Episode 7: Venturing into the heart of Manila

Filipina photographer Hannah Reyes Morales documents the dark corners of her hometown, Manila.

A young boy touches a gumamela flower that his sister picked from the ground. They live in a tenement in Manila where many drug deaths have taken place.
Photograph by Hannah Reyes Morales

While growing up, Hannah Reyes Morales wasn’t allowed to venture out into the rough streets of Manila, but later her work as a photographer would take her there. In the city’s dark corners, she shed light on the Philippine government’s violent war on drugs and the plight of some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

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PETER GWIN (HOST): Picture Manila: the sprawling capital of the Philippines, and the center of a violent government crackdown on the drug trade. The city is awash with crime scenes. Neighbors come out of their homes to look at the victims and watch the authorities take them away.

Hannah Reyes Morales was among the reporters who covered these crime scenes between 2016 and 2018. And she saw how people tried to go on about their daily lives amid such violence.

HANNAH REYES MORALES: I had seen this family where, you know, of course, the baby was crying. Someone was just shot, and the baby was having trouble going to sleep. And I just saw a mom trying to soothe the child. And I thought, Hmm, super interesting. You know, like lullabies are actively being used as a way to create safety in this very, very violent environment.

GWIN: Hannah also thought about when her four-year-old stepson moved into an apartment with her not too long ago, and how she had tried to soothe him with a lullaby.

MORALES: The sounds of the place, the city was new to him, the environment, the bed he was sleeping on. Everything was new. So he was just getting really apprehensive. You know, I had a moment of panic, and I pick him up and then I started singing. And I realized when I was doing that, I started to ask myself, Whose fears was I really assuaging? Was it his, or was it also mine? 

GWIN: Hannah’s curiosity led her around the world, documenting songs and nighttime rituals for a project called Living Lullabies.

(A woman sings a Syrian lullaby)

MORALES: Mona is one of those grandmothers who's very involved in her grandchildren's lives.

GWIN: Mona Idrees is a Syrian refugee Hannah met in Hatay, Turkey. Mona’s neighbors would threaten to call the police and report her grandson’s crying.

MORALES: So in the middle of the night, she would get up, and in fear, she would hold the baby and start singing. And for her, the lullaby is a prayer to God.

GWIN: Showing how people comfort each other when things are tough is a strong theme in Hannah’s work.

MORALES: And I think between the story, and all my other stories—where I've always been asking the question of what constitutes how we make safety for ourselves—one of the things that I learned from lullabies is how how much this song, which is so old and so universal, really connects us, not just across geographical locations but also through time. And I think that gave me a lot of comfort, you know, that as human beings, we have this instinct to comfort, to soothe. In the face of all these sort of difficult things that I've been photographing, that has been truly one of the greatest gifts of working on this story.

I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, I talk to photographer Hannah Reyes Morales, who’s covered the war on drugs in the Philippines and forced marriages in Cambodia. She’ll share what it was like growing up in Manila, and how she got her start in photojournalism, and her journey to document the ways people find refuge in the midst of turmoil.

More after this.

MORALES: I grew up in a very messy Manila. I always say I'm from the messy parts of Manila. I'm from Manila Manila.

GWIN: What does that mean, the messy parts?

MORALES: I had an insular childhood in that I wasn't really allowed to go out into the streets. And my mom didn't feel safe for me to go outside the streets. But my house was very much a bustling home. It was, you know—we had about a dozen to 14, 16 people at a time, depending on which relatives were visiting, who was coming in and out of the diaspora. It was a very bustling house I grew up in. I never had my own bed.

GWIN: Oh really? You didn't have your own bed?

MORALES: No, I never had my own bed.

GWIN: So you guys were sort of sharing, or you’re—?

MORALES: Yeah, I was bed-sharing. We had a room that I shared with my mom and whoever relative needed space at the time. And yeah, it was just very much a busy, busy home.

GWIN: And so, you said people were sort of going in and coming a lot. Were they traveling abroad? Was that—were they part of this diaspora that you were talking about?

MORALES:  I think at the time, I didn't really understand the meaning of diaspora. You know, as a kid, from your point of view, people were just leaving all the time. You had some of your best friends suddenly going into places where you can only imagine. And then they would sometimes come to visit, and they would be completely different people. And suddenly they had an American accent. They had gone to camp. Things that you would watch on television. You know, they were going to high schools where they didn't have to wear a uniform. I was like, What?

