Veejay Photo by Garrie Maguire

Veejay Villafranca :: an interview

We first met over a beer at Fred’s Revolution 1915, Cubao Expo, a small area of alternative trendiness in a sea of homogenised Manila. In a year of living in this city I’ve not found anything similar. For this interview, we meet at Imprenta, about which you will hear more from us soon. 

A lot of your work is very hard-core, gritty social documentary, sort of ‘how in hell did you not get shot?’ style of social documentary. 

(laughs) They are my roots - photojournalism. As we are a very young industry, most of the photographers here in the Philippines working now (apart from the commercial field) are deeply rooted in photojournalism. People only started working freelance in the 1970s during the Marshal Law years. After that there was the People’s Revolution and people started coming in to the industry. Most of us are deeply rooted in that - photo-documentry and photojournalism. We are inspired by hard news. 

I was reading an opinion piece in one of the papers that was saying that hopefully this new middle class will hold the politicians accountable for their actions and make them responsible for doing their job of looking after all citizens.

It happened in the second Edsa Revolution when we threw out Estrada. That was mostly the middle class, I think, at least I would like to believe. That was in 2001, the middle class acted, they went to the streets, and shouted that they didn’t want this system anymore. But it didn’t change. But it has shifted since then. In 2001 there was hardly any social media, almost nothing, no mobile technology, but now… most of these middle class people who were very aware, shifted from the streets to the keyboards, and have become keyboard warriors. 44 people are killed and they know everything about it. But if you push them to actually do something physical, go out to the streets or question the government, question the police force… Even normal street crime, if someone sees something happening they will avoid it. If they see police being corrupt nobody would go and do something about that.  

My first project was done in the port area. I started that in 2007 as a project in my course in photojournalism. I met these kids a year before in 2006 when I was on assignment, doing the hard news. Then I met them again and went back a year later to pursue the project. It was tough as I met the kids and I asked them, are you really a gang? I asked because they told me they were a gang. They were not the real gang, there were more senior members; these were like the foot soldiers. It took me about six months before I could get close to the real members. I met them. Talked with them. I was there almost every day. Then I started the project. I was very clear with my intentions, it would say: I'm a photographer and I'm a student, and I want to do your story. I heard about you guys from the kids, I want to hear your side of it. That went on for three years. 2007, 2008, 2009 and a little bit of 2010, and it got noticed in 2008 by the Ian Parry Scholarship Grant in London. And that was the start of my story. Going into the freelance world and photo-documentary and pursuing long term projects. 

On your website you make a comment that most Philippine conflicts are really about land. 

Yep a lot of it. Especially in the provinces as it’s very feudal in the provinces. Here in Manila it’s not that obvious but in reality all of the Philippines is owned by eight big families. Manila is one of the most expensive cities in the world now.

I’m curious about your relationship with equipment. Why did you choose the equipment you use and how much attention do you pay to the idea of equipment?

I’m not the right person to ask anything in regards to equipment and any other technicalities involved.

However you are a photographer so you are the right person to ask. Amateurs seem completely obsessed by equipment.
VJ: I kicked off my photography career with my father.  My father is a photojournalist for the government so he didn’t do mainstream photography. That is, he didn’t do editorial work. He wrote well. He was doing Public Relations for government housing agencies. My grandfather was a print journalist. So I was brought up in that sort of scenario, that of information, where basically you can’t be stupid. If my dad asked me something about this or that and I couldn’t answer, I thought ‘Fuck, I have to look that up’. Also he instilled in me the idea of putting information out there. Then I grew up. When it was time, I was offered a job for a news magazine and I took it, because dad said I could do it. I had no idea, I could hardly work the camera then. My first actual coverage was with him in 2001 at the second EDSA revolution and he had just dragged me along. I was half drunk. He was saying ‘You have to go out’. I was ‘Like, why?’ ‘This is history.’ He dragged me out and gave me an 50mm FE Nikon and two rolls of black and white. He loaded it as I didn’t know how to load. I took it and looked through it and thought ‘too tight, too tight’. So change the lens to a 28, then wow, this is my lens. From that job opportunity, you learn as you go. Which is kinda what happened. He guided me. He was guiding me more on the journalistic side. I was covering the former president campaign. That ignited the passion. I was like ‘Wow, I get to travel, for free, and meet people hear their stories and make pictures.’ I wasn’t particular about image quality until maybe two years into the job. 2005 I think. I didn't have a digital camera until about 2006, I think. At the newspaper we were using film and I was fine with that. I didn’t even get to practice in the darkroom. My dad kept pushing me: ‘You have to learn how to develop your film’. But I just wanted to go out and get the next assignment and so…

