Slumming, Snapping, Smiling

By Alan “Blue” Motus

UN Habitat recently released the alarming statistic that by 2050 one third of the world’s population will live in slums. IOM Philippines health worker and talented photographer Alan “Blue” Motus recently attended a photography workshop in Bangkok, and decided to get to know the city’s most notorious slum, Klong Toei.

IOM sponsored me to attend a five-day photography workshop, run by the well-known Irish lensman Nic Dunlop. It was my first time doing something like this, and it was a great experience.

On the first day, the time given to us was mainly for research. We had to choose a certain topic that interested us in order to create a photo essay about it.

The initial idea that I had was to interview several people and share their stories about the government, politics, social situation and general life in Thailand.

I was focused on this. I went around Bangkok by motorbike, tuktuk, taxi and a ferry. I met different kinds of people, had their portrait and most importantly, their story.

At the midpoint of the workshop, I showed both Nic Dunlop and Nana Chen, the facilitators, how far my work had gone. They gave their comments and they told me to focus and have a specific topic. After hearing this, I panicked. I only had a day and a half to prepare a new concept to really zoom in on.

I picked up my bits and pieces and gathered my thoughts. I decided to highlight the stories of people living in the slums of Bangkok, to try to understand what life is like for them.

The facilitators and my fellow participants were shocked when I told them about my plan. They told me that it is not safe to go to Klong Toei.

I took the extra step and decided to go on with my plan. No one was with me, no translator and no guide. It was challenging.

But the moment that I arrived in the slums, I didn’t find it difficult to blend in. I approached them with a smile on my face. Immediately they smiled back. Then my work began.

My experience in Klong Toei was memorable.  I created friends. They welcomed me in their homes and even invited me for meals. I had several photos that made me closer to my goal – to have a story.

It was nearing dark and the family that I was with asked me to leave already. I asked them why should I go and that I am still working on the project. They told me that it wasn’t safe in the area especially because it was getting dark. Precarious things happen at night in the slums. I packed my gear and left.

The following day, I found myself attached to my story. I found myself thinking that life in the slums in the Philippines is the same as life in Klong Toei. I talked with a lot of people and heard numerous stories that enlightened me. Pong, one of my friends in Klong Toei, told me that a lot of people are afraid to go in their community. “They don't know that life is rich in my community,” he added.

That made me think. People living in the slums are those often labeled as the “outcasts”, unwanted by society.  By telling their stories of daily life through pictures, I’m doing my small part to overturn the prejudices and stereotypes that exist about this forgotten community.