Signos by Veejay Villafranca, reviewed by Robin Titchener

Over the last few years I have been delighted to see the appearance of some fine work emerging from the Philippines, and about time is all I can say. I have strong connections to this wonderful country. My long suffering “other half” is Filipino, and I have been fortunate to visit the country on several occasions. It is a fabulous place. The culture is rich, and the people warm, genuinely friendly, creative and fiercely intelligent. The landscape is varied and breathtakingly beautiful, from the mountains, rice terraces and famous “chocolate hills”  to the tourist friendly resorts and beautiful beaches. In many ways a paradise….then there is the climate, hot, sunny, tropical, and unfortunately for the population unpredictable and increasingly treacherous .


Which brings me to Veejay Villafranca’s Signos.


The photographer Veejay Villafranca is based in Manila, and has been documenting his home, the people and culture of the Philippines since the 2006. Signos – which in Tagalog means bad sign or omen – the book, is the result of his on going study of climate change and the effect on the country and it’s inhabitants.  The study began in 2009 following a major flood disaster in Manila. Flooding and tropical storms were nothing new to the Philippines, but in 2013 all that changed when storm Yolanda hit the country. With sustained winds of more than one hundred and ninety five miles per hour, it swept across the archipelago, destroying everything in it’s path. Killing six thousand people and leaving another one thousand unaccounted for. Millions more were left homeless and displaced. Yolanda’s terrible legacy will continue to effect lives for years to come, but more disturbingly, a new breed of storm was born.


The images in Signos, are more than just documentary evidence. There is a strong sense of narrative, and they are taken with an eye that would be just at home in the category of art photography. There is a movement, an urgency to the work that demands attention. It informs without preaching, and captures the plight of individuals without ever patronizing or reducing them to figures of pity. There is a sense of defiance, of determination on the faces of the people. The high contrast black and white images show the devastation wreaked to both landscape and property, but far from a sense of surrender, there is a positivity in many of them, indicating an underlying sense of stoicism, optimism, even hope. Scenes of mayhem, respectfully captured. Trees uprooted, rivers bursting their banks, buildings destroyed, but still a refusal to be beaten. A school room, nothing more that four walls open to the elements, but the chairs still set up for a lesson. The remains of a street, flanked by derelict buildings, but with two little girls holding on to each other beautifully dressed for a  special occasion, perhaps a wedding, or confirmation….life goes on.  Again devastation, but this time, a lone figure carrying a guitar  picking his way down a ruined road. The strength of spirit ever present.


Then images darker in mood, the reminders of what has been lost. A panoramic landscape dominated by a mountainous backdrop  with a minute single figure at the centre on the horizon. A field of simple white crosses standing as a memorial to those taken, and for me, one of the saddest images, a framed family photograph, laying small and almost insignificant amongst the rubble. A heartbreaking reminder to us all, to never to take anything for granted.


Young publishing company Mapa has given us a book that is beautifully designed and printed. Villafranca’s work is luminous. The depth and definition in the images manages to be crisp, warm and gritty at the same time. The use of multiple gatefolds allows many of the pictures room to cast their spell and exert their power, and the book itself is wonderfully tactile. The cloth bound boards, and the beautifully selected paper stock are all indications that Mapa is a future force to be reckoned with. As for Veejay Villafranca, work with this power and effect is sure to find it’s audience. Personally I think he has Magnum stamped right through him. This is social photography that has a conscience and a purpose….it’s only a matter of time.

Signos is full of images that will linger in the memory. As much as Villafranca may have intended this to be a study of climate change and it’s devastating consequences. I think he has also produced a body of work that more than that, shows the strength of a nation and the will of a people who refuse to be broken. The project will undoubtedly continue, and it seems certain that unless the planet can get it’s act together, storms the like of Yolanda will make their deadly presence felt with increasing frequency. The costs, both economically and personally, will undoubtedly continue to be devastating, and the political ramifications huge and far reaching. However as the centuries have shown the islands and people of the Philippines will endure. The country has long been the object of desire for any number of other nations, and through the years has been occupied by the Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Americans. They have endured them all, and absorbed elements of all these cultures whilst still holding onto their own identity. It seem that Mother Nature maybe the most determined invader yet, but you get the impression that even she won’t beat them.


Signos by Veejay Villafranca can be purchased here.


Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.