BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Sunday, September 25, 2016


(I found this in my archives. It's an unpublished version of a piece I did for Starweek. I forgot writing about this but I'm posting it here because I think I like it more than the published piece. But why I chose to submit the other version remains a puzzle).

A scissors, a chair and a cloth to cover falling hair; there is little boy and a lanky barber, his hair grown thick as well. This is a pop-up barber “shop” in an empty alley in downtown Manila. There really is no shop with the trademark helix of red, blue and white, the barber pole that dates back to the medieval times. There is

There is a woman, she with long hair cascading down her shoulders sitting alone appreciating art inside the Oarhouse Pub on Bocobo Street, described as one of the last remnants of Manila’s colourful past.

In a mass grave in Leyte in the southern Philippines, the names of the dead, they who perished when Haiyan came, are cast in stone and etched in gold, remembered forever.

In a town of water lilies, in the middle of cornfields, there is a woman covered in blue. She is the wife of a dead rebel, she is the mother of an infant son and four other children, now without a father.

Welcome to the Philippines where little boys get their hair cut anywhere, anytime, in empty streets or in crowded barber shops, where children roam fishing villages in Snow White costumes, where town elders read the livers of freshly butchered pigs in fog covered mountains in the northern Philippines and where cornfields become massacre sites.

A country of 94 million people, the Philippines is a storied place. Surrealism runs through the daily lives of people. And the stories are endless as they are varied; every place is a cartographic reality; age-old traditions exist alongside the ephemeral and yet the Philippines is as real as it can get.

There is more to the Philippines than just poverty and politics and this is what Everyday Philippines, an Instagram project put up by three Filipino freelance photojournalists, Tammy David (, Veejay Villafranca ( and Jes Aznar (

All three said that EverydayPhilippines, an account on photo-sharing site Instagram seeks to show the Philippines and not just the usual stories of poverty and corruption that the country is sometimes synonymous with.

The Instagram project joins the growing global Everyday movement inspired by EverydayAfrica, which started in 2012 initially as a Tumblr Blog by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merill.

EverydayAfrica inspired similar Instagram accounts put up by mostly professional photographers: EverydayIran, EverydayBronx, EverydayUSA, EverydayEasternEurope, EverydayMyanmar and also to non-geographic issues such as EverydayClimateChange and EverydayIncarceration, among others.

EverydayPhilippines officially started on Jan. 1, 2015 and joins this global movement as it aims to break the visual stereotype of the Philippines being just another Third World country mired in deep poverty.

The goal is to break these stereotypes, says David, who is also a video journalist and whose works have appeared in both local and foreign publications including the Wall Street Journal.

Villafranca, a photographer represented by Getty Images, said it has become difficult to pitch stories about the country because some Western media’s preconceived notions of what the Philippines is.

“The Philippines on its own is very rich (but) when you pitch (stories) to the Western media, there are a lot of misconceptions,” says Villafranca.

And yes some people zero in on the country being just another Third World nation.

Aznar, whose works appear on the pages of the New York Times, thought of coming up with the project so he suggested it to his two friends Villafranca and David, who in turn, happen to have the same idea, inspired by EverydayAfrica’s success.

The rules are simple. The project is open to other photographers and the photographs must be, as much as possible, phone-camera captured, visually stunning and must provide contexts.

“There are many photographs and stories but what is important is to put the context,” Aznar says.

Photographers can then post their photos on their individual Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #EverydayPhilippines and from this, the three proponents then curate the photographs that appear on this hashtag search before reposting these on the EverydayPhilippines account.

And true enough, the result is a visually stunning tapestry of vignettes of life in the Philippines that entices the audience to take a closer look at a nation whose daily life is so rich in history, culture and magic realism. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Self Preservation

Behind the driver’s seat, I listened intently to his story. He’s been driving all his life, the only skill he knows that can earn him a living. For two years, many moons ago, he was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, too, driving under the scorching heat of the Middle Eastern sun, serving the thousands or so servants of the King. 

