Ryan Anson talks with FRONTLINE/World's Mimi Chakarova about what drew him to live in the Philippines in early 2000 and why the Islamic separatist struggle in the south of the country and in southern Thailand have become a central focus of his work.
Mimi Chakarova: Tell me how you started this project in 2001. Why the southern Philippines?
Ryan Anson: My path to Mindanao was fairly meandering. I went to the Philippines straight out of college, in the year 2000. My parents had been living there since ’98, and after making a few trips during the holidays, I thought it would be a pretty cool place to start freelancing from. It was during that time that the war with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front began. It started in April 2000, and I was actually finishing my last semester of school. My mother was mailing me newspaper articles about the southern Philippines, and I was reading about war and displacement, Muslims and Christians -- I didn’t know what all of it meant. I hadn’t really been exposed to conflict before. I’d lived in several other countries, had traveled and photographed in different environments but not in a place where there was war. So, I went to Manila and made a trip down [south], actually with my father, and visited a rebel camp. This was a year prior to the wars, and I met some former insurgents who had been fighting the government for 30 years.
What were you hoping to document?
I was very much interested in the secessionist struggle that the Muslims in the Philippines had been waging for 30 years. They are a viable community, made up of 5 million people, and have pretty much gotten the shaft by the government since independence in the 1940s. But their oppression dates back earlier, to the Spanish times centuries ago. I wanted to understand why they are struggling and using arms, what they want…. Photography enabled me to explore these questions.
What do you think is the driving force behind the conflict?
There are many engines driving the conflict. Filipino Muslims and Thai Muslims don’t feel like they’re Thai and Filipino, which is sort of the irony. People in Manila or Bangkok say, “the Muslims in the south are part of our country; they are our brothers.” But [the Muslims] don’t feel part of the nation, and the government hasn’t done much to make them feel included. They follow a different religion – they believe in Islam. The majority of Thais are Buddhist; the majority of Filipinos are Catholic. The Thai monarchy and the Spanish colonial powers in the Philippines used arms to prevent Muslims from practicing their faith and that went on for centuries. So there is a fair amount of anger and a number of legitimate grievances that both Muslims in southern Thailand and the Philippines have. Both areas are intensely poor; they’ve been neglected by the central government…development funds go to the capital regions or other provinces. Somehow [the funds] do not end up in Muslim parts of the respective countries.
What was your first impression when you arrived?
I was completely swept away by Islamic culture. A reason why I was interested in both regions is because my family is religious, and I’m interested in religion. Even though my family does not follow Islam, I wanted to learn more about it. And because I hadn’t been exposed to warfare, when I went to the southern Philippines I was stunned that there was a military checkpoint every few miles on any road you took.
There are many conflict places in the world. Why did you focus on Southeast Asia?
One reason I chose Southeast Asia is because there’s been less attention on this region. Fewer people are interested in the historical dynamics, and there are viable Muslim minority groups that have been neglected and their human rights abused. Our world is pretty polarized, politically, religiously, ethnically. In Mindanao, there’s a concrete effort among people of different political and religious backgrounds to understand one another. I think it’s a good showcase of that kind of initiative and a model, which the rest of the world can learn from.
Why was it important for you to live and be based in the Philippines?
Journalists parachute in and out, and those are sometimes the conditions under which we have to work. You don’t have much time to spend in certain places, but I found a place I love and somehow – even if it’s on a few pennies – to stay. Presence is important; it’s worth it.
What’s frustrating is that fewer and fewer people want to read about such places, even though [these locales embody] relevant cultural, religious and security concerns that the world as a whole is experiencing today. Magazines don’t run hard-hitting photojournalism in the way they used to. I don’t mean to gripe – it just gets a little depressing that it’s harder to find and share the work. But that’s no reason to give up.
And your personal sense of security?
The southern Philippines was on the world radar for a while because of the kidnapping issue there. Americans have been kidnapped and a few of them beheaded in that part of the world. The late Edward Said, an expert on the Islamic world, criticized Western journalists for perpetuating iconic but stereotypical images of Muslims with guns. I don’t want to do that with my pictures; at the same time, I have to be true to what is actually happening on the ground in both southern Thailand and the southern Philippines. There are a lot of guys with guns, but my aim is to show that’s not what Islam is about. It’s not all about jihad, revolution, extremism and restriction of women’s rights. It’s about so much more, and people are continuing to redefine Islam all around the world and to have conversations about it. I think it’s important to show the diversity of Islam.
What images have remained with you from this project?
There was a family at an evacuation center in the southern Philippines. It was during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic world. People fast, and it’s a time when one gives thanks and offers forgiveness. Here we are at this camp, and there’s this war going on around us. It was 2001, and I’m with a couple of Catholic friends at this evacuation center. There are thousands of families who camped out on some very uncomfortable soil. And this one family, after the sun has gone down, hasn’t even put up their tent. They just arrived from the marsh, with their water buffalo and their belongings dragging on a wooden tray behind the animal. The sun goes down, so it’s time for them to break the fast. They’ve packed up their entire house and have run away from gunfire. Naturally, they’re hungry and probably scared. They brought what is called “booka,” which in the local dialect is the food with which you break the fast.
I introduced myself, watching them while they unpacked their possessions. They’re laying out a tray of food on this soil -- it’s such an amazing contrast. The woman, the mother, opens an immaculately sewn cloth, lays out maybe three pieces of mango, two pieces of bread and a couple of sweets for the children. Before they begin to eat, they look up at me and my two Catholic friends, and they invite us to eat with them. They really have nothing to share. They don’t even have enough for themselves, but this is the kind of generosity that I experience all the time. Among Filipinos and among Thais, people who have nothing seem to give the most to the world.