You know, like my cousins, really—most of my cousins now live abroad. And most of my relatives and my aunties now live abroad. And also the experience of just being the one left behind as everybody started leaving was an interesting experience because you then have these cousins who were younger than you sending you hand-me-downs from the U.S. You would get in the Philippines—you have this thing called balikbayan boxes. And these are the boxes that the diaspora will then send home. So, you know, every time we'd have one of those boxes, I'd be back home and I would be, you know, looking through the objects there, and, you know, exclaiming how it smells like America, even if I hadn't been there—even though I hadn’t been to America.

GWIN: Like what would be in the box—like what kind of things?

MORALES: It would be old clothes or would be toiletries. It would be Spam. It would be—

GWIN: Really—Spam? You got Spam?

MORALES: Yeah, we got Spam. Just—I think, you know, different families will have different versions. But often there are throughlines that are the same. There's always Bath and Body Works. Hand sanitizer. Spam is a very common theme; the Gap is a very common theme.

GWIN: Wow, that's interesting that those are sort of the defining sort of, you know, products that show up in a box to sort of define America—Spam.

MORALES: And so I had this view of what the outside world was as well, from the eyes of people who were migrants. And I think that that was interesting because, you know, you grew up with these people, you know where they're from. And yet they're living an entirely different experience than you. And then you would hear about what America is like through the eyes of my cousins. And I would hear about what Singapore or Canada is like through the eyes of my cousins—and they're usually not what you see on television about what America is or what Singapore is.

GWIN: Yeah. So what was different about what they would say versus what you saw?

MORALES: Well, one, I think they just weren't living in the centers that often popular culture about America is set in. And I think, you know, they would also have these experiences that at the time I probably didn't have the language for, and they probably didn't have the language for—but they were beginning to reject Filipino culture. And that was falling onto us. You know, like, when we would write letters to each other or we would be on phone calls with each other, my cousins would then, you know, really be hard on me if my English was wrong.

GWIN: Really?

MORALES: Yeah. And, you know, that's like you better—if you're gonna speak English, you have to speak English well. And, you know, at the time I didn't really register what that meant, but, you know, that was probably what she was being told. So, yeah. So you just had a different lens into these other worlds. 

GWIN: I think you've written when you were 14, you saved up to buy a copy of Annie Griffiths’s book, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel. 

MORALES: Uh-huh, yeah.  

GWIN: Tell me about that.

MORALES: Yeah, when I was a teenager, I had saved up enough money to buy that book. And what was interesting about A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is: one, it was from the perspective of a woman, and two, it was from the perspective of a mother. And it was just very interesting because it was one of those first touchpoints with photography that sort of disrupted my preconceived notions of what a National Geographic photographer was.

Peter: Right. So for people who don't know, Annie Griffiths is a longtime National Geographic photographer. And that book was sort of a compilation, I guess, of many of her assignments, or photos from many of her assignments.

MORALES: And a lot of it was behind the scenes too. So I thought that that was really some of my most favorite pictures. There were just pictures of her kids kind of being part of this landscape of wherever she was going on assignment. And I just thought that that was really interesting. I thought seeing the connections between people from two very different cultures in the context of her being on assignment was just incredible.

GWIN: Tell me about—so you sort of go beyond the casual experimentation and you move into this job with a wire service. How did you get that?

MORALES: I took an elective and—

GWIN: This is in Manila, right?

MORALES: This is in Manila, yeah. So I took an elective, and my professor at the time was a photographer at a wire agency. And so I asked him if I could intern. And at the time, I thought that that meant, you know, making coffee and, you know, proofreading captions. I thought that’s what that meant. But as soon as I could get into the office, he hands me these cameras, which, you know, were much more robust than the one I had. And he was telling me that I needed to go photograph with one of the photographers, and to just go with him. And, you know, I was wearing white pants and sandals and we had to go into a coal yard. It was very... interesting.

GWIN: Lesson number one: As a new photographer, you know, white pants—not the best gear.

