Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I am Hannah Reyes Morales, and I am a Filipina photographer. For better or for worse, my work is tied so deeply to my identity. I try my best to be hardworking, responsible, and kind; I don’t always succeed. I value the freedom that I’ve negotiated for myself. It gives me so much joy that I can do this work and still afford the coffee, Cheetos, and Don Papa that I need in my life.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
I am working on stories from home right now. I'm trying to figure out what that means to me. Home is the Philippines. When I started out in photography, the dream was to leave this place; but as I get older I feel more and more bound this country, to understanding it, and the only way I know how is through images.
It was only when I first began to leave this place that I realized that this place does not leave me; until I left, I didn't realize what it meant to be a brown woman in the world. Suddenly, I was a person of color; suddenly, I was from a third world country. People from Western countries like to explain my country to me. I began to long to be heard, to feel legitimate, to feel equal. I had a hunger for choice and chances—and those often felt located elsewhere.
I knew I was not alone in my feelings. The project I am working on now is about the roots of the Filipino diaspora. I am trying to understand the roots of our departure. I am really excited for this work, and there is much to unpack. I am also working on other projects here in the Philippines, and they all feed into each other.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
At thirteen, I was part of the cast of The Vagina Monologues with theatre actress and activist Monique Wilson, and I got to meet Eve Ensler during the production. Their work changed me. I listened as some of the best Filipino actresses embodied the voices of the women in The Vagina Monologues, and I think that's how I realized very early on the power of storytelling. The production was so powerful—and it was done almost entirely by women---women I saw working so hard each day. I grew up with theatre, watching things happen onstage. Performance is a huge part of Filipino culture, as is music, into which I escaped. The play of light and color never left me—the viewfinder is like a stage. I saw early on how intentional every element was onstage, and I try to be similarly intentional with what is in my frame.
As a photographer, there are so many people whose work I look up to! I look closely at the work of Stephanie Sinclair, Cheryl Diaz Meyer, Isadora Kosofsky, Marvi Lacar, Erika Larsen, Lynn Johnson, Diana Markosian. I also watch the work of my colleagues at MAPS. When I was living in Cambodia, I got to see John Vink working, and saw how hard he worked, and what he produced in the same place I was in. I learned a lot this way.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
I couldn't decide which of Evgenia Arbugaeva's images is my favorite; her work really makes me feel alive. I love every part of this frame: the crown, the red boots, the homes in background, how it is lit. It is so tender and there is magic—and it reminds me of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
Blur. Boundaries are tricky business. Can you tell us a story about the blurring of them—about the sometimes complicated ethics of photography?
It's certainly tricky, and the rules of ethics sometimes feel counterintuitive to how I was raised. My family was the kind who never said “no” to someone in need. Often people I am photographing will ask me for financial help, and it is tricky to have to say no when my photography kit is more expensive than the home they live in.
I also feel that it works a little differently when you are working locally: you have to live in the same country and there is no departure. You understand their need intimately and your subject understands who you are in the context of your shared society. When I was starting out, I thought ethical rules were so black and white. I was very blind to the notion that photographs have voices. But now, in the time of President Duterte, when the main criticism of media is that it is “biased” (particularly in the coverage of the Philippines’ war on drugs), I think this conversation is especially important. I think it was Sim Chi Yin who said “I don’t strive to be objective, I strive to be fair.” I just need to do what I feel is the right and fair thing for me as a human being.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
My legitimacy is constantly being challenged. Am I qualified to do the work I’m doing? It’s not just my womanhood—it’s also the color of my skin. I watched the video for Women Photograph’s ICP Infinity Award, and something that Natalie Keyssar said really, really resonated with me: “People's preconceptions about what you are as a woman are literally so powerful that they cannot see your photographs.”
Beauty. What are some of the joys of being a woman who photographs?
Finding that I can finally be a photographer and also be myself. For a time, I was so terrified of revealing my femininity. When I started out one of the first things I was told was that I was only hired because I was the boss’s type. I kept being called “little girl.” So I tried to erase my “self” and my femininity—I tried to act more tomboyish. And I wasn’t comfortable or authentic, so I thought maybe I just didn’t fit in this field, that I couldn’t penetrate a boys' club. I think it’s only been over the last two years that I can say that I can be who I am and do this work. Slowly I’m learning that I am how I see the world, and not just how the world sees me.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
Every year, I attend portfolio reviews or workshops, and they have been very useful. Right now, I feel so incredibly lucky to have the mentorship of Erika Larsen. I see all the gaps in my work and my mentor helps me think through them. There are many aspects of photography that I find difficult to articulate, both verbally and visually. So sometimes I can see that there is something missing in my story and my image and I don’t always know how to ask the question I have in my mind, or how to visually communicate my idea. Erika is very good at understanding what I am trying to get at: she asks me the right questions and leads me towards finding my own answers. I am very lucky to have met Erika: she is a human being with such a big heart and having a role model who inspires me to be a better person inadvertently makes my work better, too. I think what makes Erika an amazing mentor is her ability to listen with her whole being. Often, I feel like I am translating my culture to a wider world when I photograph, and Erika speaks several languages and has a very sensitive understanding: she listens to what I am saying and hears the nuance, and doesn’t make conclusions or comparisons that are Western-centric.
Bolster. Whose work do you think deserves a shout-out here, and why? Who haven’t I been hearing about and whose website I should check out immediately?
Photographers Geric Cruz and Geloy Concepcion. Their work communicates things about the Philippines that transcend the stereotypes of this place. Geloy takes very kind portraits and works in different media, but you can truly see his vision whether you are looking at his paintings or his photographs. They capture the beat of Manila so precisely. Geric’s work has a vulnerability and tenderness that I find so captivating. I look at their work when I start to slip into mimicking photographic stereotypes of the Philippines.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
I always love conversations that make me feel alive! I love when I am feeding off of another’s energy and learning from their ideas. I love conversations over good food. But I think I need a hobby. Balance is something I am still learning to work on.
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
“If you don't understand, ask questions. If you're uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It's easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more." - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Best 2. What is the best advice you have to offer someone reading this?
If the resources aren't available to you, find ways to piece together the opportunities or the education you need for yourself. You will be very surprised by the resources that you can find for free. Often I feel like most of my photographic/journalistic education happened because I got access to the internet in my teen years, and for this I am very thankful. I’ve managed to study people’s bodies of work, which, pre-internet, would not have been easily done from Manila, where there isn’t a wealth of photo books. I read interviews, listen to podcasts (longform podcast is one of my favorites), and write people I look up to. What’s amazing about photography is how accessible the world’s best photographers are. I am not sure this is true for other creative fields—that as a young person you can just write the people at the top of the industry and sometimes get a real reply.
Don't let a lack of chance or privilege stop you from finding your path, and taking it.
Beyond. Tell us about a future project or challenge that you hope to tackle. (Feel free to answer this question literally or figuratively).
I want to find the project that I will do for the rest of my life.