He’s been driving his brother’s car for a month now, to bring commuters to wherever they need to go. Brother is in Qatar, earning a living, for his daughter who is left in Manila with her grandparent. 

Back to the driver. He’s earning a decent amount every month but things could be better. Much, much better, he says. 

And so he wants to try his luck again abroad. In Bahrain this time to earn more and more and more. Life abroad is difficult. Very, very difficult but what can he do? 

"The loneliness can kill you," he says.

"But it’s where the money is." 

The stories of survival in the Philippines are varied as they are endless. 

In the streets of Metro Manila at night, small time drug pushers are playing cat-and-mouse chase with the police and vigilante groups. 

Everyone’s trying to survive the times -- in the most mundane of hours, the most difficult days. 

And it’s not only a matter of life and death. It's also about one’s happiness and sanity.

There are a hundred and one ways to do it — from the illegal to the overt. 

Those in unhappy marriages, for instance, take in paramours and those who fall in love with their paramours just try to fight the misery. 

Some wives settle with their philandering husbands for the family to survive. 

Others just go on with their lives, just winging it, surviving on other people’s skills, talents and perhaps, even money. 

We all have our ways. 

As for me, I write to survive. I write to stay sane. I write to breathe. Most of all, as Anais Nin said, I write to taste life twice. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Earlier Mona Lisa

Imagine strolling the streets of Shanghai, which is known all over the world as the Paris of the Orient and finding out that the Mona Lisa, too, happened to be there. 

This was exactly what happened to Jes and me as we were walking aimlessly in the nooks and crannies of Xintiandi -- "New Heaven and Earth" -- Shanghai's Old French Quarters. It is a shopping district so posh one would think one is walking around the cobbled stone streets of Paris, with its charming cafes and where art is all over the city.

And that's exactly how we felt. At the House in Xintiandi, an exhibition place, we met Leonardo Da Vinci's Lisa del Giocondo. Nope, this was not the Louvre and this isn't the Mona Lisa at the Louvre but we would later learn, it was Da Vinci's Earlier Mona Lisa. 

She had a warm smile and she did look younger. 

Just how lucky can we get. It's not everyday that you get to stumble upon a masterpiece. I remember a few years back when I also saw the works of Frida Kahlo on exhibit in Brussels. This was a de ja vu of sorts. 

The Earlier Mona Lisa, according to an article on the Shanghai Daily, is also the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, but painted a decade before and therefore looks much younger.  After almost 35 years, during which historians made comparative study and carried out scientific research, the Mona Lisa Foundation, together with experts, scientists and art historians, presented evidence in 2012 that confirmed that the “Earlier Mona Lisa” was indeed done by da Vinci. Mona Lisa,” which was commissioned by Guiliano de’ Medici, was done between 1513 and 1516. The “Earlier Mona Lisa” was painted from 1503 to 1506 and commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo. It had a young Lisa, and was flanked by columns, but was left unfinished.

In all probability, da Vinci used the same model to create the Louvre masterpiece, and the earlier unfinished work ended up with da Vinci’s assistant after his death, the article also said. 

It was on exhibit in Shanghai after years of being kept in a Swiss vault.

And how lucky we were to be in same place at the same time that young Lisa was there. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Memories of Home

From my window seat, I could see Kansai Airport slowly disappear in the distance. All I could see now was the tail of the plane and the huge white clouds that now surround us.

And this is how it happens every time. I look on the right, watch the earth below me disappear into the horizon and when there is nothing left to see except the clouds that look like giant cotton candies, I lean back, close my eyes and try to catch up on my sleep.

Departures always mean a step away from home or to home, depending on where I am. 

When I no longer see the place I’ve just been to and the glittering city lights disappear, I know  I will soon be home. That moment when the plane’s wheels touch the runway, I know it’s only a matter of hours before I am back in my bed. 

