Slums of Manila (WARNING--May Affect Sensitivities) / by Kenneth Kao

This is a very special album to me, for many reasons. I hope you take the time to read and join me in this experience.

The backstory:
To get these photos, we had to jump through a few hoops. The government isn't thrilled about photographers documenting this area, and even visitors are carefully regulated; it took some work to learn what we were dealing with. To summarize, Jennifer Kim had posted some time ago about her visit to a place called "Happyland". The slums. The people she described were extremely poor, and yet they seemed so happy and friendly. She said it gave her a lot of perspective--that seeing the slums was the highlight of her trip.

We had to visit for ourselves.

Marlo and I managed to, after several days of figuring out the system, hire (bribe) a local authority of the slums who had some "connections" (more bribing) to allow us access...with a camera.

General info:
The area is occupied by around 33,000 people, 2/3rds of which are children (thus the many kid pics). Birth control is not allowed due to religious organizations influencing the government. The people here earn perhaps a dollar a day (more details in the photos). They do have facilities for education, but often don't take advantage of it. Electricity here is more expensive than most places in the world, particularly because stealing electricity is very common so the companies continue to raise the prices, thus--there isn't much electricity minus a few intriguing exceptions. There isn't much running water, mostly still water which is quite dirty. They make efforts to acquire purified water. They do bathe frequently, though, even if the water they bathe in often is the water they also eliminate in. Honestly, if you saw most of them in the mall, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart from the average citizen, despite the huge income gap.

Happyland is an entire economy built on a trash dump. People primarily scavenge to create a living. It is extremely dense and hot, yet the smell seems mostly contained to the trash itself. Everything about Happyland encompasses the very meaning of the word, "resourceful".

While you walk through the warehouses that were built by the government, or the shanties thrown together by scavenged trash, the light changes dramatically and it is like walking through sudden tunnels and tunnels of some maze made out of trash and ruin and light--.

The people:
So happy. These people were indeed friendly, and I never once felt threatened. Perhaps it was because of our guide that we were so safe, but I felt as if no one had anything beyond curiosity behind their eyes. I'd like to think that the innocence and simplicity of the community was the cause of their general joy. Sure, they had parasites, diseases, starvation, poverty, and lack of basic needs, but the happiness somehow made more profound the idea that we "civilized" are the bankrupt. I'm happy to admit that I cannot judge on a cursory note, though, so I don't want to make any claims. That being said, this was just the beginning of the internalization of what I was seeing.

The most surprising thing, though, was that we weren't asked for money once. Perhaps it was because it was their home, and not the streets where most begging happens, but I WAS walking in there with a camera that quite possibly was worth more than they'd earn in a lifetime. Everywhere I looked were people working, trying to feed themselves, and yet they didn't beg or look at me with envy or spite.

We learned that drugs really aren't a problem--after all, they can't afford it, however GLUE addiction is a real issue. This was one of the most interesting things I learned. There are interventions to reduce glue addiction in adults as well as children.

One other interesting thing is that you will hear pop songs being sung and hummed by many of the inhabitants all around you as you walk the slums. Many of them watch youtube, and they hear and learn all the most popular songs. Just the same, you might see an antique that is probably worth quite a bit of money. A nintendo or old mac computer. But you are watching them break down these machines in order to pull what materials they can out.

The photography:
This was tough. Not only because of my own experiences and thoughts, the realization of simultaneous privilege, discomfort, and desire to help as well as the realization of being absolutely ignorant--there was also a strange bit of jealousy... The purity of struggling for survival and making the best of what you had. Though I am not actually envious, nor would I choose the life they live, I had to appreciate the beauty of spirit that I was seeing. The strong community.

Anyway, on the photography side, this was also difficult. Both in the shooting of (such dramatic changes of light, and extreme ranges of exposure everywhere I looked), but also in the sensitivity part. I don't want these people to be put on display. My mission is not to say shallowly and without thought, "Oh look at the poor pathetic people! Let's do something!" I wanted to document what I saw, and try to understand more about this culture that was so foreign to me. So please, don't say, "this is so sad." Please respect what you see here, and respect the people and the hard work, and despite the simple lives, respect their complex emotions. Lastly, respect all the people already trying to make a difference. The problem isn't as easy as sending them a bunch of money. There ARE organizations actively trying to improve the situation, and if you truly desire to help, you should reach out to them, first.

Lastly, I always shoot in a style that is "artsy". That being said, I've also wanted to do something journalistic and extremely real; I'm one that wouldn't mind, honestly, putting myself in positions of danger in order to document something. I'm not a purist in believing that completely unedited photos are the best expression of journalism, and I won't go into it, but I tried to be careful not to put MY impression of the events in the photos as much as to represent WHAT I SAW.

I hope it worked.