Photographer’s Perspective: Fear and Loving in Manila

(Blog post by Charles Meacham – thoughts on photographing the 2009 Manila Pride March)

I’ve spent a lot of time in airplanes, but rarely has that time been spent sleeping.  Hundreds of bad movies, cheap travel magazines, and “single serving” conversations have kept me up past time zones, date lines, and of course my bed time.  My flight to Manila was no different, and I found myself walking passing customs at just after 3 in the morning.  There are no cars waiting for me, no drivers holding a sign with my name.  There are no reservations at a local hotel.  At this time of night there is only an empty bench, and an hour or two before the sun comes up.  Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping on airport benches and floors during these early morning hours.  I enjoy the silence in a place that is usually bustling with people and all the noise that comes with them.

Sun comes up, taxi ride, hotel check in.   My hotel in Manila was just a two minute walk from the meeting point of the parade, so that morning, still unable to sleep, I headed out with a map showing the parade route.  While I do not set up any of my shots, besides portraits, being familiar with the area you are going to be photographing can be a huge help.  With a compass you can tell where the sun is going to be, interesting backgrounds, view points, landmarks are all things one should try to make themselves aware of.  I walked the route twice, once forward, once backwards before heading back to my hotel for a bit of sleep.

The realization that there is no real way to photograph and document an entire pride parade came to me quickly.  They are living breathing things.   They just don’t have a life of their own they have lives of their own.  Parades are made up of different groups and each group is doing it’s own thing.  For many of the participants these parades are Halloween, New Years, and Valentine’s Day all wrapped up into one.  They are a political and social statement, a personal display of expression, and an orgy of sexuality.  On top of it all, they are a party, and a good one at that.  But under the sugary layer of costumes, fun and expressions of love, I can’t help but feel that there is a layer of discontent, protest, and demand for change.

I have learned to pick certain points of interest and focus my attention on them.  In Manila, I was introduced to a group of transgender women.  The country is famous for it’s beautiful “Lady Boys” and I knew there was going to be a beauty contest later that night, so I stuck with them.  The other topic I focused on was the religious protesters that lined the streets of the parade route.  There really weren’t that many, but members would take short cuts through the back streets to meet up with the parade at different points.  This small band of protesters made their debut last year for the first time in the parade’s 16 year-old history.  Somehow, I was not surprised to see that their leaders were not Filipinos, but white Americans, holding up “FEAR GOD” signs and yelling degrading and often disturbing remarks.  The marchers mostly laughed and posed for photos in front of huge signs condemning them to an eternity burning in Hell.  “At least we are going to different places,” I heard someone say.

While the party went well into the morning, I called it a night around 2am.  Then in my hotel room edited and backed up images till around 5.  I shut off the single uncovered bulb hanging from the ceiling and in the darkness laid back and reflected on the day.  In just a few seconds I was asleep.

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