MORALES: No, definitely not wear white pants. I still have photos from the day. It's hilarious. But yeah, at the time, I was 19 or 20. So I just didn't even think that I could ever be a photographer.

GWIN: So how did working as a photographer in this really early period change the way that you thought of yourself?

MORALES: I think that working in the wire was really, really good for me in that I learned how to be quick with making an image. I learned how to sometimes make an image when someplace is just not visual. But in a lot of ways, I think after having worked there and what I know now, I think there was a lot of things that I also had to unlearn—in terms of how I thought about “story”—because also in a lot of ways, I didn't fit in that world.

You know, at the time I was one of very few women. I was one of very few young women. And it was all these, you know, really quite burly Tito-type—uncle-type—men who are great, but you just aren't quite a fit with them. And at the time, I think I was just trying to fit in. And then I wasn't really myself. You know, I was trying to be more masculine. You know, trying to be more badass.

And that just isn't my strength right now. Like I know now that I'm at this stage—I know that my strength is that I can, you know, be invisible, that I can come into a space and be part of it and document moments intimately. But, you know, at the time, it was just a very different landscape that I was navigating. And I thought that that was what I needed to be. And I think that that was very discouraging because it just wasn't who I was. And I didn't—I don't think that photographers should have to kill who they are in order to be photographers.

GWIN: So you had this desire to kind of go deeper on some stories, and you ended up moving to Cambodia. How did you decide to move to Cambodia?

MORALES: I'd always wanted to move abroad. And so my boyfriend at the time—who’s my husband now—had a job offer both in Manila and in Cambodia. And we knew we wanted to be together. So he said, Would you like to move with me? And so I just did. It was one of those kind of things you decide on a whim.

And it was the first time I'd ever looked at—I'd ever been introduced to a more international photography community. They have, you know, the Angkor Photo Festival there, so that was really interesting—kind of like being around other photographers from different places.

GWIN: Well, it's interesting, you tell me this backstory on moving to Cambodia, because the story that I know that you did there was the “Only Lovers Left Alive” story. Can you talk about that a little bit?

MORALES: So that was a story by one of my friends, Dene Chen. And she wanted to do a story on forced marriages. And it's very different from arranged marriages. People were forcing people to marry each other and to consummate their marriages—to show their loyalty to the Khmer Rouge essentially. But then there were these couples who in the midst of that and in their shared trauma fell in love.

And so they decided that they wanted to have a real marriage—you know, decades after they were forced to marry each other. And I think that that was important for them because, you know, weddings—which were validated by the community rather than these forced weddings that they had to do at the time—was just an important thing for their relationships. But at the same time, you know, documenting that, but at the same time remembering how those cases are very sweet and it's very heartwarming to see them. But also, how do you document that in a way where you also don't forget how terrible that experience was and how traumatic that experience was, and how rare also these people are. And so I guess that is what we were trying to navigate at the time.

GWIN: Well, and was this one of the first stories where you felt like you had to kind of like really be sort of on intimate terms with people, to sort of capture these kinds of images?

MORALES: It wasn’t the first story that I had felt that. I think the first story that I was capturing intimate moments was a story I did on the woman who raised me, Nanay. As a child, I’d always puzzled about why domestic workers weren't part of family pictures. So I was doing that story because I just wanted to take their pictures, and I wanted them to be part of our family history.

And I just wanted them to be part of my archive of images of my own family. So I was documenting how their lives look like when they're navigating employment and family in parallel. So that was sort of like my first photo documentary story.

And interestingly enough, years later, after I'd done that story, Anthony Bourdain went to the Philippines, and he did a chapter on domestic workers cooking. And one of the pieces that they wanted to produce as kind of like a web counterpart of the episode of Parts Unknown was they wanted to produce these photo stories. And so they reached out to me, and they wanted to publish my work on Nanay as an additional sidebar piece to that. They published one of her recipes, and I took the, you know, the food photos of her recipes.

And so it just felt very—it came full circle because when I was starting to do that story, I didn't really know where it would end up. I was doing it mostly for myself. And it was like an interesting exercise in connecting with Nanay now that I was an adult, and I hadn’t lived at home for a long time. And we took the pictures, and then it came out—and it came out with her recipe. And I thought that that was a really lovely sort of way to celebrate her and her life.

