Filipino Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales Goes Home Again | Productivity

The streets of Manila are busy and chaotic, and something about the chaos is fascinating and comforting. At every turn, people are selling things. You can count on someone singing karaoke as early as 4 p.m. in the afternoon. And you can hear children laughing and playing outside after school. All day long, colorful “jeepneys,” or public buses, rumble up the streets, and at every stop people get in and out. It is this Manila, with its vibrancy, that I love, and it inspires me and influences my photography. I was surrounded by this aesthetic as a child, so it’s reflected in my drawing, artwork, and photography.

There’s an art concept called “horror vacui,” which in Latin means the fear of empty spaces. When I was in high school, one of my teachers described Filipino culture as horror vacui because we fill up every space – just look at our jeepneys! I translate this concept to my photography and composition by filling every bit of the frame. And for a long time, I thought all cities were like Manila, the chaos, the filling up of space, and people everywhere, because it’s all I’d ever known.

You see, if you’re from Manila or if you study in Manila, the common narrative is that you’d stay here and never leave. People might move within the Philippines or migrate to another country, but in my environment, this wasn’t the case. I grew up in a house full of 14 people. Many of my friends never left, and people I love and have been with for decades are still here. Like horror vacui, being constantly surrounded by people gave me a sense of community and inspires my photography.

Photo by Reyes

I’m also inspired by how hard Filipinos work. Manila is not an easy city. The streets are always packed, and the traffic is bad, and people work hard for very little. In the streets, you will see the daily hustle and grind on people’s faces, especially in the evening as they walk the streets toward their homes. On days when it rains and the city floods, the streets are impassable. One time, I was stuck in traffic for six hours just to do a 30-minute photo shoot! Things like this were part of life, and I thought other people around the world dealt with this too.

This juxtaposition of greens and garbage is so unromantic, but the greens thrive there.

However, my perception changed in 2013 when I was awarded a National Geographic grant and traveled outside the Philippines for the first time. People only asked me where I was from when I was abroad or when I was living in Cambodia for three years. It is in those moments that I realized Manila was unique and part of my identity. It was a revelation that I was rooted in a city so messy. The reliability of things in the U.S. and Denmark stressed me out. I’m used to going through my day where something hassles me. The traffic takes an extra 40 minutes, or the train stops. I find comfort in being in a constant state of problem solving. Despite Manila’s messiness, people still thrive. It makes me think of the water lilies that grow in the Pasig River.

At times, the river’s pollution levels are so high you can smell the stench from inside an enclosed vehicle. Yet the lilies grow in the water. This juxtaposition of greens and garbage is so unromantic, but the greens thrive there.

Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales

This is also true for people who live in the slums of Manila, where death is a daily occurrence. For the last year and a half, there’s been a drug war, which has really been a war on the poor. People who are alleged drug users or drug pushers are being killed. These are things that an average person is exposed to every day, and the images that have been coming out of Manila are bloody and violent. However, in my photography I want to show that these places are filled with people living normal lives amidst violence and hardship. To me, this is more striking. These stories need to be told, the hard parts need to be told, and it can be done when it’s balanced with their humanity. When I photograph people in their homes, often after tragedies, I’m always offered the best. Filipinos try to make you feel at home, even if we don’t have much. I think that’s the kind of hospitality that’s not just in Manila, but in all of the Philippines.

Last year, I moved back to Manila, and I saw it in a new light. The city changes so rapidly, and it’s teeming with life. It’s been interesting to re-explore Manila as a resident, through photography assignments and an ongoing project I’m working on, documenting shantytowns. You can’t plan everything out on the dot because something will go wrong, but you end up serendipitously finding gems. And it only takes a walk along the streets overflowing with people, the blare of karaoke, and the rumble of the jeepneys to remind me that I’m home.

As told to Jacqueline Lara.

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