Q&A with Dr. Aubrey Graham, Photographer of "Disaster, Risk, and Resilience in the Philippines" Exhibit

November 13, 2017
Aubrey Graham photo2
Aubrey P. Graham / Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Dr. Aubrey P. Graham is the photographer behind the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative-led exhibition, High Ground: Disaster, Risk, and Resilience in the Philippines, co-sponsored by the Harvard Asia Center and on view through November 30 at CGIS South Concourse, 1730 Cambridge St., Cambridge. The images capture the resilience practices undertaken by two uniquely distinct communities in the Philippines – Sitio Kispla and Gawad Kalinga. Dr. Graham offered insight on the exhibit and her experiences in the two communities:

Harvard University Asia Center (HUAC): How did you decide to focus on disaster risk and response through your photography (at least for this exhibit)?

Aubrey Graham (AG): Importantly, "High Ground: Disaster, Risk, and Resilience in the Philippines" arose as a project with and for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and all the research conducted while photographing this project was undertaken jointly with Kriszia Enriquez (Krish), HHI's project coordinator in the Philippines. HHI (through the Program on Resilient Communities) was interested in creating visual projects around the concept of "disaster preparedness" in order to promote conversation across the Harvard Campus and within the Philippines. The HHI team in coordination with DisasterNet and Ateneo University de Manila have been researching the risks and successes across the Philippines using surveys, discussions with government officials, and case studies (see https://hhi.harvard.edu/research/disasternet#disasternet---philippines). Their desire to create a visual representation came in part from recent photo stories on the Philippines in the New York Times Lens blog – stories that paired compelling photographs with high quality, well-researched narrative. A bit of serendipity reconnected me with Dr. Vincenzo Bollettino and through him I met the rest of the HHI team. Brainstorming sessions resulted in the notion that we would visually engage two different communities – one rural and one urban. These two communities were selected because they had shown to be making positive strides in various ways towards mitigating the risks from regional disasters. I was not given a visual agenda – and this was very important to me. Rather, I was asked to use my camera to photograph the situation and see what local narratives, challenges, and successes arose around disaster risk and reduction. This openness to community voices and concerns enabled this project to step beyond looking only at one level of society – e.g. at government, or leadership, or the economy, to see how intimately interconnected each individual, group, and issue were.


HUAC: How much time did you spend in the Philippines? How did you narrow down your focus to the two communities? And how did you go about finding the people you photographed?

AG: I spent a mere two weeks in the Philippines. As an anthropologist, this sounds like an unreasonably short amount of time to produce an exhibition with an in-depth narrative about the interconnected nature of risk, aspiration, livelihoods, and disaster. That said, all of this work would not have been possible had it not been nestled clearly within HHI's ongoing research in the region. In other words, I was not starting from scratch. I was engaging a set of questions with a team of people who had spent years thinking about, researching, and writing about them. The two communities (Gawad Kalinga in Gabaldon and Sitio Kislap in Barangay Fairview, Quezon City) were chosen because they represented different challenges and types of successes. GK was rural and safe, full of individuals who had been resettled after the typhoon disasters that destroyed thousands of homes in 2004-2005. There, with the help of Ateneo, there were school scholarships and a vibrant, organized, colorful community. The other, Sitio Kislap, was urban and precarious - informally housing hundreds of families alongside a creek that was prone to severe flooding. Yet there, local leadership and the DAMPA people's organization were working with the charismatic leadership of the Barangay Captain to make regular steps towards improvement.

In both sites, Krish and I met people both through her and HHI's contacts to start, and also more organically. During a usual day, we would conduct three to five  interviews, and would spend the rest of the time wandering, speaking to individuals and families we encountered, and taking time to observe the daily activities in relation to the information gathered in the interviews. In both sites, I tried to focus on broadly gathering a widely representative set of images, including individuals of all rank, class, age, and experience. That said, we also balanced the broad approach by spending a few days shadowing key individuals – spending time in their homes, discussing their stories of displacement, aspirations, and disaster, walking about town with them, and trying to gain a sense for the rhythm of each place, especially in relation to disaster preparedness. Such key informants included Asher and Bernadette from GK and Gigile, Raven, and Shirley from Sitio Kislap (all represented in the exhibition).


HUAC: Any particular anecdotes that stand out in regards to the topic of risk and resilience in the face of disaster?

