Embattled Mindanao

Mindanao, Philippines, October 2008.

My dad was a journalist in college (maybe even post-college) in the Philippines, but he gave it up because he said it was too dangerous. He was right.

Of the top 20 most dangerous countries for journalists listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Philippines ranks fifth, with 38 dead since 1992. This number doesn’t include those killed in the recent Maguindanao massacre, in which more than 30 journalists died, bringing the total to 88 and earning the Philippines the unfortunate distinction of second place, right behind Iraq.

The CPJ actually now considers the Philippines the most dangerous country for media. Interestingly enough but unsurprising, most of the 38 listed on their site covered corruption.

Mindanao, the island where the massacre took place, has long been plagued by political conflicts and violent attacks from militant Islamic groups. Just recently, in July of this year, a bomb went off outside a Christian cathedral and killed 5, injuring dozens more.

My dad is from Mindanao. My mom was so terrified of it that, despite spending much of her life in the Philippines, she never set foot in Mindanao until last year, when my family and I visited (the first time my dad, sister and I had been back since we emigrated in 1992).

My friends warned me to steer clear of the island, repeating horror stories we’d heard many times before. Even though we were in the northern part of Mindanao, away from the usually targeted areas, I admit I was a bit apprehensive when we landed.

But in the few days I was there, my fears were unrealized. The people were incredibly nice. A cab driver even returned my dad’s bag carrying his laptop and wallet when he forgot it in the car. Much of it is really beautiful.

It’s a shame that amid such beauty, so much violence pervades.

A security guard keeps watch in the hotel lobby.

A student at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro.

The streets there aren’t as chaotic as Manila’s.

Tricycles and Jeepneys are usually in vibrant colors, often decorated to the drivers’ liking.

A neighborhood stand.

A woman surveys the streets.

Where the balloons live

Before I headed back to Richmond, I ventured out to the city yesterday for some pre-Thanksgiving fun. Nothing sounded more awesome than watching balloons being inflated by the Museum of Natural History for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I imagined myself happily snapping away as the balloons slowly took form and floated into the big blue sky.

That image was tarnished as soon as I stepped outside. First of all, it was almost dark (This happens around, what, 4 p.m. now?). Second, it was raining. And third, there were too many people there, namely kids. Now, I love kids as much as the next non-maternal woman, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to step into shots, obstruct your view (hoisted on their parents’ shoulders) and the like. In many cases, this still could present the opportunity for great familial pictures, except it was too crowded and we were herded like cattle, nicely encouraged by staff to keep moving so as to keep the next group of gawkers happy.

Instead of happy pictures and big blue sky, there was rain, serious multitasking (one hand on the camera, the other on the umbrella), and disgruntled strangers.

“Watch your umbrella!” said the angry woman behind me.
“It’s not even raining!” some guy muttered.
“Oof!” said another after my umbrella stabbed his neck (I guess you could say this one was warranted).

Further, the floats looked like they were held captive, waiting to be freed the following morning for the spectacle that awaited them. Mickey Mouse wasn’t soaring above us, his white gloves in a permanent high five. A net covered him from head to toe. The Pillsbury Doughboy, making his first appearance at the parade, lay with his head on the pavement, weighed down by sandbags. At the end of the line, men and women in bright colored uniforms inflated yet another one doomed to meet its Gulliver-like fate.

Still, beneath all that unglamorous presentation, I admit there was something kind of magical about it.

Happy Thanksgiving, you.

Mickey under siege. Photographers nearby looked through their photos.

Two pups.

Hordes of balloon lovers.


Pillsbury Doughboy eats it.

Lilliputian hijinks.

Pooh from behind. What a great last glimpse.

Street musicians, Central Park

I had a few hours to kill before a meeting yesterday so I wandered over to Central Park. I’d gone there planning to take pictures of trees, but was drawn to the street musicians instead (finding bare trees at The Mall swayed things that way).

