BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, October 3, 2015


It is quiet in the confession booth, except perhaps for the whispers of sinners seeking salvation from strangers in white robes. Men and women, thieves, vagabonds, adulterers, lonely mistresses — sinners they all are — will kneel and confess their acts before they do it all again, in another time, another day.

There is a soldier, slumped on his back, perhaps dead or dying, perhaps wounded or too weak to stand. His gun-wielding comrades are by his side. They are in the middle of a battle, or the war has just begun. All are fighting for their lives.

In a place named Tacloban, after the world came to an end when
 Super Typhoon Haiyan struck, a man stands in the middle of the chaos. He has almost nothing, no shirt, no bags, no home; just a black rosary he wears around his neck.

This is faith, held deeply by nearly every man, woman and child in this predominantly Catholic country of 100 million people. There is sometimes no rationality or reason but faith, nevertheless, serves its epistemic function here in this country where more than 25 million Filipinos are mired in deep poverty. It is an end to contradictions or at the center of ironies.

Faith is expressed in many ways and the differences are stark and telling. The ways are varied, as they are endless.

And the different ways by which Filipinos hold on to their faith are vividly captured in a collection of images by five Filipino photojournalists: Jose Enrique Soriano, Veejay Villafranca, Jake Verzosa, Carlo Gabuco, and Jes Aznar.

The result is Pananampalataya --the Filipino word for faith -- an exhibition, which is part of the inaugural PhotoBangkok Festival, an ongoing international photography festival in Bangkok, Thailand.

Pananampalataya is presented by AsianEye Gallery, an online gallery that aims to raise the profile of veteran and emerging Asian photographers and to encourage collectors from all over the world to discover and appreciate their vision and works.

“Any simple attempt at describing the belief systems native to a Filipino is likely to be inadequate. The Filipino photographer is unique when juxtaposed with the rest of his Asian and Western counterparts. The artist comes from an archipelago composed of 7,107 islands in Southeast Asia, and is greatly influenced by the country’s history of popular struggles. One unparalleled historical factor which explains the distinctiveness of the Philippines in Asia, is its prolonged history under direct colonial domination. Colonialism in the Philippines began in the sixteenth century, as in Latin America – 300 years earlier than most Asian countries. The worldview of Filipinos reflects a strong Hispanic and Christianized influence, with the Catholic Church contributing to this. The Filipino is the fruit of this integration. And what is integral in this integration is the faith (pananampalataya) of its people - a faith in a force (tadhana) that determines the destiny of its people,” according to the exhibition notes.

Pia Artadi, the Filipina behind AsianEye, says she wanted to show the world the unique talent of Filipino photographers.

“I wanted to portray how strong the work of Filipino photographers are and unique all over the world,” Artadi says.

On the subject of faith, Artadi says its universality remains profound and that she wanted to share Filipinos’ practice of faith to a wider audience that in the process, they may find a common ground.

She says the gallery is proud to be part of the inaugural Photo Bangkok Festival.

Piyatat Hemmatat, director of PhotoBangkok 2015 said the festival, which would go on for two months, aims to elevate the development of the creative community through the next generations.

“As we believe that our country is full of passionate creative artists with promising photographic capability and potential, it is inevitably now that all concerned parties come together to work hand in hand in creating an integrated platform that leads the works of Thailand’s photographers to an international stage,” he said.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Walking the Streets of Bangkok with Sonny Yabao

Bangkok, Thailand - Many things have changed in the Kingdom of drunkard kings and dancing queens. Once many moons ago, I woke up in the middle of the night in the smoke-filled bars of Patpong, in full view of fat and ageing naked strippers out to please sex-starved men in another night of hustle. 

This time, I found myself walking the streets of Sukhamvit Road in broad day light, looking for a place to eat. I couldn’t wait to fill my hungry stomach, Sonny Yabao, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to shoot. 

We turned left and right and left again, looking for an authentic Thai cuisine. I didn’t see the bars this time. Sonny, who was here one time and another, thinks too that the world has changed by leaps and bounds. 

"In the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the lead player sings, “Sunrise, sunset… when did she get to be a beauty… I don’t remember growing older… when did they?” Indeed, and Bob Dylan mourns, too, about “The times, they are a-changin’.” It cannot be denied that we all share these hopes and fears in the ever-changing things as they are, that one cannot go home again. And on a train ride, Bob Dylan again asks, “I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing, that old oak tree, the one we used to climb," Yabao muses, writing about this particular trip

As for me, I'm it my imagination or there are now more transgender walking the streets of Bangkok? Perhaps, this goes with a more progressive world or it is because having your penis removed is now as simple as going to a salon here in this city?

