Why Are You Here?

As a photojournalism lecturer, it has become quite customary that every time a natural disaster happens, I will get asked by at least one student, “Should I go?”

Actually, answering this question has been quite easy.

Most of the time, I will ask, “Why go?” or “Go for what?”

They are all legitimate questions – the should, the why and the what.

But before you think that teachers like me all agree on this issue, let me state without blinking, “hell no”.

In fact, I have had big arguments with someone I used to work with on this topic.

He is of the opinion a young people who wants to be journalist should go and experience life. He also thinks that if a young photojournalist wants to go cover a war, he should be encouraged.

I can’t disagree more.

I mean, those places are messy enough without us. What bloody business do we have to be there?

So that you can come back (hopefully with all your limbs and balls intact) that you survived?

So that you can regale for the next five decades on how if you were one hour earlier, you would have died in the deadly blast that killed 200 civilians?

I haven’t been to a real war. The closest I have been to danger is probably the danger of going mad because of paranoia.

When fear is in you, within you, eating you, it can be more fearful than the actual danger.

Mercy Relief – Philippines – Umiray – Typhoon – Dec 2004

And trust me when I say that I realized too soon that I am terrified of blood, of seeing dead bodies. This is someone who is even terrified of lizards.

More than 10 years ago, I was asked by a NGO to help them with a book, a project that would take me on the road, almost non-stop, for close to a year.

We went to Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Indonesia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Philippines to find out how the other half lives.

It wasn’t exactly fun.

More educational perhaps.

As cliched as it is going to sound, I thought I could play a small role in changing the world.

Couple of days before the deadly Asian Tsunami struck on Dec 26th, I was in the northeastern part of Philippines trying to be a hero.

So allow me to ‘boast’ and regale a little.

For a start, we jetted into Manila in business class. There were maybe three of us, including my regular traveling companion, in the posh cabin. We were getting two-stewardesses-to-one-passenger attention. It wasn’t funny. In fact, we were so embarrassed that we kept telling each  other it was okay, that we didn’t have a choice because it was Christmas season and the economy class was full.

But two NGO volunteers in business class? I think the medicine that we brought along with us for the victims of two deadly typhoons cost less than our tickets.

Three hours after landing, we were in some outskirts in Manila, where we met up with the local volunteer group who was kind enough to host us.

After a get-to-know-everyone meeting, we went back to our motel nearby, to sleep in a proper bed for the last time.

The next morning, we basically set off on a nine hour journey to the north. The bus was so packed I sat on the floor the whole trip.

When we finally arrived at our destination, it was already nightfall, and more fun was awaiting us.

All of us were split up as far as sleeping arrangement was concerned.

The two of us ended up sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut close to the river.

Romantic? Oh yes.

Just imagine crabs and scorpions cozying up in the middle of a night? Not a dream really, but a real occurrence.

But tell you something scarier.

I woke up one night because of a crying baby. She was hungry.

So her teenage mother whipped out one of her breasts and started feeding.

To make sure the baby was not sucking on the wrong thing, the young mama lit a candle.

When she was done, she left the candle on and went back to sleep.

We were divided by a very thin curtain, but I could see the candle, and the candle could see me.

And I was staring at the candle the whole night.

Obviously me the urbanite was thinking, “What if the candle topples and burns down the whole house?”

Hey, that was trivial, too small a matter for a globetrotting Robin Hood to be worrying about.

But that is a fact – that I hated it. I wanted to go home. I missed my bed, my hot shower, and even more naggy girlfriend.

You didn’t get my point/s? Alright, a few more examples.

The next day I found that Coca-Cola was easier to find than fresh water; that I would be eating eggs and more eggs for the next few days.

I jumped onto an overcrowded boat one morning to go across the fast-flowing water. I can’t swim, and there was no life jacket. I wondered about dying.

The boat stopped many meters from the shore and we all got off to wade through the water.

Wait, didn’t many people disappeared into the river just a few days ago after the two deadly typhoons? Maybe they are in the water.

Hmmmm.

At several points, some of the volunteers actually asked me, “Why are you here?”

Oh My God, do you really want to know the truth?

I was there to try save the world, of course.

Dare I say that? No no. Because I couldn’t even convince myself that was the truth.

Could I have said that I was there to experience life?

No, no, that would be wrong too.

You know, I really didn’t think they like me, or the presence of me.

To them, this was an internal thing.

So what the fuck was this Singaporean doing there.

You know what?

That was actually the scariest thing I faced as a NGO volunteer – having to answer that all-so-simple ‘Why are you here’ question.

Friends, if you are still reading this, sorry, there is no punchline, I still don’t know the answer.

Would a more selfish answer like “when a disaster happens, it is only human nature that we feel the need to do something” be acceptable?

Maybe.

Would a more profound reply like “I am a photographer, I want to show people what is going on so that they can be moved to help?” be more palatable?

If you really believe, probably.

Actually perhaps I do have something deep to say, so that I can end this blog so that you can go back to sleep – if you have problems answering that simple ‘why are you here’ question, just go shopping, go for a massage.

At least you will be prospering the economy.

If you need some tall tales to impress some young girls, feel free to borrow some of my cock and bull.

Trust me.

I’d feel better if you ‘steal’ from me than to go somewhere when you are not needed, and be a fucking burden.