who is jes aznar?
Jes Aznar is a documentary photographer based in the Manila, Philippines, covering Asia, Pacific, and beyond. The New York Times regular contributor.
Photography is an ever-evolving medium. It is not static, doesn’t stagnate, and doesn’t limit itself to a single set of discipline, use, process, and belief. If you look at the history of photography, you will see how it was instrumental in the many changes in the history of modern visual communication, including visual arts. Its own development was so fast and the breadth of its influence and use was expansive.
Much of the world has also seen a significant change since the invention of photography, a product of the ongoing industrial revolution during that era. The 1800s was a very exciting time. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire as with the United States. The industrial revolution was well underway. In short, humanity was a witness to some great wonders and advancements in many fields. It was also during this time that the camera was invented and patented.
For me, the most important phenomenon that photography gave was how it helped the way people see things from a different perspective. The camera, through photographs, changed the way we see our world. It helped us transition from a European or colonialist-centric perspective to a broader view and see the world more objectively. We are now the populace that is slowly breaking free from the dictates and confines of religious beliefs and hegemonist culture. Thanks to the camera, people now think more critically than before.
The world of visual communications changed forever after its invention. Before, people travel to see visual arts, and then the camera made it possible for people to see everything without leaving their homes. People used to travel first before one can see visual art. Now the art travels for the people to see. The meaning of an image, which people used to interpret and appreciate in the context of the immediate surroundings, changed to the context of what it means to the beholder and his own experiences. Suddenly, an explosion of a multitude of thoughts and train of thoughts was realized.
Why am I saying all these? Why do I want to put this into the discussion instead of my work on Tuberculosis in jails? The answer is that there is another revolution happening and I do not want to waste the opportunity not to share this realization. And as photographers and visual communicators, we are at the forefront of that revolution.
Our civilization has only undergone three major communication revolutions. The first one that’s recorded in our history is the Cuneiform, the oldest form of writing system known which was first used around 3400 BC. Five thousand years after that came the Heidelberg, in the 15th century. It would later be known as the printing press revolution. This brought about tremendous change in the way we communicate and learn—from science to culture. Information spread like wildfire, paving the way to a more informed and critical human being.
The third one is where we are lucky to be in now. The digital revolution is without a doubt the most significant event since the printing press and arguably marks a much bigger shift in human communication. Unlike the gap between the Sumerian writing system and the printing press, Digital happened in just about 500 years.
Also known as the third industrial revolution, Digital Revolution paved the way for every aspect of our civilization to develop exponentially. This revolution gave us new tools such as the computer, and other electronic devices. On December 25, 1991, the internet went live. The rest was history, or should I say history that we are lucky to be living in.
The Digital Revolution was the greatest thing to happen to photography. Not only because of the invention of cheaper mass-produced digital cameras, but most importantly, it gave way to a multitude of possibilities for us to produce, disseminate, and consume images.
“The use of every type of media has increased over the past 10 years, with the exception of reading.” ~Kaiser Family Foundation
The digital revolution puts image media at the forefront of human communications. The world now sees a massive consumption of media to be informed. A Business Insider report, to date the world is now posting and exchanging a staggering 1.8 billion photos on average every day. It is quite obvious in social media and other social exchange platforms that photos, videos, and other image media are the more common currency compared to words.
The phenomenon was amplified when the world faced a global pandemic last year.
A survey last year by Global Web Index visualizes how we consume media as everyone lives under the current pandemic. They reported that due to the frenzy of Pandemic-induced quarantines, media consumption has seen a massive increase. Especially those who belong to the younger generations.
Online media, as a news platform is now becoming the dominant publishing platform. The big difference from the traditional print platform is that aside from getting more reach, readers can now respond in real-time.
The advent of digital also paved the way for the democratization of the craft. Almost everyone now can afford to have a camera, and at the same time learn photography from the internet. A phenomenon that led to the fall of elitism in photography. We were no longer an audience that used to only feel in awe of the mysticism of how an image was captured or created. We can now take part in the process.