There was Boris, the saxophone player from somewhere near Argentina. When I told him I hadn’t heard of his town, he kindly told me I needed to review my geography (which is true). On a good day he makes more than $100. On a slow one, like yesterday, he expected to make no more than $80. I hadn’t taken three shots before he started talking to me… and kept talking to me, which is why I have no decent pictures of him in action. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it.

Then there was the double bassist under the Terrace by the Bethesda Fountain. Using my nonexistent Russian vocabulary, or something that sounded Russian, I inferred from a conversation he was having with a passerby that his bass was 150 years old.

I sat near him to take pictures, with full intentions to exit past him. I somehow ended up staying a half hour, never making it to the other side.

Then, I was off to Brooklyn.

Back to the future, Obey Giant styles

Still in the process of setting up my closet, er, bedroom, I recently came across this picture while searching for photos for the frames above my bed (Yes, *I hung them sans pictures because I thought it would motivate me to print photos ASAP. Mind you, I bought those frames two years ago when I moved into my first apartment. This is progress).

I’d decided to use three pictures of three different markets I photographed in my travels — New York, the Philippines and, where the above photo was taken, Barcelona. There’s nothing remarkable about this picture, I actually didn’t even post it on the blog I had back then, except for the sticker behind the blurred figure. I remember being a bit creeped out, taking the picture and moving on. What I didn’t know was it was a stencil of Andre the Giant by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey.

Why I’m bringing this up now, more than two years after this photo was taken, is simply because I love finding little nuggets like this. Without knowing it, I’d come across artwork by an artist who would blow up a little more than a year later.

Regardless of your political leanings, you most likely have seen this image, especially during the 2008 presidential election. Fairey created this stencil, which became the symbol of the Hope campaign. It has since become an icon.

In April, I was able to check out more of Fairey’s work at the ICA in Boston. Lo and behold, Andre the Giant’s face graced the top of the building. I soon noticed his stuff scattered across the city, on walls, on buildings, on lampposts.

What does it all mean, you ask?

Absolutely nothing.

As humans, we often search for meaning in what we don’t understand by finding tenuous links between things that are likely unrelated. Many who see Fairey’s work come up with their own interpretations.

The funny thing is, the sticker itself means nothing. Its whole reason for existing is to be questioned.  There is so much information out there on billboards, advertisements that we passively look at, ingest subconsciously and, without knowing it, accept as truth. Most commercials blatantly tell us what they’re selling rather than letting us discover things for ourselves (Remember when the G campaign first came out? That was an exception). With the Obey Giant campaign, Fairey aims to make us think actively about what we see and question our surroundings.

It’s pretty neat how something that didn’t mean much two years ago suddenly makes a bit more sense. I can’t say I decipher every little thing I encounter these days, but it does make me wonder about what else I’m missing.


*Disclaimer: By “I,” I mean my boyfriend. I don’t know how to draw a straight line, much less hang a series of frames evenly.

Ode to Richmond

Soul Ice

I’m finally back in New York.

I’ve lived in a few places, from the Philippines, to the Bronx, to Richmond, Va., to smaller cities in Virginia for internships, to a quick stint abroad and most recently Fredericksburg, Va. The one place I always identified with was New York. After leaving the metro area at 13, I’d stayed connected to the city by keeping in touch with friends, visiting and reading New York papers.

I moved unexpectedly or belatedly, depending on how you look at it. It certainly didn’t happen in the circumstances I’d envisioned (though there were many versions in my head). But hardly anything does.

Before I left Richmond, I took a friend and a camera downtown to capture it in pictures.

Just in case I miss it.

ByrdThe Byrd Theatre for $2 movies.

DSC_0066Everyone needs some green in their lives.

Soul IceSoul Ice. It was unusually hot that day, but no one was buying.
“You want some?”
“No, but can I take your picture?”

DSC_0043A lively part of town.

bang onGuy with guitar marches on. Lots of musicians in Carytown.

DSC_0071He settled on a spot beside the theater. I tipped him afterward.

DSC_0107The State Capitol. Lots of suits dining outside.