Harrison Street is named for Francis Burton Harrison, former Governor General of the Philippines when it was an American colony and advisor to four of the country’s presidents following Independence. Harrison Street was home for a year when I lived in the Philippines and I walked it many times. It was once known as Calle Real – Royal Street – during the Spanish period but these days it is a typically slow moving, busy and congested Manila street. I say Manila, but the street starts at the edge of Manila City and the greater part runs through Pasay before briefly entering Paranaque where it becomes Quirino Avenue.
This is a random selection of pictures taken at various times and locations along the street. A couple of them were taken from the pedestrian walkway over EDSA, possibly Manila’s busiest road, but since the walkway connects Harrison Street on either side of EDSA I include them in the Harrison Street collection.
My one regret is that I did not take more pictures. In fact this is my one regret about Manila in general. There were many days when I could have gone out shooting but didn’t because the thought of spending hours in the humid 35C environment put me off. Yet I know that many of these streets with their distinctive local stores and local people will disappear over time to be replaced by the same generic nondescript blocks found all over the world.
Manila American Cemetery is the largest American battle monument from World War II. There are more than 17,000 graves and the names of a further 36,000 missing in action are inscribed on the memorial. Despite its brutal origins the cemetery is one of the most peaceful places in the city stretching across over 150 acres of immaculately maintained land.
Today the cemetery is surrounded by the high rises of Bonifacio Global City, newly developed since 2000 on the grounds of an old army base. During our time in Manila we lived in one of these high rises that overlooks the cemetery. One of our neighbours was the representative of the American Battle Monuments Commission, responsible for the management of the cemetery.
Before arriving in Manila I never knew the extent of the destruction of the city during the war. In 1945 with Japanese defenders dug in and willing to fight to the death the U.S. Army and Filipino resistance fighters had to fight street by street to retake the city leading to the most intense urban warfare seen in the Pacific theatre.
The U.S. military initially tried to avoid the use of high explosive weapons with hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians trapped in the city, many held hostage by the Japanese forces. But in the face of mounting casualties the U.S. eventually concluded there was no other option and started using heavy artillery against the Japanese.
In the month long battle for Manial over 1,000 American soldiers died, more than 16,000 of the 17,000 Japanese military personnel died and at least 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed, with some estimates suggesting up to 200,000 may have died. Of these civilians many were killed by the U.S. artillery fire, while tens of thousands were massacred by the Japanese, bayoneted or burned alive, often after being raped and tortured. The commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was later tried for war crimes and executed.
Back in the 1980’s I knew a veteran of WWII who had served with the RAF. Towards the end of the war his unit had been deployed to Singapore and was there when British prisoners of war liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps began their journey home. He never told me what they told him, but to the day he died Jimmy refused to have anything Japanese in his house. He had no issue buying German made products, yet it seemed the brutality of the Japanese military was of a different order.
Manila itself was razed to the ground, destroyed as completely as Berlin or Tokyo. Only a handful of buildings survived or were worth restoring. Manila was once renowned for its fine Spanish architecture, and under American rule neoclassical and art deco style dominated. Today, after the destruction of the war, the rapid rebuilding, and the chaotic expansion of the city, nobody could call Manila beautiful, and I speak as someone who loves the place.
Despite all that the Philippines and Manila suffered during the war I could detect no animosity towards Japanese people among the Filipinos I met. I think this is remarkable but this generosity of spirit seems to be a national trait. Coming from Northern Ireland, where we clutch our animosities tightly through generations, this is particular noticeable. Yes, Manila can be a violent place, and some of the conflicts in the country have been, and are, brutal, yet there is an openness, a willingness to accept and welcome former enemies that is quite remarkable.
Normally I shoot in colour and decide afterwards whether to process particular shots in black and white but in this instance I decided from the outset to shoot in black and white and set the camera up accordingly. (I was shooting in RAW so technically they are not black and white but I had the viewfinder set to black and white). The weather was perfect, with the rain holding off but a beautifully textured and tonally diverse grey sky. Blue skies and direct sunlight are the worst possible conditions for shooting in the cemetery since the strong edges of the architecture generate harsh shadows. Add to that the very light coloured stone used and the end result is extreme dynamic range from the near black shadows to the highly reflective bright stonework. The grey skies eliminate the harsh shadows and allowed the texture and structure of the stonework to be displayed.
I had to relearn photography when I lived in Manila. My practice over the years on the streets was to linger discreetly and look for opportunities for candid shots. Often, I ignored the people and focused instead on the design, architecture and infrastructure of the city.
None of this was possible in Manila. With my pasty white Irish skin and ginger hair blending in wasn’t an option, and in a densely packed city of 13 million people candid shots were a challenge. Of course one of the reasons for trying to be unobtrusive and take candid shots is that people often don’t like having their picture taken. In Manila, many of the people I met were delighted to be photographed, thanking me for taking the picture before I had opportunity to thank them for letting me.
So I had to learn to work in a much more crowded environment, close up and with people who fully aware that I was photographing them. I switched to a wider lens and started taking portrait shots. In the years since leaving Manila I have published some of my favourite street portraits online, including some in previous posts here, but I have many more I have never posted.
So, in honour of the people who were kind enough to pose for me and out of respect for them I’m going to post the fifty or so street portraits I took while there. They are not all great pictures but I still recall every one of the people in them and the context in which I came across them and took their pictures. So here is the first set.
I came across this guy shortly after arriving in the city on one of my first walks along Arnaiz Avenue. I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect. He called out to me and I went over to say hello. When he saw the camera he asked me to take his picture and started dancing. I love this picture, partly because it was an early introduction to the neighbourhood and its people, partly because it sums up the friendliness, openness and spontaneity that is evident in so many of the people I met. I also liked the bloke to the left, who my subject had been chatting to before he saw me, who is managing to look supremely uninterested in his friend’s performance.
The guy on the left was hanging out on Arnaiz Avenue, at the corner with Orion Street at a point where the street crossed a stream. The stream was filthy and choked with garbage and there was a cluster of tiny roughly built houses on the corner. People were always hanging out on the street at this spot and I saw this guy just sitting there taking in the world and asked if I could take his picture. People in Manila don’t do ‘deadpan’ and so I got this huge beaming smile. I always found it humbling that people in such challenging circumstances were so quick to smile.
The older man on the right is one of the city’s may pedicab drivers – or riders? The pedicabs are pedal bikes with a sidecar and are a cheap way to get around the city. I watched them go by sometimes laden down with two or three passengers and bags of shopping. I was amazed that this skinny little guy could get this thing moving. This is no sports bike; these are heavy machines to get moving even without passengers and luggage. Bear in mind also that the temperature averages 32C year round with humidity ranging from 70 percent to 85 percent. I was exhausted after a couple of hours walking in the city.
This is one of the portraits that I have posted previously and printed. This little flower stall – I think it is ‘Creative Petals Flower Shop’ – is at the corner of Arnaiz Avenue and Taft Avenue. I was looking at the flowers and asked for a picture. This was the result. I liked the framing of the guy with the flowers in the foreground and the backdrop with the display of bouquets. Most of all I liked his pose and expression, which to me conveys a real sense of confidence and dignity. With the cross tattoo on his arm, sometimes I can imagine him taking the role of Jesus in a passion play.
Here’s another shot from Arnaiz Avenue at the junction with Wilson Street where I lived. All of these blokes are trike drivers. The trikes are like the pedicabs but motorized – essentially a motorbike and sidecar. I’ve seen these trikes with six people on board and they are everywhere in the city. These guys parked up at this junction waiting for customers and sat around chatting, smoking, drinking, playing cards or sometimes just dozing in the sun. I saw them regularly on my way home and on this particular day they were all there together so I took the opportunity to get a shot of them all. As so often there is a great range of expressions on very expressive faces.
Continuing with the theme of street portraits from yesterday’s post, here is a second set of pictures taken on the streets of Manila.
