A Boy and His Goggles

Photographing from his insect-like paraglider at an altitude of 500 feet, George Steinmetz is known for his beautiful aerial photography of places like the islands of the Ari Atoll in the Maldives, above. But even when he keeps his boots on the ground, he’s equally adept at searching out and capturing storytelling moments.

This post is about one of those moments.

I worked with him as his picture editor on “Rising Seas,” which appeared in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine. The coverage for the story took him to Manila, Philippines, where some 625,000 people are squatting in crowded riverfront shanties extremely vulnerable to rising seas exacerbated by subsiding land and the threat of the next typhoon. The government hopes to relocate everyone out of harm’s way, but funding, the search for suitable locations, and construction of new housing projects are still in the works.

George was making headway by air but found the going tough in the crowded and cramped shantytowns. He was a white, six-foot-two-inch-tall foreigner who stood out just as you would expect a white, six-foot-two-inch-tall foreigner would. We discussed his frustrations by phone and agreed that he should take more of his precious deadline time and go after the elusive moments we both so wanted for the story.

Time is everything to a photographer.

Eventually, George found himself below sea level, knee-deep in a mudflat below stilt shanties that look as if an ordinary wind could blow them out to sea.

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A contact sheet of photographer George Steinmetz’s photographs.

As this contact sheet shows, George happened upon and began following Rodello Coronel, Jr., 13, one of nine children. Rodello spends each morning picking through the floating trash looking for recyclable plastic that he can sell for 35 cents per kilo to help his family. According to Denis Murphy, head of Urban Poor Associates and whose workers helped George on assignment, each family has five persons on average and earns about $6 a day.

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Rodello Coronel, Jr., the second of nine children in his family, spends the morning picking through the trash on shore in Manila looking for recyclable plastic.

Rodello looked far older than his 13 years as he focused on the task at hand, but then something unusual caught his eye—a pair of swimming goggles. His face lit up with joy, and my eyes with tears, as I felt for the boy whose spirit transcended his situation. This was my favorite picture of the story, yet it did not make the pages of the magazine, and it has never been published until now. Giving George the precious time on the ground paid off.

George wrote that on the next day he saw Rodello, “in his smart-looking school uniform with a small briefcase holding his homework papers.”

If you would like to help Rodello and families like his you can send contributions to Urban Poor Associates, a nongovernment organization registered with the Philippine government. Please send donations (in dollars) direct to:

Associates of the Urban Poor, Inc.
Bank of the Philippine Islands
Aurora Boulevard Branch

Or you can send checks or money orders to:
Urban Poor Associates
25A Mabuhay Street Barangay Central 1100
Quezon City, Philippines

View more of George Steinmetz’s work on his website.