Meet Ashley, cherry-red lips, with chest brown hair, sexy and voluptuous. She sure turned heads including Sonny's but she was, once upon a time, a man like the rest of them. 

There’s also a whole industry of massage salons and spas, a sign of a more stressful city. (Traffic takes hours, just like Manila’s gates of hell). 

Many signs are now in English, a relief to visitors like me who have no patience doing sign language with Thais. 

Once, years ago, Jes and I found ourselves desperately lost in the middle of nowhere — there were no signs in English and not a soul spoke a language we could understand. We were on our way to Laos and the only thing that helped us get out of the rumpus and on to our destination was a lone rickety Third World bus with a wooden sign on its window: "Laos." 

Jes and I are back in Bangkok, this time for the opening of Pananampalataya. We’re lucky to have Sonny join us though until the last minute, we weren't quite sure he would leave the comforts of his Laguna abode, hop on the plane and actually take the flight. Or if he did, I imagined he might just choose to run away with a beautiful flight stewardess and forget about the exhibit. The night before he arrived, while we were setting up the exhibit, the photographers washed away their jitters with Japanese whiskey as they imagined the Master shaking his head in disapproval.

But showed up he did and allowed himself to be dragged all the way to this city, lending honour to the jam-packed exhibit opening, which is another story for another day.

After walking a while, Sonny and I finally found the authentic Thai restaurant we were looking for. The voluptuous Ashley, 100 percent Filipina, graciously served us like we were the only ones in the place.  

We walked the rest of the afternoon. I had one goal: to look for a bookstore while Sonny just wanted to shoot. I thought I was guiding an old man in an unfamiliar place, making sure he wasn't too tired from too much walking. But this was not quite the case. 

Sonny saw things I didn't see: birds huddled in twisted branches; she-men and a stranger's foot in the sprawling grassy park, the signs and silhouettes, the puddles of water with the reflection of the Bangkok sky; all these and more. Indeed, there's a whole plethora of things I almost missed. 

He refused to take the escalator on the way to the hulking white mall and laughed at me when I insisted the stairs might be too much for him. 

We spent hours in the bookstore and I would have dragged him for more shopping but I found myself really tired. The man, more than twenty years my senior, wasn't done. He went chasing a vendor with a Vietnamese style conical hat and a rickety food cart -- perhaps this would make a good photograph -- and they both disappeared in a narrow alley filled with street food.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thank you, Nepal; a Postscript

More than two months after our visit, the enigma, magic and unshakeable faith of Nepal still linger in my mind.

Thank you to the Nepali people for their unwavering strength and resilience and to this Himalayan country for revealing its beauty amid the devastation. 

Here's my collection of stories from the trip:

Nepal is still strongly in need of help, my story for The New Internationalist even as Social Caretaking Keeps Nepal Going, as I wrote for Womensenews.

And reminisce with me again as I reflect on this amazing place for The Starweek, made extra amazing and strong by its women, who played visible roles in rebuilding Nepal as I wrote for Womensenews.

Again, thank you to everyone that Jes and I met in this journey. It was magical to say the least. 

Once again, Namaste!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Women Play Visible Roles in Rebuilding Nepal

My latest story for Womensenews:

KATHMANDU,  Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)-- The capital city of Nepal is slowly and painfully rebuilding after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck this Himalayan country on a seemingly ordinary lunch hour on April 25, a Saturday.

The earthquake left the people of Nepal, especially its government, in a state of shock, but amidst the chaos, women are remarkably playing a significant role in the difficult but necessary process of rebuilding. Here is a sampling of what women are doing. All photos by Iris Gonzales.

Water supply is intermittent in Kathmandu because of the damage to water pipes by the earthquake. Women and children collect water from a public source near Basantapur Durbar Square.

Naniyera Tamraker, 68, owner of a bakery in Nardevi Street in Kathmandu, sits with her grandchildren, Palaistha Tamraker, 10, and Palpasa Tamraker, 15. She stays with her grandchildren constantly now to help allay fears left by the disaster.

Sita Shrestha, 48, forms cotton wicks, which she sells to candle vendors near the various temples in Nepal. She is staying in a tent city near Thamel because her house was destroyed by the earthquake.