Going back to your question, I never really got to dive into the whole photography equipment until I started to pursue freelance work, which was in 2007. I was heavily influenced by the masters like Eugene Richards, 7 Noir and all those Magnum guys. I was thinking, I have a camera but it doesn’t get that picture. Then my influences here like the founder Derrick, they used rangefinders, I was like ‘What is a rangefinder?’ I started then my love affair with smaller cameras. In general it’s not just about having a small camera, it’s because I wanted to be sort of incognito. You know that whole objective idea of being a shadow there and just talking and that is when I developed good ears. I think if someone would ask me what my edge now is I would say that I can have a conversation with subject and know about their story, even before taking a picture. So that was how I created. I had a phase when I worked for Getty on the news wire for a bit. I did some other gigs with some other wire agencies. I kind of hated it; the pace was too fast for me.

So that is how freelancing started for me, because when I was working for newspapers or magazines, I heard of stories that I wanted to stop and spend more time with, but there is no time. This happened again when I went freelance. It was the thing I was trying to avoid but it happened again. So I just slowed down and actually and sold my SLRs last year and picked up Fujifilm X-Pros and X-E1s and I love it because it is slower but I get the job done and for my personal work I have film cameras at home now. I’m playing around with a (Lomo) Belair camera it’s a 120 camera, and I recently borrowed an Horizon. 

One of the great exercises my dad gave me when I first started to do photo essays was to give me a roll of black and white and tell me to go around Manila and produce a story. You can’t just ‘click-click-click’.
vOne of the things I love with the X series is using it in manual for aperture, shutter and ISO, the manual focus is great in the day but not fast enough at night. I think Fuji is the only brand that makes high quality lenses for APS sized sensors.

And Zeiss, I use the Zeiss lenses particularly the 32mm

Best reason to buy Sony is Loxar series from Zeiss.

Yes. I’ve been using 35mm and 28 mm for some time.

One thing I'm loving about the Fuji is that because the viewfinder is a screen I get to see the exposure before I press the button, thus no need to preview the image on the back. 

Yes, because you can see the exposure already. The Fuji’s for me were more about slowing down my pace to make myself think about images and stories rather than thinking about technicalities which I fuck up a whole lot. In the end as my friend was saying, that is how you develop a style. It’s how you are known for your products, they are imperfect. 

You know what happened with this? (shows the interviewer a photo) I was on assignment and I just got the Belair and it’s my first time to use this camera: big, 120, panoramic. It is full manual and fixed at f8 I think. I started walking with it. I would shoot one frame and advance one. I was hoping for a 6x12, right. So a 120 roll would only have 6 frames. What I did though was every shot, every frame I had I only advanced once (6cm) so I had 12 shots. That is what happened. When I saw it I was like ‘Fuck, that is nice. I love it’. (laughs).

So you choose the Fiji’s primarily for their size?

No I’ve been using Fuji’s or some time. My first digital camera was an S2. My father bought an S5, which had a D200 body. My father was using Nikon so I was using Nikon for film camera. Like I said I sold all my Nikon last year as I got fed up with it. 

One of the things about our tools of trade is when we adopt a new system it generally takes a while to get used to it. 

