Documenting Despair : A Pandemic Lockdown Journal

It is a 50mm lens so I’m constantly checking my manual focus since I am always moving and shifting composition.  My watch says it’s 8:30 am and I’m beginning to feel the sun’s heat on my nape. The morning sun is also blinding the lens while I am framing this frail man in front of me who seems to be dazed with what’s happening around him. On my far left is an old man who walked for two hours from his home to see his doctor and is convincing the police to let him pass.  To my right is a  service driver tasked to deliver gallons of blood to a blood bank arguing with another policeman.  Another on the frontline is an office messenger who is in a rush for work, showing his identification card.  I overhear a mother with her daughter pleading so she can visit her sick father and everywhere, there are around 60 motor riders who have been waiting for three hours to cross the checkpoint.

I shifted my frame again trying to capture this man staring at the empty road right in front of him. I took three frames and walked away.

Photography allows you to isolate the world visually within that viewfinder but outside of that rectangular frame is reality – people who are displaced, disoriented and helpless. At that moment, I felt more of a human being who wanted to help these people more than a photographer documenting history. But can you actually separate the two?

I drank some water, dried my eyes and  then went back to shoot. The frail man is gone. I thought maybe he just went home out of frustration but the chaos is still there and will continue until sundown.

It is March 17, 2020. I am at the Rizal-Marikina checkpoint and it’s the second day of the Enhanced Community Quarantine.

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I started shooting instinctively the night of March 13, a day after the community quarantine on Metro Manila was announced. If you’re locking down the National Capital Region with 12.8 million people and limiting their movement, for sure, some would want to escape from that situation fast enough. People were starting to mass up in bus stations, making the place look like the typical scene before Holy Week.  They seemed completely occupied with getting a ride and leaving the city the soonest they could. In a way, it’s expected. It is the first time in our lives that we’re experiencing something like this. But what’s more apparent was the uncertainty in people’s eyes. There’s a disconnect to what’s happening, to the point of being surreal.  

On March 16, the government declared a Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine or ECQ.

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Hunger is something a lot of Filipinos are so familiar with even before, but has been heightened by the pandemic and lockdown. While some would think about their lost work and lost income, there are people who worry where to get their next meal. I met some of the homeless, the daily wage earners, the stranded OFWs during the course of my shoot and there is uncertainty and misgiving in their words. Their stories are stories of survival.

Maria, 65 years old,  homeless and lives with her dog Marimar. She is used to getting her daily food from city government feeding stations, but with the pandemic, she’s not sure if a homeless like her is going to be prioritized by the government.

Flordeliza, 42 years old, who gathers trash and earns 90 pesos daily,  now only earns 20 pesos a day since the lockdown. She needs to feed her four children —  Bugoy 15, Michelle 7, Mavic 6,and 2 year old Xander. Her two other children Akoy 6 and Rolly 5 have been missing for  two months after wandering in Cubao. 

Manila vendor Merle Abad, 70 years old sells industrial gloves along the sidewalk of Rizal Avenue.  Despite the enhanced community quarantine,  she is still forced to go to the streets and sell her products in order to survive. She has sold one pair of gloves so far when I took her picture and it’s almost 5 pm.

Tony de Vera, 54 years old. His home is his side-car. His survival depends on gathering trash and selling them to recycling shops. He has been roaming around the old Manila district the whole day.

Stranded in boarding houses in Manila, the OFWs who had to leave their work abroad, have no source of income and cannot go back to their provinces because of the ECQ. Majority of them just wants to go home but a few would like to take their chance in staying, hoping they can fly back to the country where they’re supposed to work once the airport reopens.

Roger Usman, a Badjao, together with his wife Maria and two friends were caught by the lockdown in Cavite where they sell pieces of jewelry on the streets. After two months of staying in their friend’s house and with no source of income, they courageously decided to walk back to their families in Angeles, Pampanga.

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The camera is a powerful tool and can create a cathartic experience. To see the world from that rectangular box is its strength and weakness. In taking these photos, it automatically puts me through a wide range of emotions – nervousness, sadness, disgust, anger.  I think this is a given when you take pictures of the human condition, especially in a situation which you yourself is a stranger to, and there’s little that you can do at that point. That is why there was this overriding feeling of wanting to document these events for the present and future generation to see.  These pictures will definitely not change the world.  They are not even showing you the whole story as emotions are lost amidst the covered faces, but I hope these images would awaken the empathy and compassion in all of us.

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