AG: GK: GK is such a bright, seemingly happy space. People seemed to smile all the time, and the well-landscaped and brightly painted houses glowed. It wasn't until later on the first day that I really noticed the rocks. Young women wearing eye protection were chipping large rocks into smaller gravel pieces, middle-aged men sat sorting flat gray stones into size-determined piles, and children loaded purple and red onion sacks with similar sized and colored rocks. Trucks would arrive and extra hands were needed to sling the bags into the bed before money changed hands. Such activities were echoed on each street, and even in the courtyard in front of the church, sorting took place in the mid-day sun and in the pelting rain in the after-dinner near dark. Once I began photographing, I couldn't stop. The more rock activities I photographed, the more I realized how important this activity was across the community. They were everywhere. So Krish and I asked if we could see more. We traveled with Leticia to the river and spent time with her as she collected two buckets of small white rocks, before walking them the 1/4 mile home, one bucket balanced on her head, the other rocks piled in wait for her return. These rocks became the most pronounced example of the need for a steady livelihood in a place of resettlement. While GK was created on high ground, with solid concrete homes, and well-intentioned community values, the region lacked sustainable livelihoods. Generations growing up and remaining in this space often had little to aspire to, unless they were to leave. And to leave meant that the low-income families who were disaster resilient, due primarily to the physical ability to survive forthcoming disasters, rationally would choose to exit that space to pursue further education, careers, or economic advancement in other spaces – often ones which, like the urban example of Sitio Kislap, did not present the same promise of disaster-associated security.

Sitio Kislap: When moving through the informal settlement of the community during the first day, I was struck by the texture of the urban poverty. Women from the DAMPA people's organization helped orient Krish and myself to the space and the people. Six or so women, clad in orange shirts chattered away while pointing my lens to the cut city water lines, the rip-rap (reinforcement of the creek's banks) or some of the poorest households who were at the highest risk of total destruction from flooding. I was worried about two things at this point – 1) that my images started to look like they were exoticizing poverty without a better understanding of the social context, and 2) that these orange-clad women were going to interrupt most of my images. While also creating some film footage, I had to ask repeatedly for them to please be quiet, so that I could hear the water of the creek or the giggles of the children. I went home from day 1 in Kislap unsure of what I would be able to produce in that space and honestly feeling like a bit of a jerk. It took until the morning of day 2 before I realized that the story was really behind me. Instead of asking these women to please let me capture the context I think is important, I turned towards them, knowing that in fact, they were critical to the story. By turning my lens towards them, we were able to access stories of challenges with the communities (such as the continued tossing of household trash into the creek, increasing its risk of flooding) and successes (learning not only how DAMPA activities benefit the members and community writ large, but on more personal levels, seeing how individual commitments to their families, communities, and disaster preparedness contain striking potential for community-wide change). With the help and generosity of Gigile, I was able to create images that showed a more intimate community engagement that moved beyond the western, poverty-focused gaze. Moreover, this perspective shift enabled me to understand and visually highlight the role of individual leadership in shaping community-wide disaster preparedness (e.g. Brian and Kislap Riders; Raven and the ESK youth leaders; Daddy Art and the Barangay Projects; & Gigile and DAMPA community organizing).


HUAC: What do you want people to take away from viewing the exhibit?

AG: I'd love for people to walk away understanding (in no particular order): That the people who face disaster are complex humans, like the rest of us – they love, aspire, desire specific types of futures, and, importantly, make rational choices. Resilience in the face of disaster is not just about keeping people physically safe, but also about ensuring that their subjective needs (such as access to jobs, education, healthcare, and safety) are met. This means that the levels of governmental DRRM are entangled with individual and family-level decisions; Resilience is not just about how to survive the next flood or landslide, but also about how to best provide for their future and that of their children given the options, limitations, and opportunities they face. On the visual side of things, I'd love for people to walk away seeing the exhibition as a format in which complex data and research can be made accessible to a wide array of audiences – frankly, if this work can spark conversation about resilience and DRRM across the various departments and institutions as well as across communities in the Philippines, I'll consider it a wild success.


HUAC: Can you draw a conclusion on the better approach to disaster risk and response in the Philippines, based on the examples of the two communities of GK and Sitio Kislap?

AG: While I'll leave all concrete conclusions to HHI, as they can triangulate their survey data, research findings, and fine grained, more anthropological analysis that came out of this photographic project, I will say that from my perspective, a solution to disaster risk reduction in the Philippines (as with anywhere, really), could be strong if it were to be holistic – supporting physical safety, economic opportunity, and the potential to dream and take tangible steps to attaining those dreams. I believe such an approach is possible both in the cities and in the rural areas, but it will take more investigation to say for sure how to best go about it and how to simultaneously support the decisions and actions of the populations.


