The Defenders is a series of portraits of environmental activists around the world. It was created as a commission for The Guardian with funding support from Global Witness and the UN Environment Program. Read more posts about the project here. See the full series of stories on The Guardian website here.
Nobody knew what to expect when we arrived in Mindanao, the second largest of the islands that make up the archipelago of the Philippines. We were there to visit the indigenous community living in Datal Bonglangon, a village nestled in the middle of a coffee plantation, high in the mountains outside General Santos City. Mindanao is under marshal law, beginning in May 2017 and extended by President Duterte until December 2018. The island is seen as one of the most dangerous places in East Asia due to years of violence from terrorist and rebel groups.
On the 3rd December 2017 the small, quaint village of Datal Bonglangon was attacked by a hail of bullets fired from the surrounding hills. Eight people lost their lives. It is understood that the attackers were the 27th infantry battalion of the Philippine army. Although it is still unclear as to the exact events leading up to the attack; there had been long term, vocal opposition by several of the villagers to the expansion of a coffee plantation that surrounded their village. In a complicated series of events, the plantation had been given permission by the government to increase in size over a number of years. More recently the company had been ordered to scale back their operation so as to not negatively impact the communities living in the area. This instruction from the government seems to have been ignored, causing anger and resentment from many of the community.
We were the first foreign “reporters” to visit the village since the massacre and we stood out noticeably. The Dewang coffee plantation that surrounds the village employs an army of soldiers to watch over their product, a vast coffee crop spread through the gullies of the mountainous countryside. Watchtowers poke out from the coffee bushes at strategic points, creating a raised lookout for the soldiers to monitor who is coming in and out of the area.
The village was a 4 hours drive from where we were staying, mostly on a steep dirt road that wound up and down the mountains, through small towns and past unattended army check points. If it rains, we were told, we need to leave immediately, as the road becomes muddy and impassible. An hour from the village, we were met by a group of men on motorbikes wearing bandanas and aviator sunglasses. They were to escort us through the coffee plantations, for our safety, above and beyond the two security personel that were travelling in the back of our truck.
At the top of the mountain the road took a sharp right turn onto a much smaller track. This was the only road to the village and it took us straight through the coffee plantation, making it almost impossible to move around unnoticed. A security assessment had been carried out before we arrived and, with the help of the local Catholic Church, our visit was deemed safe and, more importantly, was judged to not put the villagers at any unnecessary risk.
As soon as we arrived in the village two very young men with semi automatic guns appeared. They were from the army, sent to live next to the village, apparently providing security to the community but mostly to report back to their headquarters about any unusual happenings in the area. They monitored us as we introduced ourselves to the villagers and, apart from a few impromptu games of basketball (them, not us), kept an eye on us for the duration of our stay.
We were there to tell the story of Marivic Danyan, also known as ’Tarsila’, a 28 years old with two children who has seen more bloodshed in a single day than anyone should experience in a lifetime. In the December massacre she lost her father, husband and two brothers. You can read the whole story of Marivic, written by Jonathan Watts here.
Meeting Marivic was an experience that I will never forget. She is a small woman who looks much younger than her years, with a gentle smile and a soft voice. Whilst she is unassuming in her appearance there is a fire and determination in her eyes that leaves you without a doubt of her immense inner strength.
I have been to many rural communities in many different countries around the world. One thing that strikes me as a constant in almost all of them, is the generosity and kindness of the people that I meet. I am almost always welcomed in with warmth, given the time to explain the work I am doing, offered food and drinks; and given a place at the table. I am always touched by this; especially when, more often than not, it is the people who have the least that are the most generous (I write this whilst looking out at the high walls that surround my house, on a quiet street in a middle class neighbourhood of Cape Town. I don't know my neighbours and, when I see them, we make little effort to engage each other in conversation).
We had scheduled in 3 days at the village, to account for bad weather and make sure that we had time to gather the content that we needed. I was travelling with the journalist Jonathan Watts, and the film maker Leo Plunkett. It isn't always an easy situation to arrive in a small community with three people wanting to conduct interviews, shoot portraits and record footage. Whilst Jon conducted some interviews, Leo and I started to gather the content that we needed, safe in the knowledge that we had another 2 days to work closely with Marivic and other key members of the community. I spent time looking for locations that we could use over the coming days and, just before we left for the day, I asked her to sit for a portrait in front of her fathers house. As we departed the village on the first day, Leo and I were happy with what we had achieved but knew that we needed to endure the 8 hour round trip again the next day.
Four hours later, as we enter cell phone reception, we receive a phone call from one of the sisters at the Catholic Church in General Santos. The army have been phoning around asking about us, they wanted to know why we were there and what questions we were asking. It won’t be safe for us to go back again, she told us. Our time had been cut short and whilst we could go back to the general area, we wouldn't be able to go back to the village.
The next day we travelled back to the coffee plantations to get some landscape shots but we don’t go near the village, it was really important that we didn't put anyone else at risk. It had been raining and the road was a mess (see above image). In the evening Marivic and Datu Dande Dinyan travelled down by motorbike to meet us in a secure location so that I could photograph them in safety.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from this, I expect that it is to always push to get shots on the first day, even if the light and location isn't perfect. Never take it for granted that you will be able to return to the same place. I was lucky that I had taken some portraits of Marivic in front of her fathers house, which turned out really well but I could easily have postponed my work until the next day, waiting for better weather and nice light.
I'm still processing the experience that we had in Datal Bonglangon. The community was so welcoming and friendly that it was hard to believe that they had been through so much violence just a few months before. Like many of the other stories from the defenders, this was the age old tale of the powerful against the powerless. A community living a quiet life on their traditional land, bullied by a large corporation that does not see them as people but instead sees them as a nuisance, a barrier to their vast potential profit.
All of the photographs were shot on the Fuji GFX medium format camera. The portraits were shot with a single light, usually with the side to bring out the details of the subjects. I worked with a single light for the whole project as I had to travel light. With 47 flights I didn't want to pay for excess baggage but I also needed to be portable and not draw unnecessary attention to myself. I used a Profoto B1 strobe with an umbrella, octabox or softbox, depending on the situation. This combination almost gave me the power and versatility I needed to work in any situation, the main limiting factor being the 1/125 sync speed of the Fuji.