On November 8, 2013, typhoon Haiyan – the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded – struck the central Philippines. Witnesses who braved the rising floodwaters described the storm surge as the most dangerous element of the whole cyclone. While the drama was building to a frightening crescendo, people, their pets, houses and belongings were swept away for good.
It was my strong urge to make environmental and humanitarian work that makes a difference and raises awareness on how climate change can affect our planet and those who inhabit it. In november 2013 I flew to Tacloban with no contacts whatsoever, and met Filippino families who let me stay at their makeshift homes. This is a personal document and experiental documentary on the extreme effect of the typhoon, displacing millions of people, destroying livelihoods, crops and livestock. Leyte islands mainly depends on coconut plantations and we have seen hundreds of kilometres of coconut groves literally blown away by 300kph winds. A coconut tree takes 12 years to grow, so this is a decade of livelihoods wiped out in a single storm.
I visited many ‘barrangays’ or neighborhoods inside and outside the city and documented several personal stories of survivors I met. Next to concentrating on the human condition and photographing different stories of affected people, I walked miles into agricultural land documenting scattered debris and investigating the imaginative stories certain objects radiate. About the owners, effect on the environment, the horrifying moments during the storm and the effect on nature on man – and his belongings. Among other things, I found a photo album at Palo – Leyte, a community that was totally swept away by the flooding storm surge. The fixated chemicals of the emulsion on the photographs reacted in a colourful manner with the sodium chloride of the sea water, slowly eating away the stories these portraits once told. By visually isolating the displaced objects – without displacing once more – I am hoping to give the viewer a similar chance of insight and to let them explore the infinite narrative this holds for me. The debris objects were photographed and afterwards left, as they were found.
Q&A with Frederic Vanwalleghem
Personally I feel photography should most of all be about enjoying the process of discovering and making meaningful connections. In essence it is a contemplative practice that holds immeasurable potential when simultaneously stemming from an inner sensitivity and outward fascination for the world. “As within, so without.”
The medium allows me to reflect on these juxtapositions, by mindfully allowing the ‘moment’ to unfold. Mind you, it was during the process of photographing and traveling that I started to understand this underlying dynamic. I still have much to learn! That being said, it doesn’t mean we should overthink the process or our art… just have fun and try to release expectations. Then the real magic occurs.
Photography and writing…
We start writing a story, when making the shot and touching upon the obscure and complex meeting point where reality and imagination collide.
Who left the biggest impression on you?
So many people, it would be unfair to state only one person. Most of all those who live in the moment with an open-minded view and a kind heart…the men and women who feel they can still learn from others on a daily basis… the ones who welcome strangers into their homes… the resilience and positive minds of those in need… world citizens less bound by status or societal conventions.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m a professional photographer mostly focussing on experiential documentary and portraiture. Next to that I freelance and do commissioned work in Europe and abroad. I am shifting to bigger projects on the human condition and humanitarian issues. At the moment I’m working on a new project in South-East Asia and I combine my work with diving, cooking, traveling and studying eastern practices.
Frederic Vanwalleghem (www.fredericvanwalleghem.com) b. 1978, Belgium. Studied in the academy of arts in Ghent and started photographing at an early age. The past ten years he travelled to countries like Tibet, Kosovo, Iceland, Benin, Nigeria, Kenia, Tanzania, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines and several countries in Europe; mostly for personal work and commissions. In 2009, Vanwalleghem was a selected finalist for the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards with his essay Retratos en tu cuarto in the category ‘professional portraiture’, juried by Mary-Ellen Mark and Sarah Moon. His ongoing project Vodun, trying to grasp the ungraspable was shortlisted for international awards in Paris, Tbilisi, Braga and Kuala Lumpur and will be published this year in the art magazine Arte al Limite. At the moment he is working on new projects in Asia.