GWIN: I know one other assignment that you worked on that's very different from these other stories we're talking about is the war on drugs in the Philippines. Tell me a little bit about how you came to cover that. So you spent your time in Cambodia, and then you moved back to the Philippines?

MORALES: I moved back to the Philippines during the time of the Duterte administration. I felt very strongly about the need to be there at the time to document what was going on and—the changes going on in my country. When Duterte was elected in the Philippines, he began this campaign to end drugs. And a big part of that campaign was killing drug users and drug pushers and being very hard-line about it. And so thousands of people died in this ongoing, bloody war on drugs.

And so I was getting assigned to do these stories about the war on drugs in the Philippines—you know, it's a very intense story and that it's a lot of death and violence.  So I did that story in two parts, because while I was getting assigned to cover that story, I would notice that every time we would photograph in these crime scenes, there were all these people coming around the dead body. The neighbors would be looking. And then after the body would be collected, after the media had gone, these people would then return to their homes. And I was always curious about how life continued amidst all this death and violence.

So I was looking at how tenderness and love continue in spaces like that—in contested spaces like that—and how people live normal lives and celebrate birthdays and, you know, do karaoke after having seen something like that happen to your neighbor.

GWIN: How has your own personal experience informed that kind of work?

MORALES: I think for me, the overarching theme now of my stories—or the stories that I worked the longest on, at least—has been about safe space-making. You know, in a lot of ways my story of communities living amidst the drug war was about how people navigating that particular environment were trying to create safe spaces amidst their own communities, when their communities were under attack. The story that I did with Nanay was about how she was creating a safe space for me, and also creating safe space for my family.

You know, circling back to my background and my childhood, growing up and having experienced trauma, I began to understood what the process of safe space-making meant. And understanding that in the lack of these formal structures of support, often women are creating those structures for support for themselves. So I think that that's been sort of a throughline in all of my stories—and all of the stories that at least I feel closest to—is that, yeah, how are people keeping each other safe?

GWIN: OK, can you describe the trauma that you experienced as a young person?

MORALES: So I was assaulted when I was 14. And so that shook me a lot. And, you know, whatever the status quo was, just moved—like just completely was destroyed for me.

GWIN: The status quo in the sense of, like, your security?

MORALES: My sense of security, what I believed to be true, what, you know—like the rules of what kept me safe just changed. And I think a lot of the work that I do now in a lot of ways—what I'm curious about—has to do with what I'm trying to process as well in the world.

So I never leave a story without having really learned something new, both about these other people but also about my own experiences. You know, every time when you're working really hard on a story, you get these sort of—these moments where you just find someone whose incredible grace and whose incredible resilience and whose incredible way of processing the situation that you're trying to document just really reveals so much about humanity to you. And I think that that's just what keeps me going in the work and what keeps me interested in these stories, because I'm always learning something new and I'm always finding things that I think are very surprising.

GWIN: Hannah Reyes Morales, thank you very much.

MORALES: Thanks.

GWIN: To see more of Hannah’s work—like her photos of the diaspora of Filipinos working abroad and the Living Lullabies project—visit natgeo.com

You can also find her photographs on our Instagram feed @natgeo.

All this and more can be found in our show notes. Look for them in your podcast app.

And while you’re there, please consider leaving a review. It really helps other listeners find us.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Brian Gutierrez, Ilana Strauss, Marcy Thompson, and Jacob Pinter. 

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. This episode was also edited by Bob Malesky.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also produced this episode. 

Michelle Harris fact-checked this episode.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Hannah Reyes Morales.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want More?

Hannah Reyes Morales’s Living Lullabies project showcases nighttime rituals all over the world, including those of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ten million Filipinos work abroad. Hear their stories and see Hannah’s photos in this story.

And you can see parts one and two of Hannah’s reporting on the Philippine drug war.

Also explore:

 To see the portraits of couples who fell in love after being forced to marry each other during the Khmer Rouge era, check out the Al Jazeera story “Only ‘Lovers’ Left Alive” by Dene-Hern Chen.

And take a look at the photo essay Hannah produced about domestic workers for Parts Unknown, which includes images of Nanay, the woman who raised her.

To view more of Hannah’s work, you can follow her on Instagram @hannahreyesmorales.