Stepping Back: A Filipino-American Sojourn

A street in the Manila suburb of Cainta is covered in campaign posters and banners
A street in the Manila suburb of Cainta is covered in campaign posters and banners during the recent Philippine elections.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Sometimes it helps to take a step back to see what’s happening. It might just be me, but the world feels off-axis. Two and a half years into it, the 2020s have been a slog. So, as the pandemic eased, I recently went back to the Philippines, where I am from.

Kids swim in the Pasig River as the sun shines in the background
Kids swim in the Pasig River near the Quinta Fish Market and Port in the old downtown district of Manila. Manila is where my dad grew up, and where I spent some years as a child. I went looking for places in my past and shot with an iPhone.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

I traveled with my mom, an exile of the coronavirus lockdown who spent more than two years with my brother mostly, and me, in the U.S. Since retiring, she had lived in our old house in the Philippines. She was happy to finally go home.

I took some time to get acquainted with my hometown, though it always gets harder to reconnect. Dumaguete once was a sleepy ville in a lost corner of nowhere. Its population now is about 140,000 and swells with the ranks of students attending one of several local universities. It is a city now. Who woulda thunk? Not me 30 years ago

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A woman in front of flowers.
#HomeAtLast Mira Sinco@ her beloved FU.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Many places I know are long gone. The river where my brother and I swam now is a concrete canal. Entire coral reefs have vanished. Expansion of the national highway mowed down century-old, leafy acacias that lined the coast and tiny towns along its way. The mayor promises to build a large island replete with hotels, eateries and shopping – all offshore on reclaimed land. When you call the 800 number on your credit card, you’re probably talking to someone here. Coming soon: a new (international?) airport.

I taught workshops here from 2013-2016. I told participants to document everyday life for posterity. Even nine years ago, progress appeared unstoppable. The future held even more change

A laborer pulls a cart of rolled fabric past an old building with motor scooters parked in front.
A laborer pulls a cart of rolled fabric along the Escolta, a shopping district in the old downtown area of Manila.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Street scenes from the Philippines
It’s lost a lot of luster, but my dad always called Manila, his birthplace, the pearl of the orient. Today I went looking for what he loved.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A napping pedicab driver in Manila.
Your Uber driver will be with you when he awakes. A napping pedicab driver harks back to the slow pace of another time.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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People lined up to vote, some holding umbrellas. In the foreground, watermelons for sale
People lined up for hours under the hot sun to vote in the Commonwealth District of Manila during the recent Philippine elections.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This time around I shot with my iPhone 12. It was liberating — and fun. The image is as you see — like a Kodak Instamatic, but worlds better. It was a great experiment. It was inconspicuous and easy on the shoulders.

I learned that phones allow you to seamlessly blend in. Everybody shoots with phones. A phone makes me just another guy in the background. Every photojournalist today knows that when you bring cameras, possible scrutiny and restrictions follow. Use a phone and you’re good to go, hassle free.

Today, people communicate instantaneously with imagery on phones — and shape the new mass media. I’m spouting photojournalistic heresy, I know. But should anyone install a good 100-400mm lens in a phone, I’m all about it. Just make it under 500 bucks, please.

A fisherman navigates an outrigger in the waters off Dumaguete, under large clouds near dusk.
A fisherman navigates an outrigger in the waters off Dumaguete, where I was born. The mayor wants to dramatically change the landscape by reclaiming 174 acres from the sea for an offshore hotel, restaurant and shopping complex. Everything is changing.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Bread on a plate.
This is a Filipino staple called pan de sal, or “bread of salt” in English. It always costs one peso, no matter what. As the peso fluctuates, the bread becomes smaller. In the U.S. you can buy pan de sal in Filipino stores that are much bigger than this little guy. Pan de sal tells you a lot. It is very aptly named.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A Philippine National Police officer stands guard as people line up to vote in a neighborhood in the Port of Manila.
A Philippine National Police officer stands guard as people line up to vote in a neighborhood in the Port of Manila during the recent Philippine elections, which happened with only scattered incidents of violence around the archipelago.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

I wound up my visit by covering the recent elections in the Philippines. My editors asked me to stay and see if violence flared. I shot with my camera. Professional tip: bring your work stuff in case $h!+ happens.

It was a historic event that drew little outside attention. The son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos became president by landslide. TikTok whitewashed the Marcos legacy of kleptocracy and influenced the outcome. On social media, the Marcoses came off as progressive, patriotic and misunderstood. I wonder about the relevance of anything now. Attention is fleeting, malleable. Truth is elusive in the ether.

A jeepney in front of a yellow building.
A Jeepney waits for passengers on a street along the Pasig River in the Manila District of Makati. The financial center of the Philippines, Makati has its share of slums.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Campaign posters are reflected in the mirror of a motorcycle.
Campaign posters are reflected in the mirror of a motorcycle parked along a main road in Metro Manila during the recent Philippine elections.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Supporters of presidential candidate Bong Bong Marcos celebrate with hands raised.
Supporters of presidential candidate Bong Bong Marcos celebrate a landslide victory at his headquarters in Manila. Bong Bong Marcos is the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled a kleptocracy in the 1960s and ’70s.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Filipinos voted in droves. Turnout topped 83%. People lined up for hours in the hot tropical sun as long lines snaked outside many precincts. No bombs blew up in Manila. Political banners covered everything. Tons of wastepaper and plastic went to landfills. People exercised their rights. No claims of widespread election fraud emerged. No one stormed the Capitol.