The junction of Taft Avenue and EDSA is a busy spot even by Manila standards and the streets are lined with small sh0ps and stallholders selling everything you can imagine. This guy sold bananas. Nothing else; just bananas. I bought a few from time to time as an energy booster. I assume once his stock for the day was sold he went home.
Further along Taft avenue there is a fruit and vegetable market and this guy, as well as bananas, is selling calamansi. This fruit, also sometimes referred to as a Philippine Lime, is a hybrid of a kumquat and something like a mandarin orange. It’s widely used in Philippine cuisine and you buy calamansi juice everywhere. It’s not as sweet as orange juice and has a bit of a tang to it – a little like lemonade. On a hot day it’s wonderfully refreshing.
Both of these were take on Quirino Avenue in Paranaque. This district is known as Baclaran and is the site of a major church, The National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which always brought to mind Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, from Garison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone. Behind and around the church was an Aladdin’s cave of little stores, street stall and markets. I spent many hours just wandering these streets. The lady on the left worked in a shoe store, or rather a flip-flop store. There were thousands upon thousands of pairs stacked up reaching into the depths of the store and covering three floors. I tried them once but couldn’t keep them on my feet so I stuck to my Keens and Tevas.
The little guy on the right was a one man hardware store. He stood in the middle of Quirino Avenue, which is a very busy street, wearing his stock. I saw him there regularly so I suppose he must have sold enough to make it worth his while.
This was taken in the Pasay City Market at the corner of Taft Avenue and Arnaiz Avenue. This was a food market with one part for fruits and vegetables, another for fish and a third for meat. It was a covered market and on a hot day the smell in here was quite something. These women worked on a stall selling chicken. Every part of the chicken was on sale, including parts I didn’t recognize but which they assured me were definitely chicken bits. Nothing was wasted. I tried to support local businesses when I was out and about but I drew the line at meat. Chicken sitting in the open all day in that heat was a risk I was not prepared to take.
Still on Quirino Avenue the little guy on the left was just hanging out at this furniture and hardware store. The guy on the right was a pedicab driver taking a break or waiting for a customer. These hand gestures were a constant when I was photographing, particularly among young people.
Here’s the next set of street portraits from my time in Manila. These were all taken in Pasay around Taft Avenue and some of the backstreets of Paranaque.
When I first saw the guy on the left I thought he was a schoolboy, partly because of the uniform and partly because he looked so young. I found out that he was an undergraduate studying at the Philippine College of Criminology and this is the College uniform. He was clearly very proud of the uniform and the college, insisting that I take some pictures of him. This was taken in the backstreets of the Baclaran neighbourhood, and this was clearly not a wealthy neighbourhood. In all likelihood he is the first generation of his family to attend college. Many poor Filipino families valued education and worked long hours, often for little money, to be able to send their kids to college.
The man on the right was in the same neighbourhood and I came across him and a few of his neighbours just hanging out and chatting. The others were a little shy but he was happy to have his picture taken. As I wandered off down another side street they called me back. They didn’t speak much English but managed to make it clear to me that the street was best avoided. It was another expression of the kindness of the people that they were prepared to look out for a total stranger strolling around the neighbourhood.
The Taft Avenue Extension was densely packed with market stalls selling a little of everything. I passed through here regularly and often took pictures. Like most of the areas I explored very few expats ever visited and I was something of an oddity so people were often happy to chat. It was challenging trying to take photographs here because stopping to take a picture would create a massive human traffic jam within seconds. I managed to get this one at a moment when there was a brief lull in the crowds.
In the same street where I took the previous picture, this was another stall selling shoes. There were three young women on this stall but the third didn’t want her picture taken and hid behind a pile of shoe boxes to the amusement of her two friends.
On Taft Avenue I came across this group of guys with the kids. I assume one of them is the driver of the Jeepney but this was obviously a day off since they were sitting in the back sharing a bottle of something potent and having one of those loud and hilarious conversations that happen when drink has been taken. I took a bunch of pictures of them and in every single one someone had his eyes closed.