A woman in a tent city near Nardevi Street prepares to dry native crops under the sun. The poles propped against the buildings to prevent further collapse are a now-common post-earthquake feature.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Nepal's Unshakeable Beauty and Magic

My latest piece for Starweek:

Kathmandu - The chaos begins long before I even reach the city center. It begins right at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, a small building made of orange bricks, then on to its jam-packed parking lot, an ocean of dusty white cabs with no air conditioning.

It is a dry and sweltering late morning and I am in the Himalayan country of Nepal, known for its enigmatic beauty and also for a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck a month ago. From the plane, I walk inside to what seems to be the immigration, Customs and baggage area. There were several lines of people – perpendicular and parallel – and I’m not sure where to fall in line.

When I finally find the right immigration line, the officer leaves his post without a word, leaving me wondering whether I should just walk through the unguarded exit of the airport or move to another queue. Turns out, he went to help an elderly man who tried to enter Nepal without paying his visa.

There are all sorts of people at the airport – travelers, aid workers, journalists, non government workers – all off to somewhere. Outside, in the noonday heat, a swarm of taxi drivers are racing against each other to win over the next passenger who exits the airport. And one can hear the honking of cars, the shouting of parking attendants and the whistle of security guards as they try to bring order to the disarray of vehicles all desperate to get out of the parking lot as quickly as possible.

The scene at the airport is a perfect metaphor of what I saw throughout my stay in Nepal – people are doing their best to rise above the chaos, to rebuild their lives amidst the disorder, to go on with the daily grind even if it seems impossible. One can see this in the many tent cities all over the capital, in the unpaved roads filled with fruits and vegetables vendors, in the stupas – ancient Buddhism shrines – and temples and in the many curio shops all over Kathmandu.

Rebuilding officially started a month after. It took a while because the people were really shocked, says 22-year-old Success Ad, my Nepali guide and translator.

“In my village in Gorkha, everyone was crying and shouting,” Ad says.

He believes it would take a year or two before the situation will go back to normal.
At the same time, he says, Nepalis are learning a lot from the Philippines, after surviving Yolanda (Haiyan).

“It’s like the Philippines, in a way. You survived Haiyan so we are trying to survive, too,” he says. As what happened in the Philippines, the help of international media is important, he says, as it brings attention to the situation on the ground.

I am here exactly a month since the  earthquake, which left at least 8,800 people dead and injured more than 23,000. The earthquake occurred at 11:56 a.m. on April 25, with the east district of Lamjung  as its epicenter. It is said to be the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake.

It caused an avalanche at Mount Everest, killing 19 people on the mountain that day.

Ad, manager of Happy Home Hotel, says the hotel staff was having lunch on the rooftop of the building when the earthquake struck. “Now, they don’t want to eat there anymore.”

Indeed, there is damage almost everywhere. The road where our five-story hotel is located is closed because a building, also five stories high, has slanted and is leaning on another building, putting all the buildings on that side of the road – our hotel included – at risk of falling like dominos.

Most homes are propped up by whatever support the people can find – stilts made of branches, old wood or bamboo – to prevent further collapse. Some roads are filled with the thickest dust and dried mud; some are closed to motorists because they are too damaged for people to pass through. There are heaps and heaps of fallen orange bricks everywhere.

In Thamel, a tourist place, vendors manning the souvenir stores and curio shops opt to wait out on the streets for fear that the earth will tremble again.

Everyone has a story to tell – of survival, of hurting, of trauma, of losing loved ones, of losing homes and a lifetime of hard earned money, of moving on and of finding healing.

And everyone is trying to do their best to help.

Prateebha Tuladhar, a Nepali journalist, believes that women are playing a significant role in the rebuilding of her country. “Women are holding out better,” she says.

The trauma of the people, she says, goes beyond the memories of that day. Some are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and are having difficulties continuing with work or with their relationships.

When the earthquake struck, she narrates how her mother and sister stood strong to save their family.

“My mother seems to be very strong. She was always telling us not to panic,” says Tuladhar of her 56-year-old mother. As the whole family stormed outside, her mother went back to the house to make sure everyone was safe. After the earthquake, her 30-year-old sister instinctively picks up her newborn baby whenever there is an aftershock.

She says even the government is too shocked to act quickly. But individually, everyone is trying to help. She especially notes how women are working on individual actions to help ease the situation.

Tuladhar puts the spotlight on a project initiated by her female friend, A Tiny Little Perspective. It is a project that helps provide nutrition packages for mothers and their newborns.

