Penman for Monday, August 5, 2019
A RECENT talk of mine to the graduates of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines seems to have gone viral, but what people don’t know is that there were several of us who addressed the graduates that night—it was a testimonial dinner, not the commencement ceremony itself. All the other speakers shared delightfully inspiring remarks, but one impressed me in particular—Hannah Reyes Morales, a young but already globally renowned documentary photographer who graduated with a Speech Communication degree from UP just eight years ago. Hannah has done prizewinning work for the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic, some of which you can find on www.hannah.ph. I asked for and got her permission to share excerpts of her talk.
Today, I want to talk to you about building the possible.
When I left these halls I was a scrawny 20-year-old, putting herself through the last four semesters of school by selling ukay clothes online and photographing drunk people in bars on weekends near Tiendesitas as an event photographer. I couldn’t join my friends in eating out because I couldn’t afford it, I owed rent money to the building in Xavierville where I lived, and my mom was convinced that any dreams I had for a career in the arts and photography were a quirk and a passing fancy, and that after graduation I should apply for a job as a teller in a bank.
I honor this part of my journey. It was during this period that I learned to speak with strangers, to hustle for each paycheck, and what the true necessities were. I learned to be efficient with my time, but I never, ever lost sight of the work my heart wanted to do.
I hope that you figure out how to build a home where your creativity, your curiosity, your sense of purpose, and your wildness can keep growing. Because if there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that the world needs more safe hands working towards better.
As a photographer I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s spaces. I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask people to help me understand things I couldn’t quite grasp.
Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that I get to confront the world. Each day that I get to take photographs is a day that the world confronts me, and tells me the truth.
I’ve been offered meals by people who were hungry, allowed into moments of great vulnerability. I’ve photographed people swept up in conflicts that they had nothing to do with. I’ve seen people driven from their homes. I’ve witnessed loss and devastation.
And in the midst of horrors I saw how beauty and kindness persist. People with incredible grace, reminding me that the world doesn’t owe me anything. I met Puti, a young girl in extreme poverty, who called herself a queen. I carry her story with me every day, I hold it in my heart.
Their truths have informed my own. I hope when you meet people with a vastly different reality that their truths might also inform yours.
And when you’ve finally built towards freedom, use it to plant gardens around you, to build bridges and safe spaces. Manila can be a hostile place for artists and for dreamers. I don’t know what I would have done without people who make it less so.
My life is only possible because of the love that my friends embrace me with, the safety that enables me to do more, to dream bigger, to imagine all that is possible yet.
My own strength stems from love, my bravery blooms from the tenderness of others.
As artists our hearts and minds are needed by our land. Our gaze, and our ability to think differently are needed in envisioning better for our country, and our world.
Our generation—yes, I’d like to think that I’m still part of this generation—inherits a future that needs visionaries. Climate change, refugee crises, the rise of impunity are all realities that await outside these doors.
When I opened my eyes what I saw brought me to tears. But I always knew that closing my eyes again would not make the adversity stop. There will be those who will tell you to just keep them shut, to care a little bit less. They will tell you that you will be happier if you didn’t give a damn.
It took me a while to own that that was never who I was. It took me a minute to understand that sensitivity wasn’t a weakness. That tenderness is radical.
There is a line from Audre Lorde that I hold on to, very fiercely. ‘When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’
So today I implore you to use your strength—whatever form it takes—in the service of your vision. Make your time here count. Pay attention to that which makes you feel awake, and living—the hard work will come.
And lest we forget: the good, the beautiful, the wild, and the miraculous await outside these doors, too. Keep them alive.