We first came across the work of photographer Grace Villamil while putting together Chapter 45: Philippines. Her shots of the elaborately decorated jeepneys that make up the country’s public transportation network unearthed an aspect of the Philippines that could only be covered firsthand.
Grace’s connection to the land comes from her heritage; her parents grew up during the Japanese invasion, but left while Marcos was still in power. After moving to CA, they raised Grace and her siblings to be “American,” with very little traces of their past. At age 21, she went to the Philippines for the first time, and ended up going back every year after that, for the next ten years.
Pasalubong is a physical representation of Grace’s relationship with the Philippines. Taken from the Taglog word that refers to the gift you bring back to family and friends from a distant place, or a special token signifying the act of meeting again, this self-published photo book uncovers the country through the Brooklyn-based photographer’s lens.
“The Philippines is no longer a huge mystery in my mind, though I have much more to understand, and can't wait to return and continue with another series,” Grace says.
The photographs in Pasalubong feature images that Grace captured during 16-hour bus rides around the country, travelling through urban and rural areas. From moments of solitude to laughter, Grace’s take on the Philippines is completely intuitive.
FRANK spoke with Grace about her intensely personal relationship with the Philippines, and how it unfolds within Pasalubong.
What kind of connection did you feel to the Philippines prior to your first trip?
Growing up in CA there was very little of my parents' past. Not a photograph of their home country in the house. There was a beautiful, large oil painting of rice patty farmers peacefully harvesting, but that was about it. So, there was very little connection, but a lot of mystery other than the food, and holidays.
What made you decide to finally go there?
Actually to be honest it was my dad's idea. I had just moved to NYC and had a goal. Randomly, he asked in a serious way if I would like to come "home" with him. I couldn't believe it. His purpose was for his 40th high school reunion at Don Bosco Technical Institute, Mandaluyong Rizal. For me, it was blowing the dust off a book that was about to open. The only place in Asia I had been so far was Vietnam to help on a shoot for a NGO, so I was psyched! Going "home" with my dad... I had no idea what to expect.
What were your first impressions once you arrived?
It was hot, sticky, smelled like diesel, and totally disorientating. I was hooked. The first visual I remember stepping out of the airport terminal was a series of large, hand-painted, alphabetical letters on a horizontal building where you are picked up. Your family and friends stand under the first letter of your last name to get you. So, all of these beautiful island people were waiting happily, anxiously for their loved ones from abroad... that energy, I remember clearly. Sounds exaggerated, but I fell in love with the place walking towards the big, DIY painted "V."
How different was the country than what you imagined, or what your parents had told you?
I feel like they [parents] didn’t tell us something pretty simple. From the years they grew up in the Philippines—I mean, we're talking about being born practically in the Japanese invasion, growing up inside that residue, and leaving while Marcos was still in power, I can definitely see how it would be a hard thing to admit at the time. This "simple thing" is that the Philippines is magical! It is this fertile, beautiful, long stretch of intermittent pieces of land... a.k.a dictionary statistic: an archipelago of 7,107 islands.
Since most of my thoughts as a child were infused by my parents and they kept the mystery of the Philippines so well hidden, my imagination ran high. After the first few times of going there and returning to NYC; looking at the film; cut and pasting contacts; hours in the darkroom, I started to realize I was capturing it in that magical way, exactly as I experienced it. I shoot with a twin lens Yashica, a medium format film camera. The images I created with no manipulation was as if I documented a hyper-realistic form of the land there. Something emotional and intimate. You can sense this in the book.
This book obviously seems very personal to you. Can you tell us a bit about that?
This book is an obsessive uncovering of who I am, not only as a person of Filipino background (since this book is of the Philippines) but of how I function as an artist. Understanding yourself is ongoing, but I can say this myriad of photographs has helped me immensely. What can be shelved as a plain, documentation of my parents' country through photographs as a "first generation American" (snore), for me is a timeline of how I see, and what I am obsessed with. It's become a roadmap for these immersive installation/environments I've been creating lately. I'd say that's pretty personal.
Also, I have to admit it was a bit challenging to grow up not understanding the person you see in the mirror and the blood in your veins. You can sense this undertaking in the book. I include personal drawings from my journal at that time, on these 12+ hour bus rides I did while listening to music. They illustrate the long pensive moments, of thinking, being alone, and the process of enveloping the country and its terrain and what that all means to me.
Pasalubong is available to purchase online at Gold Drum
More from FRANK: