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 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 Manila 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 servicemen liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps began their journey home. He never told me what they said 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, but there is an openness and 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.
Czar Samuel was ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 10th and into the early 11th centuries. He spent most of his life expanding Bulgarian territory and fighting the Byzantine Empire but after his death the Byzantines triumphed and the Bulgarian Empire collapsed.
This sculpture, unveiled in 2015 on the 1,000 anniversary of Samuel’s death (he died in 1014, but close enough), generated controversy at the time partly because of the style, partly because of the location but mostly because of the glow in the dark eyes. The sculptor, Alexander Haitov, said that he glowing eyes ‘radiate internal heat’ but most people thought they were a bit silly. So when the LEDs behind his eyeballs died in 2018 they were not replaced.
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. One of the reasons for trying to be unobtrusive and take candid shots is that people often don’t like having their picture taken but in Manila many of the people I met were delighted to be photographed, often 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 were fully aware that I was photographing them. I switched to a wider lens and started taking portrait shots. 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.
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 shops 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, 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 stalls and markets. I spent many hours just wandering these streets. The lady in the first picture 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.
The little guy in the second picture was a one man hardware store. He stood in the middle of the very busy Quirino Avenue 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 too far.
Still on Quirino Avenue the little guy in the first picture was just hanging out at this furniture and hardware store. The guy in the second picture 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 saw the guy in the first picture 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 value education and work long hours for little money to be able to send their kids to college.
The man in the second picture 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 is 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 taking 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 and 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 several pictures of them and in every single one someone had his eyes closed.
I posted this a couple of days ago in my ‘Urban Life’ series but here it is again with a little background. This is probably one of my favourite photographs from Manila. The family ran this little stall at the end of our street. The menu largely consisted of every conceivable part of a chicken but I generally stuck to the pork. The grill is just off to the left where his wife is grilling my pork skewers. The glare from that fluorescent light in the background was a challenge when processing this picture and from time to time I still work on it to fine tune it some more. The nicest part of this picture is the little guy on the right. He was a shy kid and when we smiled at him he would often hide behind his mum or dad. I didn’t notice the big smile at the time and only saw it when I opened the picture in Lightroom later.
Roxas Boulevard runs along the edge of Manila Bay and is one of the major North-South roads in the city. When Pope Francis visited, his convoy traveled this route every day and the road was closed when he was passing. Crowds of people lined the route to catch a glimpse as he passed and these four boys were taking a break from standing on the raised median which had the best views. You can see the feet of the people still waiting there just behind them. The boys were taking a lunch break with their sandwiches and at first refused to have their picture taken. As I walked away they had a change of heart and called me back. I like the sense of friendship in this picture and the very natural responses of the boys. I took one more shot which was a little more formal and posed but lacked all the humanity of this shot.
Here’s another shot I really like. This was also taken during the pope’s visit a little further down the road from the previous shot. These guys are the barangay police from barangay 76 in Pasay. Barangays are the smallest unit of political organisation in the Philippines, similar to a ward or a district. Each barangay has its own small police force. As with the previous photograph I liked the naturalness of this shot with the different postures and expressions, particularly the guy on the end looking over his friend’s shoulder.
This older man spent his days on Wilson Street a few hundred yards from our apartment. Every time I passed by he would smile and wave. Having been convinced that photographing vulnerable homeless people was morally dubious I never thought about taking his picture until one day he made clear from his gestures that he wanted me to do so. I thought his face conveyed sadness but also real dignity.
These three guys were security guards at a complex of new office buildings further down Wilson Street or possible on Mabini Street. I got talking to them and took some shots. Normally my portrait shots are set in a particular context, but here the ‘context’ was a plain wall. I was quite pleased with how these turned out which was helped, as ever, by the openness and naturalness of my subjects.
Here’s another set of portrait shots taken on the streets of Manila.
These two women were shopkeepers running small local stores on Wilson Street. At the time I didn’t notice the third lady in the background who was greatly amused by it all. It was only later when looking at the picture onscreen that I saw her.
This elderly lady was sitting on a big tyre having a chat with some of her neighbours. They said hello and I grabbed this quick picture. I think this was on Leveriza Street. Without really thinking about it I just managed to avoid having the yellow pole behind growing out of her head.
This one was taken in Chinatown during Chinese new year. This lady was running a news stand on the corner of Ongpin Street.
These were both taken among the many market stalls and small shops along the Taft Avenue Extension. I was always surprised at how many stalls were selling shoes and not just sensible flip flops but crazy shoes with six inch heels.