This award-winning photojournalist chooses to side with the truth — 'no matter how one-sided it is'

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Award-winning photojournalist Ezra Acayan has shot some of the most powerful images of the war on drugs. Here, he shares his experience covering the pandemic and the challenges of his profession. Photo courtesy of EZRA ACAYAN

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Some people would say photojournalism is dying because of the rise of social media,” says award-winning photojournalist Ezra Acayan. “But in these uncertain times, when abuses are being done left and right and fake news is everywhere, I think this job is important now more than ever.”

“We [photojournalists] are the eyes of the public, literally. We shed light onto what needs to be seen, we give voice to those who need to be heard,” he adds.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country, Acayan, who works with Getty Images, has been one of those “eyes of the public,” revealing the impact of both the disease and the government’s attempts at curbing it. His photos show the plight of our frontliners as they contend with the rising number of cases and the dearth of medical supplies and facilities; the struggle for daily wage earners to keep afloat amid government restrictions of non-essential work and public transportation; and the myriad of ways everyday life has changed over the past few months.

Before the pandemic, Acayan covered Duterte’s drug war — his photos a painful reminder of the killings and the families left behind in its wake. Along with several other Reuters journalists, he was awarded a special merit at the Human Rights Press Awards in 2017 for his reporting on the war on drugs, and his work has been exhibited in the Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for two years straight. Together with fellow photojournalist Raffy Lerma and the Nights Watch collective, he was also featured in a National Geographic documentary called “The Nightcrawlers,” an exposé of Duterte’s drug war.

When asked how he mentally prepares for the kind of work he does, Acayan says that on top of having undergone stress and trauma training for journalists in the past, he also reminds himself that “we are allowed to be vulnerable with the images we see, or the stories we hear. We are humans too, and I think in this work that vulnerability can also be our strength.”

He adds, “I think the best storytelling comes from those who can empathize with their subjects.”

CNN Philippines Life spoke to Ezra Acayan about his experiences covering the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest challenges faced by photojournalists, and what he’s learned on the job. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

My editor would always ask me before [I go] out to cover a story, “What visuals would the story produce?” At the end of the day, photography is a visual tool. Before we even take that first picture, a lot of research goes into working on a story. In fast-paced news stories, we think a lot about logistics, while in more in-depth stories, we think about the individual images to build a cohesive and nuanced narrative. The question we always ask ourselves is, “What does it take to put myself in a situation to shoot important pictures?”

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

To side with the truth, no matter how one-sided that truth is.

Tell me about your experience shooting daily life amid the pandemic. What have been some of the most unforgettable experiences?

The most unforgettable definitely is photographing inside a COVID-19 ward of a hospital. I had to wear a full PPE (personal protective equipment) suit like the health workers, and at the particular hospital I covered (National Kidney and Transplant Institute), the COVID-19 ward was outside in the parking lot where patients were treated inside tents. You would be sweating buckets if you wore a PPE inside an airconditioned room, but the health workers at NKTI work outside exposed to the scorching sun or the pouring rain. I had a full-face respirator on, and after just a few hours an eighth of the mask was already flooded with my sweat. Most of the time, I couldn’t focus on my work, and I was just standing there trying my best not to pass out. But these health workers had to wear these suits in straight 12-hour shifts. They weren’t allowed to eat, drink water, or go to the restroom during this time, and they had to endure this while making crucial life-saving decisions. The experience gave me a newfound respect for our medical frontliners.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work? In what ways have you had to adapt to the situation?

The one important thing to always keep in mind, and I guess the same goes for everyone, is to think that you do have the virus. In our work, it is always important to ask ourselves: what measures should we take so that we don’t infect our families and our subjects? When wearing PPEs, my mindset has never been to protect myself, but to protect the people around me.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

My editor at Getty Images, Laurence Tan, always provides important and easy to understand advice and feedback. I consider many of my colleagues as mentors, and would always ask feedback when I need to edit a body of work. A colleague once reminded me that a photographer is always the worst editor of his work.

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I could write better. I do a bit of writing for my work but I always run out of words especially when trying to describe an extraordinary experience or fleeting and intimate moments that I couldn’t capture. I guess I’d also like to be a more sensitive photographer.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Lack of budgets and netizen-sourced journalism has forced a lot of photojournalists out of work. I think this is not something that photojournalists can overcome themselves; here in the Philippines alone, I work with a lot of skilled colleagues who work five times harder than me. Publications and newsrooms must (re)discover the importance of investing and supporting quality visuals and storytelling, rather than making use of amateur work, paying meager salary and benefits of their photographers, or, God forbid, using handouts. If you look at the publications that are thriving out there today (TIME, National Geographic, The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.), one thing they have in common are consistently strong visuals and nuanced storytelling.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

Ninety-five percent of the time it isn’t as exciting as it looks. A lot of it is just waiting, or sitting in front of your laptop researching stories and writing pitches.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

I can definitely say that the camera has made me a better person. It has made me more understanding of our society, and how we should reach out and help one another. I can’t imagine the person I would’ve become if I hadn’t held my first camera 12 years ago.


More of Ezra Acayan's photographs on his Instagram account.