But being in a different place makes me think of home more vividly. Oh how I miss the smell of our tiny apartment; the flowers in the balcony, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air in the morning, the clean sheets in my bedroom and the love and laughter that burst in the seams. 

I cannot even begin to count how many times I’ve had to leave but wherever corner of the world I am, I carry with me memories of home. Home is always with me, never far, never gone, never forgotten, not even for a moment.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

When Bourdain Came for a Drink

By now, the episode has aired; the secrets unveiled.

Yes, Anthony Bourdain came to Manila last year and his weeks of exploring the country were captured  in the Manila episode of his Parts Unknown.

Together with a group of photographers, I was there during the Oarhouse scene but didn't expect to actually be part of the episode. Still, it was a pleasant surprise.

Thank you Mr. Bourdain for dropping by for a drink at the now historic Oar house Pub.

Photos by Jes Aznar, Jun Sepe and screen grab by Justine Tan

Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Commentary on Duterte's Rape Joke for WomenseNews

My latest piece for Womensenews

May 9, 2016

Photo by Dondi Tawatao

MANILA, The Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)—Although he has been leading his rivals in the pre-election opinion polls, today is the day when the Philippine voters really say what they think of him.
Whether or not he gets elected on May 9 won’t be known for a couple more days, as the votes are counted. In the meantime, everyone should know what he said not long ago when he stood on a stage in a rally in Quezon City, in the northeast part of the National Capital Region.

Rodrigo Duterte, 71, in a bright red collared shirt and with a bulging belly, proudly told a story of a 1989 prison siege. An inmate, he told the cheering crowd, was holding hostages at the Davao City 
Detention Center, in the city in the southern Philippines where Duterte has served as mayor for more than 22 years, among the longest-serving city chiefs in the country.

Duterte recalled the events vividly. There was an assault, then an exchange of gunfire between the troops and inmates. The inmates used the hostages as cover and raped all the women, among them an Australian missionary, he said casually.

The rape of the Australian missionary angered him, he told the crowd. Oh not just because the inmates raped her but because he, the mayor, should have been first in line.

“Son of a bitch, what a waste,” Duterte said in a video that went viral. “I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress.”

“What went through my mind,” he continued, “was that they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful; the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

Her name was Jacqueline Hamill, 36 years old, raped by a gang of inmates and her throat slashed. She is among 20 hostages who died in the two-day siege.

That a viable presidential candidate should discuss what happened to her in such terms is incomprehensible.

The grotesque joke drew the ire of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, the diplomatic community, women’s groups and ordinary citizens.

“Rape and murder should never be joked about or trivialized. Violence against women and girls is unacceptable anytime, anywhere,” said Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Amanda Gorely, who criticized the mayor for his remarks on Twitter.

Nikki Luna, a Filipina feminist artist based in Manila, was among the first to decry the comments.
"This is by far the best, clearest example and understanding of what is meant by the phrase 'rape culture',” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Watch and listen. Sexual assault, rape, and violence are trivialized, made into jokes, it becomes the 'norm' straight from this 'mayor'."

Gabriela, a militant women’s group, called on the candidate to apologize. “Rape is a criminal offense, a serious crime against humanity. It is no laughing matter. Duterte should know better and must apologize,” the group said.

Several women’s groups here issued a protest statement. “The rape culture in our society persists when officials like Mayor Duterte crack jokes at the expense of rape victims,” it reads. “By making light of the gruesome rape and murder of Jacqueline Hamill, he sends the signal that it is OK to rape women. Mayor Duterte, it is not OK to disrespect women.”

But the mayor sees no reason to say sorry. “Don’t force it. I will never apologize,” Duterte told reporters in a video by CNN Philippines.

Duterte’s supporters see him as the best candidate. They say he is the solution to the country’s woes; crime and corruption that combine with deep poverty. More than a quarter of the Philippines’ 100 million people live below the poverty line, roughly a dollar a day.

The tough talking unapologetic mayor not only jokes about rape but also boasts of his womanizing ways.