Dipti Sherchan, an anthropological researcher, founded the project. Days after the first earthquake, she found herself among two newborns, a 7-day-old and a 3-day-old, in the camping area in their community. The mothers, she says, all looked traumatized.

“Every tremor would lead the mothers to move along with the villagers to a nearby tent, holding on to her baby, and after things became a bit calmer, return with their babies to stay inside a room,” 
Sherchan says in an e-mail interview.

The initiative provides nutrition packages that contain relief materials catering specifically to the needs of pregnant women, post-natal women and their infants.

There is a bucket filled with rice, lentils, salt, biscuits, multi-grain cereal; a box filled with a mosquito net, sanitary pads, nutrition supplements like vitamins, calcium and iron; water purifier, soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, toilet paper rolls and baby products such as blankets.

Despite all the damage, Nepal is still worth visiting, even in these times. Its beauty, deep, raw and profound, is still very visible because it is seen more in the everyday life than in its damaged temples.

It is a magical journey, a feast for the senses. It is bursting with colors, with its well-dressed women in their long saris and adornments of jewels; its Lung ta prayer flags that are everywhere – blue, green, red, white and yellow; its rickety rickshaws decorated with glittering makeshift canopies and its hundreds and hundreds of shops and roadside stalls selling anything from bright yellow mangoes to antiques from the Himalayas.

There’s also a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds: its stupas with Buddha’s giant eyes, surrounded by the colorful prayer flags and the never-ending noise on its roads; the honking of cab drivers who seem to drive with no rules and limits, and the rhythmic sound of Nepali songs that blare from their radios.

Nepali food – from curries to dumplings – is a gastronomic adventure, with strong Indian influence and lots of lentils and spices. There’s a lot of rice and roti and the freshest vegetables. You never want to stop eating. There’s authentic lassi, the popular yoghurt-based drink, sweet, plain, banana or what-have-you.

But more importantly, it’s the Nepali people that make one’s visit worthwhile. They are always warm and happy despite what they are going through, always ready to greet and welcome visitors with Namaste and a warm smile.

On one of our last moments here, we stood on top of a hill overlooking the city of Kathmandu. We lingered for a long, long time, forgetting the minutes and the hours, admiring the city down below, those hundreds of small pastel-colored houses glittering under the warm Nepalese sun, taking it all in and getting lost, grateful to this Himalayan country for opening its doors to us and revealing its beauty despite the devastation.

I close my eyes one last time before leaving the hilltop, in an attempt to seal in my mind’s eye this magical, breathtaking view, to keep in my heart forever. It is a stark reminder that even in the most chaotic places, the spirit and the soul, in all their beauty, are never destroyed.

To know more about the Tiny Little Perspective Project, please email or visit

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dateline Nepal

I was interviewing earthquake survivors when @jeszmann came rushing to say there's something I have to see. He led me through labyrinthine streets filled with debris and men rebuilding temples.

To this. My photograph does not do justice to this majestic moment but it really is magical and profoundly beautiful. We lingered here for a long, long time forgetting the minutes and the hours. Just taking it all in and getting lost. Thank you Nepal for revealing your beauty amid the devastation. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Filipino Families Struggle With Motherhood Exodus

My latest story for

Being both mother and father to the children is difficult, says an unemployed man whose wife works as a domestic helper in Dubai. The feminization of migration leaves more families affected by what one researcher calls the commodification of motherhood.

Jimmy Gamad; his wife works as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia.
Credit: Photo by Iris Gonzales

MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)-- Maria Juliana, 4 years old, is crying and whining; her nose is now runny and her voice hoarse. It is 7 in the evening and she hasn't had dinner. There's no food on the table yet. She is tired, hungry and fussy now. And she is calling out to her father.But 52-year-old Edgardo Agido is checking on Maria's sister, 7-year-old Samantha Nicole, who is still out playing hide and seek with the neighborhood gang under the moonlight.

Agido and his children live in the outskirts of the University of the Philippines, a state-owned school in the northeast of Quezon City. Their neighborhood is a labyrinthine slum where families crowd into dwellings that are made out of concrete or a hodgepodge of plywood, cardboard and whatever else can be found.

Agido's eldest, 9-year-old Albert, is helping in the kitchen.

It's a typical night. It can be chaotic at times, says Agido but he's the only one in charge for the past year, since his 34-year-old wife Melona left for Dubai to work as a domestic helper.