For me with whatever system of whatever brand I use I only need to know where the aperture, speed and ISO is, and that is it. Anything else…Well… I have not read the manual. That is why when I had a frame for exhibition, I asked ‘Can I print this at 16x20? Can I have your original file?’ So I gave a medium resolution jpeg.

Then you learn to shoot raw?


You’ve basically been in photography after digital started hitting, and with digital came reductions of budgets. 

Yeah, we used to get a week-long editorial assignment at 500USD a day. We had a lot of National Geographic photographers coming here for, say a month, on 500USD a day. That was the sweetest. I think in my generation, the turnover generation, we are at the end of the film era, dying editorial leads, nobody makes money out of assignments. It was very interesting. Not when I was there before, then it was like ‘Fuck, no assignment, no assignment’. Now looking back at it, it was an interesting turnover, especially for my peers and me, all of us were freelancers. It’s still hard, we panic when there are no emails but if you can use it to your advantage, use all these new platforms… I’m doing an interview now with a new platform called Medium. The part two is coming, which will answer some of the questions you ask. It doesn’t pay but it has massive reach.

We are making photographs that people want to see. We are making content, there has to be a way that this content can be monetised?

True but for me how I see it is, someone like Brandon of Vantage's photography blog, came up to me saying we want to feature your work, so I submitted it. I thought they only wanted to feature the climate change work, so it thought fine, I need the press for this. Now they are having a second part as they found my content, and my interview interesting. If they or other websites that feature my work, would pay me, I wouldn’t fight them over that. I get income from other legitimate editorial sources. I don’t mind as I, sort of, have control over the content and also the good thing about it is the editors and producers actually work with you. As opposed to editorials, where it is, hey are you free tomorrow? Sorry, I'm not… Ok, Bye… are you free on Saturday… no… OK Bye. When you get an assignment it’s like, here are the details. They don’t actually work with you like they did before. It would make it better, they say, VJ, we have a story on this, you have more local knowledge so help me make this better. Some of them do, but many don’t because of the deadlines…

One thing about long term and personal projects, they tend to be vanity projects. At some point they tend to be more about the photographer. You name a group of people: Subol, Nakata, these guys are doing diaristic work, first person, I'm here I'm in Mumbai, Bangkok, Alaska, it’s gonzo photography. This style is not widely accepted, especially the Philippine movement. As here things are still traditional. I was part of that turnover generation from film, people didn’t know how to make profit out of it, because of dying assignments and reduced budgets of the various agencies were being slashed. I was delving on that, but also I was in a particular part of my life where I was like, ‘Fuck that’, there are a lot of problems out there. Everyone wanted to be a war photographer. I wanted to be a war photographer. But then again, I think it was Martin Parr who said, your really don’t have to go to real war, as there are ‘wars’ happening in your own back yard. Which is true. This is how I also nailed myself here in the Philippines, as a lot of people asked me why didn’t I work outside? I tried too, I started a couple of projects here and there. 

But that big question of identity is also connected to me as an original artist. I think anything about the Philippines is hard. For example if National Geographic tells me, we are sending you across the Philippines for one month: record the Philippines for us. That would be hard for me. If I was a landscape-type photographer I could do that, but I'm not. That is why I'm nailing myself in the Philippines and going introspective a little bit but still keeping my editorial/photojournalistic background strong.

What is the situation with producers in the Philippines? That is, people who deal with the business side of photography so that the photographer can get on with what they do well, make photos?

There were initiatives started, I think, in the 1980s. This was pre-internet. My older friends would tell me about dealing with Time or Newsweek, you send a packet to NY or you have someone coming here, it would take a week, a month or even a year to deliver your portfolio but you will get it to someone, or you could call, ‘Hey I sent my portfolio there, did you receive it?’ Old school ways, you get through. Now the chance of getting through to a editor even with the whole of digital is minimal, good luck if they even reply. I still do cold calls. 

