As a child of Filipino immigrants, I am always interrogating the long legacy of Spanish and American imperialism in the Philippines. For several years now, I have been documenting the global Filipino diaspora, a group of over twelve million people that leave home, often for many years at a time, in order to work and support their families in the Philippines. During my time as a Fulbright scholar in the Philippines, I wanted to photograph the diaspora at its origins. In doing so, I found myself drawn to the lingering effects of colonization and the toll that overseas labor takes on families.
Through these photographs, I allude to a fluid Filipino identity, a physical and mental landscape formed by and dependent upon traversing borders. I frequently contemplate the residue of colonization in ordinary life. Colonization requires a series of global transactions, so I am interested, too, in how late capitalism reveals itself through the uneven and unending development of the built environment. Remittances from abroad often fund the construction of high-rise condos in and around Manila, and beautiful modern houses in rural provinces, while Overseas Filipino Workers toil away in another country, separated from their families. Throughout the project, I wondered what it means, culturally, to build a brick and mortar home that you can’t enjoy.
To label the house as a trophy or a status symbol to represent how hard one is working is too simplistic. It can be a sign of personal autonomy. Home ownership is rife with symbolism of providing care and shelter for one’s family, even if in absentia. Constructing a home also ensures a place in the community’s memory, and symbolizes that the migrant anticipates eventual permanent return, even if that return does not materialize. The houses, and the children who are left behind, are often left under the care of the relatives who are left back home. A house may be beautiful, but the very person who paid for it may never be able to truly enjoy the home until they retire.
Home and Away explores the nostalgia that Filipino families feel over the long distances that separate them. The word nostalgia is particularly apt here, as it comes from the Greek nostos for homecoming and algos means longing. This longing manifests itself in Filipina domestic workers socializing with each other every Sunday on the sidewalks of Hong Kong—their one day off from taking care of other people’s children—while their own children are back home in the Philippines. There is nostalgia within large cardboard balikbayan boxes sent from around the world to family in the Philippines, boxes that contain gifts that act as surrogates for the sender’s actual presence. In Tagalog balik means return and bayan means homeland. The designation balikbayan has deep emotional resonance, as it can refer to the shipping box as well as the sender. The word helps me remember that Filipinos around the world are connected by a desire to return home, even if it takes a long time to get back.