This story appears in the January 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It is part of a series in which five contributors answer the question “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”
Hear more from photographer Hannah Reyes Morales in our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.
Over the past few years I’ve been working on “Living Lullabies,” my project on how caregivers create safer spaces for their children through nighttime song and story.
My reporting partner, Rupert Compston, and I went to the Turkish-Syrian border; for refugee and migrant families there, lullabies were a piece of home that they could take with them, almost as portable sanctuaries. We went to Liberia, where we spoke with young mothers who’d had their babies as teenagers, and saw how they were singing hope in their lullabies. Then we visited Mongolia, one of the coldest places in the world. To heat their homes, nomadic families would burn coal, which of course pollutes the air. We met a mother who sang lullabies with healing words when her children were sickened by the air.
Those were the places we had gone to, and we had a plan for the rest of the story. But we had to shift to address this experience that we’re all going through, the pandemic. I got to see what making safe spaces looks like in real time, with parents helping their children navigate swiftly changing environments.
In the United States I visited families whose children had hearing loss. Lullabies aren’t just about the song; it’s about feeling your mom’s face close to you, feeling her gentle rocking. One mom whose son has a cochlear implant said she sings to him every night because she doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to hear her anymore the next day.
We think of lullabies as songs just for children, but they’re also for the caregiver. In the context of the pandemic, we looked at how health-care and other essential workers were still using bedtime rituals and lullabies, but in ways that safely isolated them from their kids. One of the health-care workers told me it was very different from what she had always thought protection looked like. Before, it was about being physically present—but now to protect her children, she had to be physically separate, singing and telling stories to them only through mobile phone and video calls.
It was such a revelation to me, seeing this pandemic play out on a global scale and then seeing it on the granular scale in different bed spaces. I’m proud that we were able to continue a project that was very, very close to my heart and not let the pandemic derail it.
The Storms Some Women Can’t Escape
Hannah Reyes Morales feels strongly about how media depict “women who are survivors.” In part that’s because she is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. And she’s committed to using photography to document the realities of women survivors’ lives, which, she says, often are “much more complex than they’re made out to be.”
In the project “Shelter from the Storm,” Morales partnered with writer Aurora Almendral to tell the stories of Filipinas who left rural provinces to become sex workers in Angeles City, a Philippine red-light district. Many of the women support families in villages that, as climate change worsens, may increasingly be devastated by typhoons.
Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record, hit the Philippines in 2013. It displaced some four million people, creating what one government official called a “feast for human traffickers” who drew desperate women to work in bars, where some became sex workers.
Among those Morales photographed were three sisters who sent earnings home so their mother could afford cancer treatment and rebuild the home that Haiyan destroyed.
Pursuing sensitive subjects has convinced Morales of this: “If you stay with the story long enough, you’ll see how people find ways to navigate difficult situations. So we shouldn’t come in saying, ‘This is their story.’ We should always be taking our cues from them.” —PE
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