Anyone who says photography or photojournalism is dead, is definitely, and obviously uninformed. Because of the internet, film photography, daguerreotype, and other old forms and photographic instruments used in the past are still alive and thriving.
Along with the explosion of numbers of practitioners and audiences, more people are now more adept at the language of the visual image. Human beings are visual creatures. A large percentage of the human brain dedicates itself to visual processing. With more and more platforms for visual images are now available, our visual language would surely adapt and quickly develop.
Publications must now realize that Visual literacy builds stronger readers, readers who are able to think about texts in numerous ways through a different lens, an important skill for critical readers and thinkers in the 21st century.
A visually literate person can read and write visual language. Just like how we learned to read and write words with the alphabet.
According to Brian Kennedy of the Hood Museum of Art in Darthmouth College, Visual literacy is the ability to construct meaning from images. It is not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity.
I know this is going to be a bitter pill to take for some people. But in this time and age of our great communication revolution, everyone has to be visually literate. And it will be so, whether we like it or not. It will be a tool, rather than a proverbial “God-given talent.” Or something exclusive only to those who have artistic skills.
Visual literacy will enable us:
To interpret the content of visual images
To examine the social impact of visual images
To be able to discuss the purpose, audience, and ownership of an image
To be able to visualize internally
Being aware of making judgments, about the accuracy, validity, and worth of images
“With the emergence of fake news articles (and photos) and ‘deepfake’ videos on social media within the past 2 years, it is now imperative more than ever to incorporate techniques to teach students how to evaluate images into the classroom. By turning a critical eye toward these types of images and learning how to critically read digital images, students can increase their visual literacy skills and their critical thinking skills in tandem. “
~Dana Statton Thompson (2019) Teaching students to critically read digital images: a visual literacy approach using the DIG method, Journal of Visual Literacy,
This Digital phenomenon is still at its tender stage. As we slowly realize the new better ideas and possibilities, it is still a fact that we are still in a world that is still very much clinging on “tried and tested,” yet old ways. The more the practice is evolving presently, the more we stumble upon realizations of old paradigms that are no longer applicable to our present practice. Especially if it’s in contradiction to current evolved values.
Access and ownership of a photographic camera which in the old days were quite expensive, and was very limited. Making the craft only viable for a few who can afford it. The issue of access was not just limited to camera equipment. But also to opportunities, and those who make it to an equally small number of publications, would naturally stand guard and protect their means of income and fame. I would surmise that this was the cause why this kind of practice rubbed on to many photographers and groups. The practice became a culture.
The industry has to realize that using a capitalist or free trade model in acquiring photographs would lead to its own poverty and demise. Giving photography jobs to the lowest bidder instead of using skill, integrity, proficiency, and professionalism as a bar for publishing photos would certainly lead to the demise of the quality and integrity of images. This would leave the readers and the audience at the losing end. These and many more are also the downsides that our industry still has to face and think of ways to overcome.
With people being more informed and critical, we saw a rise of individuals, groups, and movements who are now marching to ask for change. Naturally, as our technology and know-how advance, and as mindset evolves, we as humans demand better societies.
We now see a rise of more socially conscious photographers and groups. Photographers who are equally engaged in the issues that they are covering, as opposed to just being parachuters. We saw initiatives that turned into movements, like the everyday project that was started in Africa by Peter Di Ocampo.
The everyday project gave birth to dozens of other equally important initiatives around the globe—the everyday climate change, everyday social justice, everyday impunity, to name a few.
But before that, and equally important to note, is that these initiatives are no longer center or based on western white male ideas and efforts. In recent years, we saw photography initiatives that focus on Asian perspectives, like The Invisible Photographer project, perspectives of the female gender by Woman Photograph, and so on.
This revolution led us to realize that there is more to it in photography than just choosing what camera brand to buy and camera clubs to join.
In photojournalism, the present generations are now more intolerant to unethical behaviors and practices in the industry. More are now speaking up on issues especially those that directly affect them, as opposed to an instilled culture of silence and fear in some countries and newsrooms.
