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  • Photography by Veejay Villafranca  
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05/27/15 Photojournalist Veejay Villafranca

Words by Margarita Buenaventura

When scrolling through photojournalist Veejay Villafranca’s body of work, one may realize that it takes a different set of guts to do what he does. The Manila-based photographer has covered myriad conflicts, from post-typhoon disaster management to the tug of war between religion and culture.

There’s a certain romance to Villafranca’s journey in photojournalism. He had a legacy to uphold (his grandfather was a newspaper editor), but when Villafranca started out, he was struggling to write the captions for his photos. The hustle eventually paid off; after working as a staff photographer for the defunct news magazine Philippine Graphic, his work has been published in the International Herald Tribune and The Guardian. In 2008, he became the recipient of the Ian Parry Scholarship grant for his project on the reformed members of the Chinese Mafia Crew, a criminal gang based in Baseco, Manila. Villafranca is also the first Filipino to have ever been chosen for the Joop Swart Masterclass hosted by World Press Photo.

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Work has taken Villafranca to various parts of the world, but his current projects take a microscopic view into the Filipino condition. Through his keen eye, Villafranca’s photos show viewers how natural disasters, the labor force’s diaspora, and religious practices have created dramatic grooves in his country’s social and political landscape.

NOUS pays a call on the lensman to discuss his directive to go beyond observation, infiltrating the mafia, and drinking moonshine for the very first time.

Hey, Veejay. What led you to pick up a camera in the first place?

It was actually my father who encouraged me to shoot. The first instance that he actually “forced” me to go out and shoot was during the height of the Edsa Dos protests in Edsa Shrine. We walked from our house in Kapitolyo all the way to Edsa to cover what was happening. He gave me his old Nikon F with two rolls of black and white film that he processed himself afterwards.

You’ve mentioned in various interviews that your work focuses on social and religious practices. What do you find fascinating about it?

I just find in interesting how religion, Catholicism to be exact, merges with Pagan or animistic practices and how Filipinos fuse with it with their lives.

I noticed that you rarely shoot in color. Is there any reason behind that?

It’s just a personal preference. I want more emphasis for mood and emotions.

Most memorable trip you’ve ever taken for a job? 

A lot. One that I could remember vividly was my trip to the border of India and Myanmar. A lot of firsts in that trip: first 24-hour bus ride, first 23-hour train ride, first time working in the region, first time drinking moonshine!

Has it ever been particularly difficult to cover a story?

Every story starts with several humps. It usually start with access and how to get closer to the subjects. Next is intrusion: you take part in a certain individual’s private space and time, then you visually or mentally engage the audience with the material that you have.

You took photos of the Chinese Mafia Crew. Could you tell us how you managed to gain their trust? 

It’s the challenge of doing long form narratives: access. Basically with the CMC, I initiated contact and kept on returning until they asked my intentions and I said that I wanted to do a story on youth and how they live in an area like Baseco. That’s how it started, and the rest is history.

Your job has put you in some pretty dangerous places. How do you handle being an observer in these difficult situations versus becoming part of the action?

I think a photojournalist or a documentary photographer would not last in this industry without a defined advocacy in him or her. One that you carry throughout your assignments and projects. Being assigned to shoot an editorial piece may or may not reflect this advocacy or certain lineage. But when doing long-form narratives in documentary photography, you can’t be a mere observer. You intrude the lives of your subjects, you partake with their time, space, food, habits in order to visually illustrate their state. There’s no versus on this topic. If one covers breaking news, the persona of the observer usually takes the lead; a reaction to an event happening now. For a project that a person invests their time and self on, that will take more than reaction and “being there at the right place at the right time.”