Life near the Blos

December 16, 2014
Raina Delisle

What started as a thesis has turned into a touring photo exhibit and a life-changing experience.

Kathryn Thompson was planning to research something related to her work as marketing coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library for her MA in Professional Communication. But after learning about other innovative research projects done at Royal Roads, she did a 180.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to do something totally different to learn and grow and get the most I can out of this program,” says Thompson, who graduated in November. “I wanted to take a risk and get out of my comfort zone.”

That desire landed Thompson near the Blos River in Northern Luzon, Philippines. The region is located within the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, the largest protected area in the Philippines. Access to the region is limited as there is no major road network connecting the coastal communities to the mainland.

How Thompson ended up there, living with the people for six weeks, was somewhat a game of chance. She had decided she wanted to use photography and she wanted to travel somewhere secluded where a community was grappling with a political issue. She started contacting professional photographers who were working in remote regions to see if any of them would take her under their wing. While all of the photographers she contacted were helpful, Jacob Maentz, an American working in the Philippines, gave her the most promising lead. He told her about the region and the challenges of the people, including the fact that the Filipino government approved the construction of a major highway to traverse the Northern Sierra Madre Mountain range, which would connect them to the mainland.

Kathryn Thompson

“That really got me going,” Thompson says of the highway approval, adding that while road infrastructure is often seen as good for society, it is important to consider the ways in which lives and resources will be impacted. “These people are vulnerable and marginalized and there are a lot of controversies around their land. I think it’s important to get this story out there because these people don’t have a strong voice.”

Thompson’s thesis adviser Phillip Vannini says he loved her research idea, a visual ethnography that focused on how road-based mobilities shape people's sense of place.

“After she introduced me to her original idea I told Kathryn that research for an MA thesis was a precious intellectual license to be creative, bold, ambitious and adventuresome,” says Vannini, Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography. “No words in my entire educational career were ever more carefully tended to by any student.”

After much research, paperwork and travel SNAFUs, Thompson was living among the people. She met people like Kuya Ray, who lives in a 15x20-foot house nestled in the rainforest, one kilometre from the ocean. His home is one of 13 in the village and boasts a view of rice fields and coconut trees. There’s no electricity and no running water. He and his family rely on a wood burning stove and a community pump, and wash their clothes in a small stream.

Kuya used to live in Manila and when asked by Thompson why he moved, he said, “It’s just more peaceful here compared to Manila. There was so much pollution there. We also have more opportunities here.” For him, opportunity means land to cultivate. He adds that life is not without stresses. Access to the “outside,” as locals call it, is difficult. Flights are irregular (as Thompson knows well) and the boat journey is dangerous and long.

Kuya, like many others, is torn on the issue of the road. He likes the idea of being more connected to the mainland, but is concerned about more competition for fishing and farming. He was pleased to be asked what he thought.

“They’re excited when people come in and want to hear their stories,” says Thompson. “I really tried to live alongside them and experience the life that they were living so that I could provide as best I could a fair assessment of their life and reflect those stories.”

The fruit of her labour is a stunning set of photos that portrays a strong sense of community and an essence of simple living. The imagery also shows the struggles and challenges of the people as they experience poverty, marginalization, resource exploitation and political instability.

An amateur photographer, Thompson is thrilled by the interest in her visual ethnography. Her images have been featured in Life as a Human and Dodho and were recently on display at Vancouver’s Photohaus gallery as part of its Winter Salon. In the summer, Thompson will have a solo exhibit in the Gallery at the Frances Morrison Central Library. She has also created a website and a book of her photography and stories. Her thesis itself – for which she won a Royal Roads Public Ethnography Award – consisted of a journal article, which she has submitted for publication, as well as a printed book with photos and stories.

“I continue to want to pursue and share this story in whatever capacity I can,” Thompson says. In addition to bringing awareness to the challenges faced by the people near the Blos, she also believes there are important lesson for Westerners in her photos.

“As Westerners, I think we can learn a lot from the ways that they live and their strong sense of place, community and family. I feel we’ve lost it. I don’t know my neighbours. I have my circle of friends and I don’t really go outside of it. There, when two men hike up into the mountains and hunt wild pig, they bring it back and they equally divide it for everyone in the village. I think it’s important to see different ways people live.”

For her part, Thompson is trying to lead a more sustainable life and is paying closer attention to what she consumes. She also hopes to continue sharing stories from around the world through photography. On Boxing Day, she’s off to Peru with her camera.

On her website she writes: “Travelling is another way for me to learn and widen my perspective; it enables me to gain a broader worldview and embrace new cultures, while photography is my creative outlet and complements my passion for travelling.”