took me to EDSA where there was a huge buildup of protestors, mostly coming from the middle-class circles. This was very vivid and I remember that I finished two rolls of black and white films then with hardly any frame publishable. :D 


Your first photo series was showing the lives of former gang members of Baseco - how did you find out about them? Was it easy to get them to agree to have themselves be photographed? Did you build a relationship with any of them? Can you share a little about this experience.

It started in 2006 when I met the younger guys and got curious on their daily routine. In 2007, I decided to pursue the story and worked my way to their older members. It took about 6 months before I was able to find a comfortable space within their lives. Then that went on for over a year before coming up with a selection that I started showing around. 


Your work shows a real rawness to life - Faith above Fate and Against the Light series share a certain sadness, dealing with death and afterlife - what draws you to this subject matter?

This comes from personal experiences and also growing up in one of the world's biggest Catholic communities but also with a people that yearn to find it's roots and identity. Fusing this with news events that are usually shown ad hoc, I try to give a bit of a nuanced narrative.


You live in Manila - can you describe what Manila is like to someone who has never been before?

It's exactly like what our famed dessert is, halo-halo. You get bits of sweetness in forms of people and rawness and life but you get a lot of bitterness on how society is degrading due to lack of quality education and that leche flan on top in forms of resilience and the strength of the Filipino spirit to overcome adversity. Pardon the metaphor but this is exactly how it is here every day. Most days its bitter and sour and indescribable taste, but there are days where the sweetness of life in this city just shines through the cracks. 


Signos series shows the impact of the Typhoon - the images are powerful and humbling, showing the impact of climate change. How did you feel when you were taking the photographs?

Signos is my attempt to show the different experiences that displacement causes. Issues on shelter, security, physical and sexual abuses and psychological trauma are part of the total displacement tragedy. I wanted to go beyond the news reportage from this typhoon, there was the new norm that we all face and I wanted everyone to see that with Signos. I was angry at the basic idea of resilience and this was the main goal of this work, a re-examination of resilience. 


When doing commissions do you feel there is pressure to get the clients message across while still staying true to your own style? Can you describe a time when there was a conflict of interest?

Most often commissions are one-sided especially if it's a commercial brand. I try to push for my 'style' as far as I can but truth be told that there are not a lot of people willing to take a risk for commissioned work. But I draw the line when clients try and push a more 'natural/documentarian' style but direct the scene or even to a point where they will use normal people as 'props'. There has been instances like this and this is where I back out.


The Chin Migrants series - how did you find out about them? Was it easy to organise?

After I was awarded the 2008 Ian Parry Scholarship grant, I wanted to pursue a story outside of the Philippines. This was coming after my assignment in cyclone-ravaged Burma (Myanmar). I was just barely scratching the surface of the stories from there and got this great opportunity to pursue it. I researched and found a border town that hasn't been reported in media much. Through the help of friends, I was able to reach and work in Mizoram. The journey in itself merits a short-story someday, but it was a long and arduous journey that was rewarded with a great story and enriching experience. 


What camera do you tend to use and why?

I use a wide range, from disposable cameras, point and shoot digital, camera phone, medium format film. Im not a techie person but I like experimenting with formats. 


How do you feel about phone cameras? 

A good number of photos from Signos were shot using a phone camera. Depends what your intention is, it can sometimes work to your advantage.


Any tips on how to take a good picture?

Respect those who stand in front of your lens. 


You work with a lot of organisations that deal with the less fortunate and preservation of the environment - are you careful with who you work with specifically, what criteria do they have to meet for you to say yes to working with them?

Very much. There are well-meaning ones but there are also opportunistic organizations who do not care about contractors like us. I usually do some research through friends and feel my way through the conversation before committing to a project or assignment. 


Working on commissions was there ever a time when the client was not happy or didn't agree with your work? Why?

A lot of times. Most clients will have their own biases and cookie-cutter ideas of what they need and would just need someone to execute it. Usually, it also happens to those who are from developing countries as we have little-leverage on negotiations. I tend to avoid these groups but also I am open to work with guidelines as long as there is respect for authorship and creative input.


As a Filipino documenting mainly Filipino life, did you discover anything new about the culture, the people - has it changed over time? 

It's in-flux. Ever evolving but sadly confined to the affluent and privileged classes. Those who are in the margins and also who are in different provinces has little to no voice. What is envious and disheartening is that those indigenous groups are more marginalised and oppressed. They are our true roots and heritage but then society is still very Manila-centric and lacks respect for this people. 


What are you currently working on?

I may be pushing through with the Faith project again and exploring more on the idea of mortality and healing, collaborating with artists for another book.