"I couldn't go. I'm already over age so my wife had to go," he says. Agido used to work for a water distribution company but he was dismissed after a change in ownership. He has filed an illegal dismissal case, which is pending with the courts.

Being both mother and father to the children can be difficult. And lonely, he says. "It's really very sad because my wife is not around."

Gathering the children for dinner is a breeze compared to when they are sick. "Sometimes, when one of the them is sick, it can be so stressful. I would especially wish that my wife was around," he says.
Melona Agido is part of a global trend, writes Zuhal Yesilyurt Gunduz, associate professor in the International Relations Department at TED University in Ankara, Turkey, in a recent paper on the feminization of migration. "In the past it was mainly men who went to countries far away; women came as followers. In the last 20 years, however, this has changed so much that today over half of all migrants are women."

Gunduz notes that female migrants are often the main or sole wage earners of their families.

As a result, millions of children of migrants are forced to settle for what Gunduz calls the commodification of motherhood. "A generation of children has grown up without their mothers at their sides. The consequences of long separation periods, especially in very young ages, can be devastating," she writes.

Global social and demographic trends in developed countries, such as aging populations, are driving the feminization of migration, Gunduz writes.

And Filipino families are particularly affected, she notes. "Not only do many employers explicitly seek foreign women, specific nationalities are often sought-after, such as Filipinos."

Domestic workers from multiple countries are at U.N. headquarters in New York to push for adoption of international labor standards and labor projections for domestic workers during the March 9-20 annual assembly of the Commission on the Status of Women.

But improved labor standards won't necessarily help the children left behind.
"Studies reveal that migrants' children are ill more often than other children; they experience resentment, bewilderment and indifference more than their friends, who live with their mothers. Here we notice injustice at work, linking the emotional deprivation of these children with the surfeit of affection their First World counterparts enjoy--at least ostensibly," Gunduz says in her paper.

In the case of Agido, the family had no choice. "I couldn't find a job here or abroad so my wife had to be the one to go," he says.

Having Skype Helps

Jimmy Gamad, 49 years old, who lives in the same neighborhood, is luckier. He says his children, who are older, do not feel any resentment toward their mother who is in Saudi Arabia working as a domestic helper.

"I think my children are fine. With the help of technology, they are able to talk to their mother," he says. His wife Emma left two years ago.

"We are able to talk to her on Skype so it's OK," says 24-year old Marc Jay, the second of their four children.

The eldest is 27-year-old King J, then 19-year-old Jimlet and 11-year-old Ej.

Their father works as a cook in a school canteen and goes home right after work to check on them.

"He is both father and mother and he is really the best," says Marc Jay.

Gunduz, of TED University in Ankara, says migrants should have a right to family life and to be reunited with their children.

"[I]t is necessary to struggle to guarantee the right of children in all situations to be with their mothers (not to exclude their fathers as well) so that they can share family life again even while the mothers are working," she writes.

Millions Working Overseas

An estimated 10.48 million Filipinos worked overseas as of the end of 2012, an increase of 33,000 from a year earlier, according to the latest available data from the Commission on Overseas Filipinos, the agency tasked to promote and uphold the interests of Filipinos abroad.

As the total number of overseas workers rise, so does women's share of that population, with 46, 940 female Filipina migrant workers registered in 2013 compared to 31,288 males. In the nine-year period between 2004 and 2013 the number of women who registered to work abroad was 466,933; for male counterparts it was 312,456.

Authorities recognized the struggles faced by Filipina migrant workers, especially mothers who are away from their children.

"All these, unfortunately more often than not, translate to exploitation, abuses, dysfunctional families," she said in a speech earlier this month at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The government, she said, will continue its thrust to create jobs at home and make working abroad a choice rather than a necessity. "When Filipinos do choose to work or live abroad, their welfare and protection should still be our priority," Nicolas said.

For international migrants' group Migrante International, the feminization of migration among Filipinas boils down to a weak domestic economy that doesn't offer enough good jobs. The unemployment rate in the Philippines stood at 6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Among unemployed people, about 65 percent were males.
Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante, says many overseas employers prefer women because women are paid less.

"For example, when I was working in Korea, I was earning $1,500 (a month) but my co-worker, was earning $900 to $1,100," he says.

The disparity, he says, shows how female workers are exploited. "It's also very sad that Filipina migrant workers are unable to take care of their own children because they have to take care of other children in abroad," Martinez says.

And it's equally hard for the children.

"They miss their mother," says Agido.

Iris Gonzales is a journalist based in Manila, the Philippines, who writes about economics, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at and