Norberto Tongoy is a photographer born and raised in a farming community in the province of Negros Occidental, Philippines and now based in Sydney, Australia. His recent work-in-progress explores the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in central Philippines and a photographic study of fitting into a different culture.
Tongoy is interested in documenting the human conditions that expose stories to seek awareness and understanding. He shares an eyewitness view of the story behind the lives of people and/or events, capturing the most prominent and vivid moments of life. Some of his photographic works have been showcased in Sydney, Australia in various collective exhibitions.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I discovered photography at an early stage of my life. My parents have this old Kodak film camera and they would usually ask me to take photos of birthdays and other family events. As a kid, it felt good to be asked as such. Though it took me some time to realize that what I’ve been doing was documenting my life and my family. I thought through photography, I was able record moments or memories otherwise long forgotten.
How did you first become interested in Leica?
About 3 years ago, I was looking for a camera that is discreet, light and should be comfortable to use. I read through online forums and spoke to a few photographer friends and Leica always comes on the top of those conversations. That’s when I decided to get the M6. Everything I needed for my photography was packaged in this little camera. I’ve been using it ever since.
This scope of work is about Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the stories behind the people who suffered from it. How was the process of documenting such event and photographically speaking, what were your objectives?
It started with my personal curiosity about a farming and fishing community that was affected by the Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Three weeks after the typhoon, I went to the Philippines but I wasn’t able to photograph. The scene shocked me that my first instinct was to help out. So I organised a small relief operation together with my family and friends to support the community.
Just a couple of months after I came back to Australia, I noticed that the focus of the conversations were more on the number of casualties. There were less talk about the survivors. That was when I decided to go back after a year to explore the lives of these people on how they managed to live through the toughest times and how they were willing to reclaim back what they have lost. Sometimes we forget that disasters are more than just death and destruction but also impact a lifetime of rebuilding lives.
On more than one occasion, you use mirrors or windows as a way to frame your images…Is this a conscious decision you made when taking the images or is it more an isolated result of the project?
I didn’t really notice that until I took a portrait of a mother’s reflection in the mirror. In a way it was a reflection of my time in the community as an outsider and how the people welcomed me in their homes and shared their stories of struggle and hope.
Your images depict how the landscape suffered from the typhoon, but mainly shows the relation between people and the places they live or work. Can you share a story or two behind the people you took pictures of?
A lot of them were farmers and fishermen. So to have their houses destroyed, their fields flooded, their boats broken in less than a day was too much. It was probably all they had.
When I went back the second time, I was talking to a mother of three and we were sitting in their makeshift kitchen. I learned that after the typhoon, all that was left of their house was the living room. Everything else was blown away including the roof and the kitchen. She told me that the government’s aid was slow and the amount they got was not enough to rebuild their house. So for almost two years, she and her husband had to work day and night just to have enough funds to fix their house. For me to photograph them in their environment was a straight-foward decision.
Can you explain the picture with the TV set? What caught your attention?
Philippines is visited by an average of 20 typhoons every year. The people were no stranger to these natural occurrences. Days before the typhoon, warnings were broadcasted regularly on TV and through social media. Having to communicate the warnings and to implement proper evacuations to the remote areas posed a challenge.
One night I saw in this open kitchen and noticed this TV was placed on top of a cabinet. The reception was so terrible so I asked the owner if he needs to fix it but he couldn’t get the antenna high enough to get a good reception. The set up of the scene reminded me on how the communication between the government and the people was carried out and what could’ve been done to prevent the massive scale of human loss.
This series was created with the Leica M6, what’s your perception about this camera in terms of performance and picture output when doing this type of work?
The camera is very simple to use. I didn’t have to fiddle with a lot of settings. And because it is small and discreet, it breaks that wall between me and my subjects. I really wanted to avoid them feeling that I was invading their space especially when they have gone through so much pain and struggle.
For more than two years of doing this project, I’ve used this camera all the time and it never caused me any issues. The image quality I got was amazing especially with the Summicron 35mm f2. I was able to print as large as 56 x 84 cm and still get great details.
Besides using the Summicron 35mm f2 lens, did you use other lenses and what challenges did you have when selecting a lens?
For this project, I also used the Elmarit 28mm f2.8 and the Summicron 50mm f2. For almost on everything I photograph, I used the 35mm. Though sometimes when the situation calls for it, I would pick the lens accordingly. I remember when I was following a group of cane workers, I was taking photographs of them using the 35mm. Then they started to cut the sugarcanes in the middle of the field and I wanted to get a little bit closer so I switched to the 28mm lens.
You mention your interest and admiration for Magnum photographers. What are your influences within Magnum that you may say, they shape your photography?
Maybe it’s not the way I shoot photographs but how I think about photographs. For years they have been a benchmark of powerful visual story telling. So by studying the intensity to follow through their work and to challenge themselves as artists is very inspiring.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or share for our readers to know about?
I intend to return on a regular basis to record how the survivors transform their lives. I will further expand my project in towns and cities across the provinces where the largest damage had taken place. I will be documenting their efforts to triumph and to adapt in a community torn by the disaster, young and old, as they create chances for themselves in an area even where opportunities are rare. I aim to share their journey on how they manage to live through the toughest times and hope that it will give a chance for others to learn.
Thank you Norberto!