Interviewed by Juliette Mansour
Michelle “Chi” Alvarez, street photographer, lives in Cabanatuan City, Philippines
Street photography for Michelle (a.k.a. “Chi”) Alvarez is not just a hobby, but an integrated way of life in Cabanatuan City, the Philipines. When I sat down to think about these questions for Chi, I expected life for the Filipina street photographer to be radically different than mine. I imagined a trail of acrobatic-like tactics and a string of daily obstacles.
However, in the end, I learned from Chi that as street photographers, we all share the same challenges, same trepidations and ultimately we all reach a deeper, more innate understanding about what makes a good street photograph, and this understanding comes through our own individual experiences — having less to do with our environment and more to do with how we interpret art.
Below is a dialogue about Michelle “Chi” Alvarez and her life as a street photographer in the Philipines.
Tell us a bit about you — your name, where you were born, when you became interested in art and photography.
I am Michelle Alvarez, but most of my friends call me “Chi.” I am currently living in Cabanatuan City, known as the “Tricycle Capital” of the Philippines. (So no, we don’t use Uber!) I graduated with a degree in Fine Arts major in Interior Design. For fifteen years I designed houses and commercial establishments. Currently, I am enjoying my work as a financial advisor.
During college I learned how to use film cameras, and developed my own photos. But, only three years ago did I begin to fully enjoy photography. At an opportune time, I was able to travel to Cebu, located in Central Visayas Region in the Philippines. Not knowing anyone from there I embraced photography — street photography in particular. It became my tool in familiarizing myself with the island, and to the kind hearted people.
Creating street photography as you do is impressive to me, considering you have a full time day job and a family. Please briefly tell us how you balance that, and about your relationship today with photographs.
It’s never easy to do two things at the same time, although nothing is impossible if you put your heart into it, so I learned how to multitask. My focus now is my work and my family. But in our busy lives, we need a catalyst to bring peace back to our minds. So I make it a point to do my photowalk whenever I can. My camera is already part of my body. I guess that’s one of the effects of street photography for me. I can’t go out of the house without it.
I know that wherever I go, whatever time it is, there is a possibility that something wonderful will take place, and I want to capture that moment when it happens.
To me, the strong suit of your photographs is the composition. What allows for that? Do you plan for this when you go and shoot? Tell us a little about how composition factors into your photography.
Every day is a learning process for me, Miss Juliette. I have a hard time following rules but I do consider these rules as guidelines. It makes my photos stronger. If it works in my frame, I feel like I am master HCB (Henri Cartier Bresson) and it is a lucky day for me — but if it doesn’t work in my scene, I ignore it. I usually capture what makes my heart jump, and what pleases my eyes.
Tell us a little bit about the challenges and advantages about shooting in the Philippines.
When we talk about challenges, the Philippines is like any country. There are rough neighborhoods because of poverty. And in those areas you have to be aware of the people around you while taking photographs. But the good thing is, Filipinos are known to be very hospitable and friendly too. So wherever you go, it’s not hard to strike a conversation with them.
Not all Filipinos are fluent in English but I am sure you will enjoy talking to the people. The Philippines is like a gelato store — in each island, you will taste a different flavor. Maybe because of the different dialects, many assorted foods, different cultures, and different environment. But in the end, you will experience one common quality of the Filipinos, most of us are happy people. Even if we’re struggling, we know that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. If you decide to pay us a visit, I guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed, and I’d be glad to give you a tour.
Thank you for the lovely offer, Chi! I adore travelling and would love to take you up on that someday! A couple of more questions. In your mind what makes a beautiful street photograph? Who are your favorite street photographers and why?
For me, a good street photo is something that makes me ask questions and makes me feel something deep inside. It can be happy, surreal, and really weird. Some of the photos I’ve seen have left me wondering for hours, asking myself, “How on earth did she/he see that?” I guess the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alex Webb, Josef Koudelka, Helen Levitt, and Daido Moriyama are some of my inspirations. But if we talk about this generation, we have so many great street photographers who have the passion, you can see that love in their work. I am very much in awe of the work of Matt Stuart, Tavepong Pratoomwong, Chu Việt Hà, Muhammad Imam Hasan, Arth Figueroa Jumagdao, Arsenic Jr. Niody, Rebecca Norris Webb, Graciela Magnoni, Michelle Rick and Agnes Lanteri. And the good thing is, everybody is teaching something different to everybody else.
How do you think street photography has changed you as a person?
I learn so many things from the people I meet on the streets, either from fellow photographers, or the people I include in my frame. A few years back, I did the grab-and-snap kind of shooting — but as I became more familiar with the genre, I began to understand that once in awhile, it is amazing to have a conversation with the people, especially the children. Learning how they live, and learning what makes them happy. And if I have the chance, I make it my goal to bring a little magic dust to them. And when I do, it also makes me happy. It is a win-win situation. Street photography can serve a different purpose for each one of us — and this is what I think we should explore.
Guest interviewer: Juliette Mansour
Juliette “Jules” Mansour is an artist, photographer, and writer from Atlanta, where she is founder and current chair of the Atlanta Street Photography Group. A contractor by day, she is an avid traveller and linguist, and she writes about street photography and other artist-related topics on her blog, The Additional F-Stop. You can follow her street photography on Flickr and Instagram.