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A fisherman paddles out to sea as dusk settles on Negros Island in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines. Negros is a volcanic island with an agriculturally based economy and a population of about 3.7 million people.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

Fish peddlers at a weekly gathering of farmers and fishermen sell the catch of the day in Zamboanguita. Fisheries are vital to the Philippines -- providing a livelihood for some 2 million people. However, fish stocks are rapidly depleting throughout the islands.


Farm laborers winnow rice by hand in the paddies around the village of Tanjay. Rice is a staple of life in much of Asia. Data indicate that rice consumption is fast outstripping production. The cause: rapid population growth throughout the region, including the Philippines.


A fruit vendor and child take a water break beside their mobile stand in Dumaguete City, the capital of Negros Oriental province. About 35% of the Philippine population is under the age of 14. The population of the Philippines is growing about 2% annually.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A woman sells handmade brooms on the sidewalk in downtown Dumaguete City. More than 30 million Filipinos are reportedly living in poverty, with many not even making the minimum daily wage of about $2.50.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

A man hoists a girl up to a statue of St. Anthony of Padua during ritual offerings on the 13th of each month in the seaside town of Sibulan. Eighty percent of Filipinos are Catholic, many devout -- and the number of pilgrims lighting candles in the grottoes of Sibulan is said to double when the 13th happens to fall on a Friday. St. Anthony of Padua is known as the patron saint of lost items.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A farmhand uses the breeze to separate grains of rice from chaff in the fields around the farming town of Tanjay. The International Rice Research Institute reported that farmers throughout Asia must produce 38 million more tons of unmilled rice annually by 2015 in order to meet demand.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

Hikers walk across the rapids of a stream in the village of Pulang Bato in the mountains of Negros Island. Pulang Bato means red stone in the Visayan dialect.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

A crowd looks on as a man peddles potions at a weekly gathering of farmers and fishermen in Zamboanguita. Most Filipinos receive little healthcare, and many are unfamiliar with medicines that often are too expensive for them. Homemade remedies commonly promise to cure physical ailments and ward off evil spirits.


A girl kisses the well-worn legs of a statue of Jesus in the Cathedral of Sibulan. Most Filipinos are devoted Catholics, and many feel the need to touch religious icons in church settings in order to have their prayers answered.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A girl holds a guitar while sitting on a motorbike in the central public market of Dumaguete. Education is mandatory until the seventh grade. Recent government reports, however, indicate that most people do not get more than five years of schooling.


Women share a light moment at a beauty shop, where a Westernized rendition of Asian feminine allure hangs on the wall to advertise hair products.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

A farmworker sifts and bags unmilled rice. In a country with little agricultural mechanization, the planting, growing and harvesting of rice have long been back-breaking work performed by peasants.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A child rides a bicycle on the seafront mudflats of Dumaguete City, near a fish trap decorated with brightly colored flags.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

A ferry completes a late-afternoon crossing of the Tanon Strait from the island of Cebu to Negros. The rugged highlands of Negros were formed by volcanic action, and one volcano remains active today.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A couple gather sea snails and mollusks on the rocky shore of Dumaguete. About 75% of the nation's coral reefs have been destroyed, even though the population relies on fisheries for survival. Food security in the country is inevitably tied to the health and sustainability of the surrounding seas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Traffic flows through the intersection of Colon and Perdices streets in Dumaguete, which has earned the dubious distinction as the Philippines' motorbike capital. About 30,000 motorcycles are registered in the city as a flood of Chinese-made imports has made two-wheel transportation affordable for many.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

A girl is framed by offertory candles at a Catholic church in Negros. The church exerts strong influence over Philippine politics and government. Most recently, the clergy is trying to block legislation that would make reproductory information, contraception and birth control methods more readily accessible to the general public.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

The moon rises over the Tanon Strait beyond the rocky shoreline of Dumaguete's port.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Hersley Ven Casero

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Human dignity on display in the Philippines

Last year, I wrote about a couple of young photographers I have been mentoring during my annual visits to the Philippines, the country of my birth. I’m happy to say the kids are all right.

Last month, I met again with Hersley Ven Casero and Alma Alcoran, two talented artists at Foundation University,  a nonprofit school my family established 62 years ago in Dumaguete City.

During my visit I read “Why We Are Poor,” a book by F. Sionil Jose. In a collection of essays, the noted Filipino author deconstructs the dysfunction of the Philippines — a country that didn’t “modernize” fast enough and doomed its people to poverty.

Unchecked population growth offsets progress. Natural resources are ravaged, Jose notes. Corruption and a lack of accountability exist in virtually every facet of life. About 35% of the country’s 94 million people are under the age of 14. Only 4% are 65 or older. Papal doctrine exerts a heavy hand in politics and government. The masses are hungry, landless and uneducated.

Jose, 86, writes about a “poverty of the spirit.”

“We are poor because we are poor,” he says.  “The culture of poverty is self-perpetuating.”

Reading on, however, the acclaimed social observer occasionally betrays his hand in favor of hope — mainly because that’s all there is for so many in a place so deeply in need. Maybe the light hasn’t yet been snuffed.

This photo essay— a collaboration between myself and my talented young friends — is dedicated to Jose, who reminds us that human dignity lives on,  even in dystopia.

1 Comment

  1. October 11, 2011, 9:20 pm

    […] Human dignity on display in the Philippines ( […]

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