Artist Q&A: Lawrence Sumulong

We first came across photographer Lawrence Sumulong’s portraits of families in Leyte Provincial Jail on Feature Shoot. His portraits of families that relocated to the prison to live with their incarcerated relatives after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the region were so hauntingly beautiful we had to know more.


Nipa: Tell us a little about yourself and the work you’ve done in Southeast Asia.

Lawrence Sumulong: My day jobs are as the photo editor/staff photographer at Jazz at Lincoln Center and a photo assistant to Giles Clarke of Getty Images Reportage in NYC.

As a freelance photographer, I travel to Southeast Asia/the Philippines to pursue personal documentary stories.

N: Was there anything that surprised you about the Leyte Provincial Prison project? Any unexpected discoveries or great revelations?

LW: The entire story which was commissioned by the publication Narratively was a surprise, actually, since news from fellow journalists and friends was that the families had moved out and the jail was off limits. Leading up to the point where my fixer and I drove up to the jail, we had no idea whether we’d get in or if any of the families were still there.

As for revelations, the experience of documenting the families living in the prison validated what I felt about human beings in general. Faced with a disaster, people must adapt and eke out an existence to survive. Within the context of my interpretation of Filipino culture, the fact that families would move in with their incarcerated spouses or relatives (some of whom were being tried for rape and murder) revealed the family unit to be a complex and compelling force that seems to make its own rules about right and wrong.

N: What’s your favourite image from this project and why?

LW: The first would be the ambrotype called  I know something but God does not have the knowledge.

A wet-plate ambrotype of one of the 60 Filipino families were forced to move into Leyte Provincial Jail after being left homeless and destitute by Typhoon Haiyon. For close to a year, they lived alongside their incarcerated relatives, some of whom were accused of rape and homicide.
I know something but God does not have the knowledge by Lawrence Sumulong. A wet-plate ambrotype of one of the 60 Filipino families who were forced to move into Leyte Provincial Jail after being left homeless and destitute by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo supplied by the artist.

I like it because there are different families entering the frame and it seems to be one of the more mysterious images in terms of how everyone is looking or not looking at the camera, which has something to do with the riddle that I paired it with.

As detached viewers, we simply don’t know what these families and individuals are truly thinking or feeling or undergoing. I like this photo because I think empathy emerges from the questions that the image poses. What will happen to these people? Is the incarcerated family member abusive or kind? Are they happy together? Wouldn’t it be unreal if this was in fact the last time they would be together as a family? Etc, etc.

The second would be An old prayer that is leaning, which is the last portrait of a displaced Filipino family. We’ve seen this image before time and again. Countless documentary images couch themselves in eliciting an emotion by showing the extremities of life in the ‘third world’.  Knowing this, I was interested in the outward normalcy of the situation.

I chose the riddle to evoke the feeling that this moment in time is in fact part of the human condition. In life and when we suffer, we hope for the best and put forward our wishes and dreams for the future like prayers. What is always uncertain is the outcome, which I believe is relayed in the riddle.

N: How did you come to photography as your chosen medium?

LW: I studied and wrote poetry during my undergraduate years at Grinnell College. My brother gave me my first camera during a period where I wanted to be on my feet and explore the world and not be at a desk writing or reading. I went to the Philippines in 2007 and started trying to take pictures with the intention of expressing myself visually while also exploring the Philippines on my own for the very first time. That resulted in a small book published through Grinnell’s student press.

In addition to my brother and family’s support, what really transformed photography into something more than a hobby was a 2008 workshop that I took with one of my mentors David Alan Harvey of Magnum Photos and one of the guest speakers at the workshop, Song Chong, the gallery director at Milk Studios. If it wasn’t for their belief in me and their help, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

N: You used Filipino riddles as captions to your photos in this series. Can you teach us any other cool phrases or sayings you picked up from your travels in the region?

LW: Here are some riddles that weren’t used for the project, but I wrote them down because they sounded interesting.

 An old prayer that is leaning by Lawrence Sumulong. A wet-plate ambrotype of one of the 60 Filipino families were forced to move into Leyte Provincial Jail after being left homeless and destitute by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo supplied by the artist.
An old prayer that is leaning by Lawrence Sumulong. A wet-plate ambrotype of one of the 60 Filipino families were forced to move into Leyte Provincial Jail after being left homeless and destitute by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo supplied by the artist.

The mirror in the forest cannot be approached.
Answer: Beehive

The umbrellas of Edad are opened under the water.
Answer: Jellyfish

Holy Mary’s comb is kept on the nipa wall.
Answer: Centipede

N: What’s your favourite art gallery/event in SE Asia?

[Ed: Lawrence was kind enough to give us more than one answer and we think they all sound awesome!]

LW: To socialize and meet up with other creatives in Manila, I always visit The Oarhouse in Malate, which is a bar/restaurant/photo gallery owned by one of the legends in Philippine photography, Ben Razon. It’s right next to where I stay every time I visit Manila and it represents the Filipino take on the art salon in that there’s food, new photography on the walls, and spirited and unpretentious conversation. An alternative to The Oarhouse when I’m up north in Quezon City would be Fred’s in Cubao X, which is also a bar/restaurant owned by another legend in Filipino photography, Derek Soriano.

Although I haven’t visited in awhile since it’s up north in Quezon City, I’ll always be partial to the Jorge B. Vargas Museum at the University of the Philippines – Diliman. I did my first international solo show there at the invitation of Professor Gerard Lico and Curator Dr. Patrick Flores in 2012. It’s a great space and I love how it exists at a comfortable distance away from the insanity of Manila traffic.

Another sentimental favorite would be Finale Art File, where I took part in a summer 2015 photography group exhibition called ‘Traces’ with so many Filipino photographers that I respect. It meant a lot to show next to them and in such a huge space. The gallery itself was also where my family bought several paintings by the renowned Filipino painter, Malang, over 20 years ago. For all of it to come full circle in the way it did, I’d have to rate Finale as one of my recent favourites.

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