Yolanda survivors use photography to tell their stories

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"God Bless Our Home," a photo by Ariel Pablo as featured in the "Yolanda Retold" exhibit in TriNoma. Photo courtesy of POSTCARDS FROM DISASTERS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Storytelling is a powerful tool for social change. This, in a nutshell, is the idea behind “Yolanda Retold,” a photo exhibit featuring photographs taken by some of the survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the storm that ravaged Tacloban City four years ago.

The exhibit is organized by Postcards from Disasters, a multimedia human rights campaign centered on putting a spotlight on the lives of disaster survivors. The group organized talks and facilitated photography workshops with residents of Brgy. 69 in Anibong, Tacloban, a coastal community that lost at least 100 members to the typhoon.

“We taught them photography and taught them storytelling because we're trying to equip them with the skills to protest in a creative way,” says Makoi Popioco, one of the organizers. Residents of Brgy. 69 were barred from rebuilding their homes, as the area was declared a danger zone by the government. However, the government’s relocation and rehabilitation process has been slow. In fact, four years later, many residents still do not have permanent housing units. According to the Commission on Audit, only 23,000 of the over 170,000 promised housing units have been occupied. This has resulted in many residents returning to the site of their destroyed homes and making do with recycled debris.

Children of the Storm.JPG "Children of the Storm" by Jacqueline Francisco. The photo features residents from Brgy. Anibong, Tacloban. Photo courtesy of POSTCARDS FROM DISASTERS

“Right now, the narrative of the storytelling usually is centered on the unaccounted money, the dubious spending of the donations and the appropriations. But nothing is being talked about on the impact of these things to the lives of the people there,” says Popioco. “That's why we focused on the people there. Because the longer that the people are displaced, the longer that they are subjected to different human rights abuses.”

Launching the project last year, residents of the community were invited to a film showing and a talk on the concept of human rights to better help them understand their situation. “After that discussion, they became more passionate [about] sharing their issues,” says Popioco. Issues such as housing, sanitation, education, children’s rights, and women’s rights, appear as themes within the photo exhibit.

The project has impacted the community in a positive way. According to Popioco, upon returning this year, the residents were noticeably more vocal about their issues. The project has also personally impacted individual members. Jacquelyn, one of the youngest photographers, went from a shy, quiet girl last year, to a more eager, more confident participant, and one of the best of the group. “Na-excite siyang bumalik ngayong taon to learn again and to enhance her skill on photography, kasi she's hoping na ito ‘yung makakapagdala sa kanya sa college. And now she's telling me that she also wants to be a journalist and continue telling her stories.”

“The beauty about this is that we're letting them capture or document their own stories through their own perspective. It's their rawest means of telling someone's story,” says Popioco.

With the focus on survivors, the Yolanda narrative has always been about the Filipino’s resilience. And the exhibit showcases many such stories: images of houses rebuilt from rubble, children who have survived the harshest conditions, people who have not lost their faith in God. Yet, the exhibit stands to be somewhat a retelling of that narrative, among others. More than just a nod to the survivors’ fighting spirit, the exhibit is a platform for change.

In pursuing this project, Postcards from Disasters has three goals in mind. The first is to empower the community. The second is to raise awareness and to bring stories like those of the residents of Brgy. 69 into a public space, through a social media-driven campaign. The third goal is to affect policies. The hope is to bring the participants’ practical experiences to the attention of lawmakers, who can work on creating or amending laws that would prevent a Yolanda situation from happening again.

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The “Yolanda Retold” exhibit runs from Nov. 9 to Dec. 1, 2017 at the 3rd floor of TriNoma in Quezon City. Visit the Postcards from Disasters Facebook page for more detail.