HUAC: Any other information we should know about this exhibit? About your photography?

AG: Overall, this exhibition has been an outstanding journey. In those two weeks, I shot over 4,000 photographs and selected 30 for the exhibition, with the goal of ensuring that I brought forward the narratives and the components of both spaces that showed the challenges and successes of each space, as well as the personal investment and interaction of individuals in relation to DRRM. It has been, for lack of a better term, a beautiful challenge – and one that I would be happy to take on again. Further examples of my photography and other exhibitions are available at: www.AubreyGrahamPhotography.com

Additionally, I send a huge thank you to the HHI team, Ateneo, the Harvard Asia Center, DisasterNet, the printers at Visual Impact in Danbury, CT, and the generous and welcoming communities of GK and Sitio Kislap.


HUAC: Please tell us about your background.

AG: I hold a BA from Colgate University in Sociology-Anthropology and French (double major- 2006), a MA in the Social Anthropology of Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS - 2009) in London, and a MA (2012) and PhD (2016) in Anthropology from Emory University in Atlanta. I am currently a Postdoctoral Interdisciplinary Teaching Fellow at Emory University. Alongside, and intimately entangled within my academic career, I have honed my passion for photography. Inspired by a photography course in high school (in fact the only photo course I have taken to date), my father and I built a dark room in my basement and I gained extensive amateur experience in visual production and processing. In college, my photography earned me a position as the intern to the college's head communications photographer (Tim Sofranko), and I spent the last three years of my undergraduate education learning how to shoot documentary work and the marketing material that the college desired. After graduating from Colgate, I bounced around a bit and ended up freelancing as a photojournalist for World Picture News in East Africa for about a year. The experience, especially across Uganda and Rwanda gave me ample photographic practice and, perhaps more importantly, showed me another side to humanitarianism – opening aid work up as a space that is often well-intentioned but not impervious to critique or room for improvement

My resulting MA at SOAS allowed me to explore the challenges and politics of humanitarianism, and I ended up conducting fieldwork and photography in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, I researched the NGO power dynamics and narratives surrounding humanitarian representations of sexual violence programs and the women who had experienced sexual violence. Often represented as passive and victimized, I used my camera as a means to explore a counter-narrative, where women continued their lives, cared for their children, and worked to both heal and gain skills for the future. The resulting exhibition, "Beyond the Victim" opened at the European Commission in 2010.

The method of employing photography as a means of research became critical to my academic path. During my PhD, I learned that part of what I had been doing was more than documentary. Instead of witnessing through the lens, I employed the camera as a means to open discussion with the individuals involved in my research. The camera created performative space for individuals to engage aspects of their lives, personality, and narrative in ways that not only reflected their situations, but also provided critical information about each case I examined. For my PhD, I applied multiple photographic methods to understand the relationship between humanitarian aid and the Congolese population in and around the provincial capital of Goma, DRC. The methods shaped my research and publications including a range of articles and an exhibition, most recently titled: "Mugunga III: The Visual Politics of Photography in the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

In each situation that I have conducted research, the photography is more than evidence, it is a process of creating situated knowledge. By using the lens to query the politics and social dynamics of a space, a reciprocal relationship develops – the photograph is the research and also shapes the further questions and understandings, which are then able to be engaged by the lens. In the end, knowledge is produced in the process of doing the photography and in the viewing. So to make a complicated set of theories and methods clearer, the photograph is at once method, knowledge, and object, and photographic exhibitions provide space, not to definitively answer the driving research questions, but rather, to present a representative narrative, which in and of itself, should, through the relationship of the image and text, promote deeper understanding as well as further sets of questions.

Part of what has changed over time, and in relationship to my academic background, has been the speed and topic of my photography. I used to often photograph street scenes, finding them representative of my own experience of a place. I now rarely do that. I photograph at a different pace – I'm less concerned about capturing the decisive moment of the image and more concerned with capturing the details that convey the local importance of a topic, scene, or interaction. As an anthropologist, it has become ever increasingly important for me to work to create photographs that are not just representative of my sense of a place, but which also reflect the important needs, narratives, and concerns of the people in the images, or those dealing with the situations. This has meant that I work more slowly and that stories about places, like Gawad Kalinga and Sitio Kislap, come as much as possible from the intersection of the voices of the populations living there and my own artistic-anthropological eye.  


HUAC: Future photography plans?

AG: As of right now, I'm hoping to head back to the Congo this summer to continue my research and photography. While I am unsure when the next Asia-based opportunity might arise, I would not hesitate to head that way again! This whole experience has been an absolute pleasure.