Hannah Reyes Morales: Using photography to inspire empathy

National Geographic Explorer Hannah Reyes Morales uses the power of the camera to impact, influence, and change minds.

Hannah Reyes Morales believes in the power of an image to change minds. A Filipina photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer, her work is underpinned by this belief. 

A photograph “has the power to undo assumptions, to bring our attention to questions that we might not have thought of before,” Morales says.

As a child in Manila, Morales spent much of her life indoors. “I had no visibility of the outside world, really,” she recounts. But the chance discovery of a shelf of dusty magazines—Life and National Geographic among them—opened a window to the world. It was the photography that drew her in. 

“I felt very connected to the people and the animals and the nature that I was seeing…and that connection hasn’t left me since,” she says. 

Later, she remembers using her family’s sole computer to follow the same instinct. “I would always wait until everybody was asleep,” she says, “and at two o’clock, at three o’clock in the morning, I would be on the internet, looking at the outside world, and trying to learn.”

Her mother, recognizing her curiosity and appetite to learn, gave her an instant camera—and she took to it quickly. “I really liked the immediacy of a photograph,” she recalls. “I really loved that I could take a moment and then a few seconds later hold that moment in my hand.”

Fast forward to the present, and, as Morales puts it, “the magic of photography…just never left me.” She has documented human trafficking for the New York Times, reported on war crimes in Cambodia for Al Jazeera, and had her work exhibited internationally. She seeks to tell stories about resilience, or in her words, “the human ability to endure, to survive, and carve out equality for themselves.” 

In 2019, a grant from the National Geographic Society allowed Morales to document indigenous cultures in her home country. “Initially, I really wanted to use photography as a tool and as a passport to leave this country. But as I went deeper into my practice, I realized that it was really important for me to understand home,” she says. 

For Morales, photography is principally a way of telling stories. And good stories, she says, “elicit empathy—and empathy is one of the most important roots of change.” 

Photography, and visual media more broadly, have long been understood as a potent storytelling tool, and as an agent of change, because it is immediately understandable across cultural barriers. Or as Morales puts it, “Photography is the language we all speak.”

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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