The Making of 'Portraits of Recovery'

IOM's Alan “Blue” Motus volunteered to tell the story of beneficiaries through his photographs on “Portraits of Recovery.” © IOM 2014

In a tent city of evacuees in Tacloban, I met Leonarda, a 62 year old widowed market trader, five months after she had lost her husband to the typhoon.  As I started to interview her for the book Portraits of Recovery, she told me in Tagalog “habang may buhay, may pag-asa” – as long as there’s life, there’s hope.

My colleague Alan ‘Blue’ Motus snapped away with his camera as we talked. His photo of Leonarda is on page 7 of the book and shows her embracing her grandchild as if her embrace would protect the child against the struggles of life that have already shattered her family.

In one way or another, everyone we met along the way moved me and deepened my understanding and respect for this wonderful country. 

When typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines, I read the news about it from afar and followed IOM’s relief efforts without really understanding the realities of what was happening on the ground.  I was an intern in Bangkok helping IOM’s Communications department where I read and heard the many tales of survival and perseverance.

I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to meet these courageous people and hear their stories firsthand.  But that is what the past month has been – a fascinating, humbling experience meeting all kinds of people who still have hope that their lives will begin to move forward again, even if they don’t yet have a home to call their own. 

After arriving in Manila six weeks ago, I went on a whistle-stop tour through the Visayas region visiting some of the areas worst hit by the typhoon.  I was joined by ‘Blue’ who, besides being a superb photographer, is also an IOM field health coordinator in Roxas, the most westerly area to be hit.  

For one amazing week we were on the road together and I watched in admiration as he used his charm to get people to relax and always photographed them in ways they would be proud to see and be seen.

Even in its devastation, this part of the world is still breathtakingly beautiful and vibrant.  But it also screams of vulnerability, and even though people are slowly restoring their former lives, inevitably more disasters will come their way.  While there’s hope, there’s also an understanding that this is something that people will have to deal with time and time again, leaving a feeling of uncertainty, especially for those still without a permanent place to live.

We visited all kinds of displacement sites as well as people’s homes and workplaces, assisted by the staff in the IOM sub-offices – many of whom are young, new recruits from the affected areas - who gave up their time to help us.  We met people of all ages, personalities and backgrounds, all of whom had experienced different degrees of suffering and loss.  We met IOM staff who are also survivors of the typhoon, now living in displacement sites along with the communities they are working to help and proving that ‘aid workers’ and ‘beneficiaries’ are not so different after all. 

Hearing the stories, the enormity of what had happened here suddenly came home to me.  I realized that so many people didn’t really stand a chance against this great force of nature.  But what really struck me was that, for the most part, the feeling of hope remained.  There may be massive challenges still to come, yet time and again I was reminded of the Filipino spirit that fails to be beaten.  Two of the most inspiring interviews were the youngest and the oldest to feature in the book: Raymundo, who I met along with other members of the youth organization that he is a part of (Eclipse), who passionately spoke of his goal to improve things for young people from poor, rural areas.   And Leonarda, who despite everything she has been through could still speak hopefully about the future.

For more information please go to: Donate Here to get a Limited Edition copy of Typhoon Haiyan: Portraits of Recovery.