Eye on the Philippines

Photographer Alonso Nichols spent six months documenting Filipino life, on the streets and in the country
jeepney in Manila evening traffic
In a jeepney on a hot night in Manila. “I’m interested in seeing moments of connection,” Alonso Nichols said. “If I can show something compelling and revealing in that sense, I feel I’ve done my job.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 11, 2017

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When Alonso Nichols saw four small boys walking closely beside along a wall in Intramuros—a historic section of Manila, the capital of the Philippines—he knew they were up to something.

He stopped and watched, and as one boy climbed onto his friend’s shoulders with an old basketball hoop, Nichols remembered how he and his brother used to cut the bottoms out of plastic milk crates in Enterprising basketball players in Intramuros, the historic section of Manila. Photo: Alonso Nicholstheir hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and nail them to trees to make hoops of their own.

“I knew exactly what these boys were trying to do and what that felt like,” said Nichols, director of Tufts Photo. There was something universal in it.” He captured the moment in a photograph now posted outside the Alumnae Lounge in the Aidekman Arts Center along with 17 others, in a semester-long exhibit titled The Philippines: America’s Former Colony on the Eve of Change.

The moment was a metaphor for the country, Nichols said. “Filipinos work together and find ways to deal with the difficult challenges that come with living in a densely populated metropolis subject to flooding and power outages and things that otherwise stop daily life,” he said. “I thought, they’re going to find a way to hang this hoop come hell or high water, and they’re going to have their game.”

Nichols documented many such scenes of Filipino daily life during 2015, when he and his wife, Tufts lecturer in English Grace Talusan, J94, lived in the country while Talusan did research as a Fulbright Scholar. A self-described documentarian, Nichols said he’s interested in portraying not just beauty, but how people live and connect.

A view of Bonifacio Global City in greater Manila. Photo: Alonso NicholsIn Bonifacio Global City, a financial district of Manila, Nichols saw dazzling high-rises, exclusive golf clubs, and lines of Ferraris and Lamborghinis right alongside the humbler residences of the everyday Filipinos who worked in those high-rises and clubs. He contemplated the Pasig River, polluted and biologically dead, but alive with ferries and people living along the shores. He dodged dogs and roosters on the highway, and almost got run over by a motorcycle riding on the sidewalk.

A steamy commute in a jeepney in Manila. Photo: Alonso NicholsStuck in a late-evening standstill—the around-the-clock traffic that’s part of the fabric of the city—Nichols saw a man squeezed into a jeepney with 20 others, his eyes closed, his hand clutching his forehead. “You could see his face and read what everyone was feeling ,” Nichols said. “It’s nighttime, but it’s still 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. We’re all trying to go three and a half kilometers, and we’re going nowhere.”

But in another jeepney on another hot night, Nichols saw a young couple smiling at each other, oblivious to the world. “People find ways to pass the time and enjoy one another’s company,” Nichols said. “It’s not all misery.”

In addition to Manila, Nichols visited the beaches of Palawan, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, and the tuna port at the City of General Santos, among other sites.

A vendor in the market in Malolos, Bulacan, a province north of Manila, spends her day in the four foot by three foot stall, where she sells everything from dried noodles and cooking oil to fresh herbs, spices and chili peppers. Her family has run this small business for more than ten years. Photo: Alonso Nichols“As Americans, we either imagine Imelda Marcos and her extensive shoe collection, or we know the Philippines as a developing country. I wanted to spend time cutting across all the different things you could experience,” Nichols said. “I hope people will have some better sense of the complexity of the Philippines, and will have some point of departure for understanding the current politics in the Philippines as well.”

Nichols said he was happy to be able to share his photographs of the Philippines, which he said are closely related to the work he does for the university. “Whether it’s the illumination ceremony during commencement, or parents dropping off their children during matriculation, I’m interested in seeing those moments of connection,” Nichols said. “If I can show something compelling and revealing in that sense, I feel I’ve done my job.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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