In 2007, photographer Veejay Villafranca began toiling on Marked: The Gangs of Baseco as part of his final portfolio in his photojournalism class at the Asian Center for Journalism of the Ateneo. It took him two years before he could finally wrap up work. “During the first year and a half of the project, I would be there almost every day,” he says. “It also came to a point where I was already looking for a small space in the compound. Then the succeeding year I would make it a point to visit at least twice a month.”
Baseco is, of course, not the swankiest of places to live in. Situated in Port Area, Manila, it is made up of 52 hectares of reclaimed land and there are more than 47,000 families living in shanties standing on stilts rooted on swampy grounds. Occasionally, the polluted waters of Manila Bay would even find its way to these ramshackle homes. “It was purportedly built as a world class resort by former First Lady Imelda Marcos,” says Veejay, “but turned out to be the town where dreams of greener pastures have perished.” Baseco actually stands for Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company.
While the entire former shipyard was certainly overwhelmingly throbbing with various unsettling subjects, the young lensman zeroed in on the gangs, particularly the Chinese Mafia Crew.
“You know one person recently made a comment about my photos,” Veejay tells Swank. “She said she works daw as a nurse in the compound and she was asking, inspite of my 'brave' efforts to document the gangs, why not tell the story of everything 'good' that was happening and that has happened in the area. I said, ‘You see when I met these people, they were hostile. They didn’t want to talk and they were very apprehensive to be photographed. When the time came that they opened up na and accepted my intrusion, I was greatly humbled and thankful. As I continuously documented their lives, I grew as well. From the dangerous nature, tattoos and drugs, I saw that they are young hopefuls longing to get out of the vicious cycle. I have learned that one by one they have been disappearing from the slums because most of them are already working. This was the same reason I documented this story. Another story of poverty and struggle, but a new story of hope and change.”
Just recently, Veejay found himself back in Baseco, although for an assignment not related to the gangs. “I dropped by in one of the gang members’ houses. The mother was there, but the guy wasn’t. She said he was working and would only go home during weekends. That made me smile.”JG
In 2008, Marked: The Gangs of Baseco won for Veejay the Ian Parry Grant. Ian Parry was a young photographer who died in a plane crash in Romania. As a tribute, his friends and editors set up this award in London for young emerging photographers every year. Marked is part of the ongoing three-man photography show (with Jake Versoza and Tammy David) called STRIP 2010 at the Silverlens Gallery in Pasong Tamo Extension.
Images courtesy of Silverlens. For more of Marked and Veejay's works, click here.