There was an initiative here where one guy who was also a photographer, managed several other photographers shooting social issues and travel. The problem was he is also a photographer. It’s really still every man for himself. If I could find someone to get me the assignments, I would be happy to give them 50%. So far there has been a lack of interest from business people. There are many ways of doing this. It could be just photojournalists for different types of photographer. I know of agents like this in the States, but not here. As a business it’s not easy but it is doable. It’s a basic business model, you connect one person to the other, you do some sales talk, this person does this, he’s done a project here or there. We’ve had people who have taken our works to sell in galleries, this is very upmarket. 

You spoke of book projects before, what are you considering?

Books are a personal thing. It will be independently published, in the Philippines.

There are a lot of really interesting small publishers. The one that prints Max Pam, Editions Bessard, and Afterhours Books in Indonesia are particularly good. When work from non-WENA countries is shown in WENA there is a fetishitic aspect to it, in that an outside curator decides what is worthwhile, if we are lucky we get a local helping. I remember finding a Chinese local history of photography, and it was very different to what the Western curators see as important. 

Yes, also for us that is one of the big dilemmas we have; we don’t have a history of Philippine photography. Nobody dares to write one maybe… we are still campaigning for people who have more knowledge and more access to different things to put a proper…not a timeline, but a selection of people who are important in this era, it doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. Just for us who are mid-career and especially for the ones starting out, it’s good to know. Most of my early experiences were foreign, not that it’s bad but…I didn’t know until later on that we had great talent here in the Philippines. 

So what is the passion that keeps you in photography

There are still stories. Especially since I’ve had a kid, I have stories to tell. It just pains me and saddens me that other people are very successful in their chosen careers, but have no story to tell, they have two cars and a beach house, which is quite impressive. But what is your story? Oh… At the end of it, in your 50s, you hear people say if only I did that, met him, went there…  I’m doing that in my 30s.

My father brought me up with photography. He was an employee, but still he managed a great career, I'm a freelancer. When I left the magazine my dad was worried: no healthcare, no security 

How do you recognise a great photo?

Editing my own work is different to recognising a great photo. I’m more interested in the story, and in that respect I recognise a good photo by talking to the photographer.  Nowadays anyone can be a great photographer even if you are doing 5x4s, you put it out there on the internet, put your technical shit there, and boom… then I meet the photographer, I appreciate that more. Tell me about he role of narrative in photography

It’s one thing I'm still thinking about, it does change drastically, but living in a country like the Philippine it’s crazy…

Narratives for me, especially with visual arts, it’s about going back to the main thrust, to create a discourse, to understand something or create nostalgia, to invoke feelings. If it doesn’t you are not a great visual artist. That is why I‘m still in this job - I have stories to tell. As I said in front of my son’s class recently ‘This is what I do, I show a picture of something and I tell their story. I actually met someone, this person in the picture, and talked with them and spent time with them.’ 

Over the last 30 years the personal narrative of the artist has assumed a pivotal role in the success of artists as much as the work. 

Yes, though I can’t really comment as I don’t have that much contact with the arts scene. Though I’ve noticed that people are more interested in the photographer’s background now. Before a rich Belgian with a castle goes to Hong Kong, Manila, Tokyo and buys work to put on their walls but they may not care about the stories. Now people are more interested in the process and the story. Even before there was a clamour for war photographers, because war photographers started speaking up, ‘This is my experience, I almost got killed, a bullet grazed my head, I got hit in my foot.’ 

When you go to the national archives or you find a book somewhere, you can find a picture but you can’t really know about the photographer. 

Isn’t that part of what is interesting about photography, you find a print and you have to try to find a story?

Well yes, but you make it how you want. That is the thrust of photography. You put it out there with whatever ethical standards you have. You put it out there and let the viewers make the stories for themselves. Since the photographers started speaking up about their experiences, people became interested not just what the work says on a certain issue because issues are dime a dozen. If you know people who are actually there, people are engrossed by the stories.

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