The Fotomoto exhibition is where professional photographers, artists, and hobbyists who love to tell stories can come together to share their photos. Among the many forms of photography that find their place on the walls of the traveling gallery, the photojournalist’s work can be considered the most deceptively simple.
What people see are raw snapshots of a moment in time, but behind the lens lie a strict set of rules and a code of ethics that photographers must abide by. Jes Aznar and Veejay Villafranca are two photojournalists who have explored this crucial form of truth-telling for many years.
Jes is most known for his fearless coverage of issues in the Philippines. He founded the EverydayImpunity project and co-founded the EverydayPhilippines project on Instagram to shed light on the subtle and mundane, yet truthful scenes of life for Filipinos. On the other hand, Veejay’s body of work captures Filipino cultural and religious practices, climate displacement, and even secret societies in the Philippines. He co-published his first photobook, SIGNOS, in 2017.
There would be times when I would get home and I would tell myself, “I should've taken that picture!” But what can I do? In some situations, you have to give your subjects a moment of privacy, a moment to mourn, and become human. That’s part of the job.
Despite having a job that can come with fear, they speak about it with an unexpected lightness—because while the job calls for bravery, it also comes with a privilege to witness the world in a way not many get to experience. Worldly, battle-tested, and still hungry to tell stories that matter, the two veterans spoke to me about their journey in the field:
GRID: To start things off, can you tell me how you both got into photojournalism?
VEEJAY VILLAFRANCA: I was exposed to photography early on through my father and grandfather. Later on, I applied as a photojournalist for a news magazine, then I did a little bit of work for Newswire in the Philippines, and eventually I went freelance in 2006 to pursue documentary work until today.
JES AZNAR: I’ve come a long way. I first started with doing paintings and exhibitions. For work, I was in the advertising industry. Nasa opisina lang ako, stuck between four walls and a computer. Nagising ako one day and I decided okay, I'm going to quit.
When I was painting, the usual practice is that when you create an artwork, you exhibit it and when your work is bought by someone, tapos na ang journey ng trabaho mo. Pwede siyang ilagay sa kwarto, pwede ilagay sa kusina, ilagay sa banyo, bodega—wherever. And that's it. Then I realized the potential of photography. You can reproduce it. You can make it travel worldwide, far and beyond, and have many people look at it. Especially in the realm of photojournalism, you're talking about taking pictures of important stories that need to be told. So parang sa akin, mas malakas ang allure niya. That’s why I decided to become a photojournalist.
GRID: Given the changing social, political, and art landscapes, it’s safe to say that it’s a very interesting time to be a photojournalist. What can you say about being one right now?
VEEJAY: We were sort of the turnover generation from analog to digital. From aspects like the appreciation of photography to the dissemination of images, my generation was at the start of that transition. So, we had an uphill journey to navigate the field in terms of practice and the profession.
The terms “visual journalism” and “visual storytelling” define how it is to be a photojournalist today. These terms were coined not too long ago because of the multifaceted approach to the job now: You're not only a photographer, you have to be a reporter, a writer. You also need a trained eye to disseminate, and even to contextualize and criticize images. At the same time, you have to be a support system for your peers because the landscape has changed. Today, things are much more difficult in the sense that we're not only traversing the hardships of professionalism, but also the challenges in truth-telling. A challenge to us and the next generation is how to push on.
It's a privileged profession to be a witness to historical events.
GRID: And things are continuously evolving, right? Is it difficult to catch up with how rapidly things are changing?
VEEJAY: I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone who's practicing photojournalism today is to unlearn certain practices from before and then learn how to adapt to the changing platforms. The ethics are ever evolving. Before, it was okay to do portraits of kids without any context and show them on your portfolio. Further on, technically it was not frowned upon, pero pag walang context, hindi na nabibigyan ng justice yung image.
JES: And in terms of the profession itself, personally I’m not afraid that photography is going to be passé. It won’t. We're actually looking at a very, very visual future. Sa kabila nga nito, mas magiging relevant ang photography.
Most of us here at Fotomoto come from different genres of photography. From photojournalism, fashion, commercial, fine arts—and for our part especially sa aming mga photojournalist, ang pagbabago ngayon is that we believe that we are not living inside a vacuum. We need to help and work with other photographers and visual communicators.
