My friend Jim Karsh is my kinda’ guy in a number of ways; he’s an avid traveler who gets down and dirty wherever he happens to find himself, he loves airplanes, (flies a big one in fact for a major American carrier) he likes chocolate (’nuff said) and he is creative; a photographer and an aspiring writer. Today I’m turning Go How over to Jim who files this guest post on his recent visit to the Philippines.
The Peninsula in Manila is a swanky hotel in whose ornate lobby I have on past visits seen none other than Imelda Marcos having cocktails. When I fly into Manila, this hotel in the Makati district is where I stay. More accurately stated, this is where I sleep. In Manila or wherever I go, I try to get out and see where and how the locals live.
On visit earlier this month, I was headed for a neighborhood far from the snazzy Peninsula, an hour’s drive away but by every other measure, located in a completely different universe.
On my airline layovers, I have to indulge my photography Jones but lately that addiction has taken me to increasingly out-of-the-way places in search of images that are different from the usual tourist snapshots. And so in Manila, I headed for Payatas, the mother of all garbage dumps because this is where tens of thousands of destitute squatters make their living.
These people live in makeshift hovels surrounding the dump and every day they sort through each load of arriving garbage searching for enough of value to scrape by for another day. My mission on this day was to try to capture with my camera the lives of people who struggle daily in this desperate survival mode.
My driver, Lito Ancheta and I arrived at Payatas and learned that we would need a permit just to enter the dump. We had no permit, so Lito steered us through the streets adjacent to, but outside the dump itself. What I saw shocked me and overwhelmed me. It did not seem real.
Even on the streets outside the dump, dozens of garbage trucks were pulled over to the side of the road while people dressed in rags unloaded the contents. Garbage, bagged and unbagged was piled everywhere along the sides of the road and inside the shanties beyond I could see bags of garbage piled to the ceiling. In this economy, garbage was currency.
Observing this chaos from inside the car, I began to doubt whether I had the courage to leave the protection of Lito’s taxi. But when he finally parked the car, I did follow Lito as he began walking down a hill, where makeshift housing lined both sides of the road and residents spilled out of doors. I felt like as if we were walking a gauntlet, but the greetings of these residents made me realize that that my worry was not warranted.
The people here were friendly and smiling as I started to photograph them and they started laughing when I turned the camera to them so
they could see the image I’d captured. Soon a gaggle of children was following me, swarming around my knees and giggling and screaming in delight at their own faces as recorded by the camera’s eye. They were beautiful children but already bearing the signs of their sorry reality. Six and seven year olds with scars, rotting teeth and the filthy ripped clothing.
By time we turned to leave, I’d asked Lito if he could take me back here on a future trip to Manila. I was operating under the illusion that I would be doing these kids a favor by bringing them prints of the pictures I’d taken. As I think about it now, though, I realize the favor they granted me in showing me my bias. Laughter and happiness are possible even in what seems on the surface to be a hopeless existence.
My thanks to Jim for sharing this travel journey. Photos copyright Jim Karsh 2012. All rights reserved.