What people see are raw snapshots of a moment in time, but behind the lens lie a strict set of rules and a code of ethics that photographers must abide by. Jes Aznar and Veejay Villafranca are two photojournalists who have explored this crucial form of truth-telling for many years.
Jes is most known for his fearless coverage of issues in the Philippines. He founded the EverydayImpunity project and co-founded the EverydayPhilippines project on Instagram to shed light on the subtle and mundane, yet truthful scenes of life for Filipinos. On the other hand, Veejay’s body of work captures Filipino cultural and religious practices, climate displacement, and even secret societies in the Philippines. He co-published his first photobook, SIGNOS, in 2017.
Despite having a job that can come with fear, they speak about it with an unexpected lightness—because while the job calls for bravery, it also comes with a privilege to witness the world in a way not many get to experience. Worldly, battle-tested, and still hungry to tell stories that matter, the two veterans spoke to me about their journey in the field:
VEEJAY VILLAFRANCA: I was exposed to photography early on through my father and grandfather. Later on, I applied as a photojournalist for a news magazine, then I did a little bit of work for Newswire in the Philippines, and eventually I went freelance in 2006 to pursue documentary work until today.
JES AZNAR: I’ve come a long way. I first started with doing paintings and exhibitions. For work, I was in the advertising industry. Nasa opisina lang ako, stuck between four walls and a computer. Nagising ako one day and I decided okay, I'm going to quit.
When I was painting, the usual practice is that when you create an artwork, you exhibit it and when your work is bought by someone, tapos na ang journey ng trabaho mo. Pwede siyang ilagay sa kwarto, pwede ilagay sa kusina, ilagay sa banyo, bodega—wherever. And that's it. Then I realized the potential of photography. You can reproduce it. You can make it travel worldwide, far and beyond, and have many people look at it. Especially in the realm of photojournalism, you're talking about taking pictures of important stories that need to be told. So parang sa akin, mas malakas ang allure niya. That’s why I decided to become a photojournalist.
VEEJAY: We were sort of the turnover generation from analog to digital. From aspects like the appreciation of photography to the dissemination of images, my generation was at the start of that transition. So, we had an uphill journey to navigate the field in terms of practice and the profession.
The terms “visual journalism” and “visual storytelling” define how it is to be a photojournalist today. These terms were coined not too long ago because of the multifaceted approach to the job now: You're not only a photographer, you have to be a reporter, a writer. You also need a trained eye to disseminate, and even to contextualize and criticize images. At the same time, you have to be a support system for your peers because the landscape has changed. Today, things are much more difficult in the sense that we're not only traversing the hardships of professionalism, but also the challenges in truth-telling. A challenge to us and the next generation is how to push on.
VEEJAY: I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone who's practicing photojournalism today is to unlearn certain practices from before and then learn how to adapt to the changing platforms. The ethics are ever evolving. Before, it was okay to do portraits of kids without any context and show them on your portfolio. Further on, technically it was not frowned upon, pero pag walang context, hindi na nabibigyan ng justice yung image.
JES: And in terms of the profession itself, personally I’m not afraid that photography is going to be passé. It won’t. We're actually looking at a very, very visual future. Sa kabila nga nito, mas magiging relevant ang photography.
Most of us here at Fotomoto come from different genres of photography. From photojournalism, fashion, commercial, fine arts—and for our part especially sa aming mga photojournalist, ang pagbabago ngayon is that we believe that we are not living inside a vacuum. We need to help and work with other photographers and visual communicators.
VEEJAY: It’s a big responsibility but also that's the exciting aspect of it. Some photojournalists keep the tradition of upfront news that’s gritty, some even very confronting. Though I think that every time you engage in a story, for whatever technique or visual medium that you use, you ensure that the core of journalism still stays: the respect and dignity for the subject, as well as the representation of their voices in the story.
JES: There are so many practitioners, and so many perspectives on what dignity is. Sa akin, first and foremost, para wala nang gray area. I look at it as an unbreakable rule. We are bound to this very strict set of rules about dignity, integrity, and truth. If you want to take a picture, you always make sure that your subject's dignity is still there. You don't take it, you don't corrupt it.