GRID: I also spoke to Stephanie Frondoso of the Fotomoto curatorial team, who briefly talked about photojournalism and its set of rules. When you take a photo, it's your job to preserve the dignity of your subjects. So, how do you exactly manage to preserve dignity in the photos that you take?
VEEJAY: It’s a big responsibility but also that's the exciting aspect of it. Some photojournalists keep the tradition of upfront news that’s gritty, some even very confronting. Though I think that every time you engage in a story, for whatever technique or visual medium that you use, you ensure that the core of journalism still stays: the respect and dignity for the subject, as well as the representation of their voices in the story.
JES: There are so many practitioners, and so many perspectives on what dignity is. Sa akin, first and foremost, para wala nang gray area. I look at it as an unbreakable rule. We are bound to this very strict set of rules about dignity, integrity, and truth. If you want to take a picture, you always make sure that your subject's dignity is still there. You don't take it, you don't corrupt it.
It's very hard especially if you're taking a photo of a scene and after one or two seconds, it's gone forever. [There are photos that I lost the opportunity to take because the situation was sensitive.] There would be times when I would get home and I would tell myself, “I should've taken that picture!” But what can I do? In some situations, you have to give your subjects a moment of privacy, a moment to mourn, and become human. That’s part of the job.
GRID: Sometimes as part of your job, you are sent to interesting places that lead to unique experiences. Can you share moments on the field that have molded you as photojournalists?
VEEJAY: Mine would be in 2001 at the second EDSA revolution. That was the first time I was exposed to an actual historical event. But I wasn't a professional photographer then—my father took me there because he was documenting for himself and then he gave me a camera. He took me around to witness the whole thing and that was the first moment na nag-establish ng idea at ng practice of photojournalism sa akin. I was around 20 years old at the time and basically yun ang first foray ko into a historical moment and trying to use a camera to document it.
JES: For me, I guess it was this incident in Mindanao. In Maguindanao, I was supposed to be on a convoy with other journalists but because my colleague had a fever the night before, we didn't join them. That day turned out to be the Ampatuan massacre. It was very defining for me because that was the very, very first time I felt afraid. That was the moment that I felt that everything was changing. Before that, I was working for The Wire, an international news agency, and siyempre, medyo bata rin—I wasn't afraid of anything. I felt like I could go anywhere, lahat ng mga pinupuntahan sa Mindanao, all the places that any normal journalist would not dare go, I would go. But after that incident, parang na-realize ko na wala nang power ang media ID ko. The fourth estate was not that powerful anymore, not revered anymore, not respected anymore. Fair game na, just like anybody else. I felt vulnerable.
GRID: And have there been more moments where you're on the field and you kind of hesitate or you become afraid before you click?
JES: So many times. During the Haiyan coverage in Tacloban, I was walking with two other photographers when I stumbled upon these people crying on the street. There was a child in the middle, and they were crying around the child. I approached the people slowly, and then when I got there, I talked to one of the relatives who was also crying. They looked so anxious and so sad. I talked to them and gestured to politely ask if I could take a picture. The scene was very graphic and if they had said no I would’ve stopped and gone my way. But the relatives said yes, so I stayed. A few moments later, they went to the other photographers and they said they needed to go. I don't know why they had let me stay. [I ended up being] the only photographer there and they let me take photos from where they were until they arrived at the cemetery. Hanggang sa burial, kasama ko sila. And I was worried that at any moment, they could’ve kicked me out of there. But, they didn't.
GRID: So, fear had become a part of your job in one way or another, yet you're still here today. What keeps you shooting?
JES: Para sa akin, inaalala ko yung time when I decided to become a photojournalist. Until now, the reasons and the passion are still there. Living in the 21st century, for me, photography is still the most revolutionary tool for communication. Wala na akong ibang maisip na ibang way para mai-communicate ko yung stories ng iba at mai-communicate ko yung story ko aside from photography.
VEEJAY: For me, I never looked at photojournalism as a sign of bravery. It's a privileged profession to be a witness to historical events. Just being a witness to someone else's story is the best tradeoff for this discipline, in my opinion. Ito pa rin ang nagpapa-excite sa akin and also, it's what pushes me to help other photographers too: to teach them or help them pursue a career in photojournalism.
How Fotomoto came about is because of a lot of those reasons also. Searching for other local voices in the Philippines— not just professional photographers’—and also at the same time, trying to show diverse stories is what we do. We keep the practice and the discipline intact. And I think right now is an opportunity to take advantage of the changing times.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.