August 21, 2020
DOCUMENTING DUMAGUETE CITY DURING THE PANDEMIC
Photography by Hersley Ven Casero
Words by Danielle T. Ureta Spontak
A photographer. A painter. An artist. All of these personas encompass Hersley Ven Casero. But in the midst of this year’s pandemic, a new identity sprang forth from the corners of this creative’s mind: a documentarist.
In the Philippines, drastic measures were taken to keep its citizens as safe as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Hersley’s hometown, Dumaguete City, people were restricted to their residences, with only one provider allowed out to retrieve supplies twice a week. Masks were enforced everywhere. Medical professionals bravely rose to meet the crisis head on, some in vibrant green suits and others in silver – all were and continue to be fiercely heroic. Garbage trucks were transformed into rice delivery trucks for the poor, zipping along the national highway equipped with huge “Do Not Delay” signs on the front. Flights, boats, even the iconic Filipino “pedicabs” (a motorcycle with an attached sidecar), were forbidden in fear of spreading COVID-19. Countless friends and families were either cut off from loved ones on adjacent islands or stuck in Dumaguete themselves.
The juxtaposition of a tropical paradise and self-isolation became painfully sharp. And Hersley, plagued by anxiety and an acute sense of sensitivity, discovered a strange barrier against producing painted or drawn artwork. For this artist, it is crucial to be in the right state of mind to create, because authenticity is his destination and the journey there is one he deeply appreciates. So Hersley took to his photos. “Right now, I’m a documentarist. I’m a recorder of moments. I’m interested in documenting the effect of the pandemic on my city through photography. I volunteered,” Hersley says.
Hersley was granted permission by the city’s task force, and his images flooded out like a dam unleashed when he had his camera in hand. Click. Click. Click. Each snapshot a drop added to the ocean of a quarantine chronicle. In every captured picture, depictions of how life had changed overnight in a city famous for its gentleness scratched at the soul. Hersley observed immediately how uneasy, bewildered, and frustrated people were when they briefly stepped out into the streets. Otherwise, it was quiet – too quiet. Too disturbing.
Evinced in several pictures of this documentary, one can witness how everything has been sheathed in cold plastic. Smooth, safe, and yet, it has inflicted such disconnection amongst the people it has been trying to protect. No more handshakes. No more hugs. Despite mandatory social distancing, the artist managed to reach people through photos and reach out to people on the roads. Plastic may prevent human touch, but it also offers a different perspective to gaze through. It draws attention to what is vividly colourful, to what is overflowing with life despite the circumstances.
And while there were no more smiles to be seen, hidden grins still reached the eyes of people from time to time, sometimes in the form of a mask with printed lips.
“I’m an invisible ninja no one notices,” Hersley said with a chuckle, noting how he had switched to using his camera on his hip with a flap. He felt like he was on an empty movie set without any actors, describing one particular expedition, “I went downtown when it was dark. There were no pedicabs! I had to walk several kilometers to get home but I actually enjoyed it. No air pollution, no people, only dogs – I was able to enjoy the walk. And I was surprised I could make friends in an instant. I met locals, foreigners, and tourists. I met many people.”
Hersley Ven Casero’s series of quarantine photos reveals humanity’s comradery, persistence, and ever changing view of the world.