It's very hard especially if you're taking a photo of a scene and after one or two seconds, it's gone forever. There would be times when I would get home and I would tell myself, “I should've taken that picture!” But what can I do? In some situations, you have to give your subjects a moment of privacy, a moment to mourn, and become human. That’s part of the job.
VEEJAY: Mine would be in 2001 at the second EDSA revolution. That was the first time I was exposed to an actual historical event. But I wasn't a professional photographer then—my father took me there because he was documenting for himself and then he gave me a camera. He took me around to witness the whole thing and that was the first moment na nag-establish ng idea at ng practice of photojournalism sa akin. I was around 20 years old at the time and basically yun ang first foray ko into a historical moment and trying to use a camera to document it.
JES: For me, I guess it was this incident in Mindanao. In Maguindanao, I was supposed to be on a convoy with other journalists but because my colleague had a fever the night before, we didn't join them. That day turned out to be the Ampatuan massacre. It was very defining for me because that was the very, very first time I felt afraid. That was the moment that I felt that everything was changing. Before that, I was working for The Wire, an international news agency, and siyempre, medyo bata rin—I wasn't afraid of anything. I felt like I could go anywhere, lahat ng mga pinupuntahan sa Mindanao, all the places that any normal journalist would not dare go, I would go. But after that incident, parang na-realize ko na wala nang power ang media ID ko. The fourth estate was not that powerful anymore, not revered anymore, not respected anymore. Fair game na, just like anybody else. I felt vulnerable.
JES: So many times. During the Haiyan coverage in Tacloban, I was walking with two other photographers when I stumbled upon these people crying on the street. There was a child in the middle, and they were crying around the child. I approached the people slowly, and then when I got there, I talked to one of the relatives who was also crying. They looked so anxious and so sad. I talked to them and gestured to politely ask if I could take a picture. The scene was very graphic and if they had said no I would’ve stopped and gone my way. But the relatives said yes, so I stayed. A few moments later, they went to the other photographers and they said they needed to go. I don't know why they had let me stay. the only photographer there and they let me take photos from where they were until they arrived at the cemetery. Hanggang sa burial, kasama ko sila. And I was worried that at any moment, they could’ve kicked me out of there. But, they didn't.
JES: Para sa akin, inaalala ko yung time when I decided to become a photojournalist. Until now, the reasons and the passion are still there. Living in the 21st century, for me, photography is still the most revolutionary tool for communication. Wala na akong ibang maisip na ibang way para mai-communicate ko yung stories ng iba at mai-communicate ko yung story ko aside from photography.
VEEJAY: For me, I never looked at photojournalism as a sign of bravery. It's a privileged profession to be a witness to historical events. Just being a witness to someone else's story is the best tradeoff for this discipline, in my opinion. Ito pa rin ang nagpapa-excite sa akin and also, it's what pushes me to help other photographers too: to teach them or help them pursue a career in photojournalism.
How Fotomoto came about is because of a lot of those reasons also. Searching for other local voices in the Philippines— not just professional photographers’—and also at the same time, trying to show diverse stories is what we do. We keep the practice and the discipline intact. And I think right now is an opportunity to take advantage of the changing times.
But instead of allowing threats from angry netizens to get to him, Jes soldiers on, and his hard work has paid off. His coverage of the Marawi siege landed on the cover of Time magazine’s July 3, 2017 issue. He is also a contract photographer for international publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Here, he talks to Supreme about the nature of his work, the role social media plays in it, and dealing with trolls.
SUPREME: When you’re covering conflicts like the siege of Marawi, what does it look like?
JES AZNAR: The siege of Marawi is unprecedented in the country. I have never covered anything like this in my career as a photojournalist. For some journalists, it is always better to go in big groups for safety. But there are some who prefer to go in small groups like we did. Those who have the proper gear and training try to follow soldiers on patrol or to their deployment areas. There are also some who stay in the provincial capitol to wait for announcements and press briefings.
There must be so much going on at once. How do you get a good shot in the midst of all the chaos? How do you decide which moments to capture?
Taking good shots under pressure takes years of practice, and knowing which shot to take depends on how well you know what you are covering. Pressure is something photojournalists have to deal with every day and in each assignment. It only takes a fraction of a second to capture the actual moment and then it’s gone forever and you cannot get a second take.
How do you stay safe while shooting in war-torn areas?
Always keep in mind that there is no story or picture that is worth your life.
The soldiers often say we are so brave to be going to the frontline of battle just to take pictures. I just tell them it has nothing to do with bravery, as I am honestly scared. Being scared while covering a hostile situation for me is a good thing. It keeps me from doing stupid things I will later regret or, worse, get me killed. I think presence of mind is more useful than bravery in these kinds of situations.
If you will cover such situations, you should undergo a Hostile Environment and First Aid Training at the least.
Are there certain protocols you have to follow while covering conflict?
I guess it depends on the situation, place, the units you are with, and their activity. But generally, you shouldn’t do anything that will put the unit you’re with in danger, as you will be putting yourself in danger as well. So be mindful of every step and action you take.
Colleagues who have had the chance of embedding with the US military in the wars in the Middle East for a long time say that everything was organized from embedding procedures to bunk beds that you will sleep in inside the base. And the units don’t care what you write or take pictures of as long as you don’t get in the way of their operation.
How do you deal with the emotional toll of covering the drug war and the siege of Marawi?
Those who cover traumatic events don’t notice at first, but eventually, the emotional and mental toll will catch up with you. Every person has a different tolerance and different ways of processing traumatic events. Because our work is non-stop, we sometimes do not notice it, and most of the time take it for granted. For example, it took a year before the signs and manifestations of stress and trauma from the three-month-long coverage of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan kicked in for me. I was so sick and depressed for months. The PECOJON (Peace and Conflict Journalists Network) sessions on trauma and healing years before helped me understand what was going on with me, and I reached out for help.
One has to deal with it sooner or later. No one is invincible.
What role does social media play in your work?
I guess social media is a great tool, but I’m still trying to figure out how it can help me, particularly with my professional work. But for its general use, Instagram has been great, especially for our personal projects like the @everydayphilippines page that we set up, and it continues to be successful. On the side of advocacy for human rights, we are now also setting up @everydayimpunity to show stories of the alarming culture of impunity the country has had for decades. And these pages have the support of an ever-growing global community of @everyday pages with millions of followers.
How did you deal with being attacked by trolls after Rey Joseph Nieto’s posts?
I guess the same way anybody should handle fake news, just ignore.
After everything that’s happened with The Thinking Pinoy, do you feel vindicated after your photo was used on the cover of Time magazine?
Honestly, I don’t know how to connect the two. But vindication? No. I mean, it is not necessary. I’m just doing my job taking that picture, and I’d still be doing that with or without these detractors. Apparently, their gripe is with The New York Times, and later on with Time magazine, and Washington Post, etc. —basically every reputable international publication that has something to do with publishing reports something that their principal doesn’t agree with — or the media in general. So they use social media to try to discredit these publications. But unfortunately for them, most of these publications were built on time-proven integrity, long before they were even born. So it will be hard for them to make their case.
As for me, I have been working for international publications for more than a decade and my audience is global. Their principal is just a small fraction of the topics that I cover. Sure, people have their own biases; so be it. But since they are public figures, if they are doing something wrong or anything at all, my job is not to argue with them, but to take pictures and present stories of the truth. What significance do I have to be the story? None. So I’ll just leave them be and just do my job.
I just felt sad. Sad because there is this small group of people in the Philippines who still don’t understand the work of photojournalists. It’s telling of many things, quite frankly.
What struck you the most while covering Marawi?
It struck everybody there that what happened in Marawi is unprecedented and unthinkable. What struck me is the fear of having more of these kinds of attacks and the consequences they would have for the people. For us.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the most rewarding part of this job would be the moment you know your pictures helped someone. It may be for being informed, or for being enlightened, or moved, or for people to act and do something, or for those in power to act and help those affected in your pictures. That is the most rewarding part of any photojournalist’s job.
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Follow Jes Aznar’s work on Instagram: @jeszmann.