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Trailblazers Photojournalist Ezra Acayan On His Journey To Becoming A Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Photojournalist Ezra Acayan On His Journey To Becoming A Pulitzer Prize Finalist

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MARCH 14: Airport security staff attempt to control the crowd as Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Thursday that he would place some 12 million people in the capital Manila on lockdown and suspend government work for a month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Philippines' Department of Health has
Image Credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Image. MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MARCH 14: Airport security staff attempt to control the crowd as Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines.
By Samantha Mei Topp
By Samantha Mei Topp
July 02, 2021
Photographer Ezra Acayan’s work focuses on social issues and human rights in his native Philippines. This year his work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He talks to Gen.T about his journey so far

“When I was a kid I was always interested in looking at pictures, but not just any type of pictures. [I liked] those that appeared in newspapers like Time and National Geographic—pictures taken by photojournalists,” says Ezra Acayan. “It was like a window to the world for me when I was just a child in the Philippines.”

In high school, Acayan’s father brought home a digital camera, sparking his initial interest.“Fast forward to college… I remember I was studying photography on the internet, and suddenly I recalled my childhood fascination with those photos taken by photojournalists, and I thought to myself: Why don't I try creating work like this?” Acayan says.

Today he is a decorated photojournalist whose work has appeared in numerous media outlets. In June 2021 he was nominated as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Photography category, for his coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Philippines. He told ABS-CBN that getting nominated was "one of the biggest honors of my life and my career”, adding that he feels “privileged to tell stories from our little corner of the world in this global tragedy that changed all our lives."

We talk to Acayan about everything from his work covering the war on drugs in the Philippines to his latest coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Do you remember the first few images you ever shot?
The first pictures I took were really the usual stuff that everyone takes when they’re starting out. I remember I was in high school, so I was taking pictures of my mother’s garden. And then when I moved out for college, I mainly took photos of my college friends and things that were happening around that school. That’s when I switched to photojournalism and started taking photos out of school. 

How has your photography evolved since you began?
These days, I shoot mostly news. My focus is mainly on politics, social issues, human rights issues—and I also shoot a lot of stories that are related to religion. I guess I just want to shoot whatever is important. For example, when the Duterte administration started, I shot a lot of stories on the war on drugs. For three years that’s what I focused on. I probably covered more than 1,000 crime scenes, and attended more than 100 funerals because I was really closely following this story.

Right now, the past year has just been covering the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also been very memorable. It really changed the way we work and the way we cover stories, because there is not only the risk to yourself and your family, but you can also put your subjects at risk. But I guess photojournalism isn’t the kind work that you can do at home; you still have to go out.

What kind of stories have you been telling about the Covid-19 pandemic?
I focused a lot on the government response—or the lack thereof. In the Philippines not a lot of photographers were able to take photos inside hospitals because aside from the danger, it was hard to get access because of government restrictions. But in the past year or so, I was able to make a few stories from the hospitals. The most recent one I did was a series of portraits of healthcare workers before and after their shifts to show how their appearance changed after doing 12-hour shifts inside the Covid wards.

For a lot of them, they come out of the Covid wards and they’re really sweaty, with messy hair and eye bags from being so tired. A lot of them have marks on their faces from wearing the PPE for 12 hours straight, and others had a few wounds, I guess from wearing their mask so tight.

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MARCH 14: Airport security staff attempt to control the crowd as Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Thursday that he would place some 12 million people in the capital Manila on lockdown and suspend government work for a month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Philippines' Department of Health has
Image Credit: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images Pulitzer prize nominated image. MANILA, PHILIPPINES - MARCH 14: Airport security staff attempt to control the crowd as Filipinos hoping to get on flights out of Manila hours before it is placed on lockdown queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on March 14, 2020 in Manila, Philippines.

Can you tell us about your photograph that was nominated for a Pulitzer prize?
That photograph was from March 14, 2021, hours before Manila was going to be placed on lockdown. I got word that there were a lot of people at the airport because there were a lot of overseas workers who came home to the Philippines when they heard that the country was going to be under lockdown. However, when they landed in Manila airport a lot of flights to the provinces were already cancelled so they were worried that they were going to be stranded in Manila.They were all lining up, panicking because they didn’t know how to get home. I remember they were really mad at their airlines for cancelling the flights before lockdown had even been implemented. A few of the other photos I took that day showed people jumping over railings and pushing guards. It was a really, really crazy moment.

Also, during that time we were really scared of Covid because it was really unknown to us at that point, so the entire time I was shooting I was getting pushed around by security and by the people there. I was quite worried for myself in case someone there had the virus.

It became a very big story overall, because there weren't just people at the airport, there were other people who travelled by boat or land—so many people who got stranded in Manila that we eventually even had an abbreviation for them: LSI, locally stranded individuals. It was a mission for the government to get these people home safely and to not infect people when they were going home, but it stretched on for months. There were people who were stranded in Manila for as long as a year.

Ezra Acayan
Ezra Acayan

What does it mean to you to be nominated for this prize?
Because I’m an independent photographer, things like this are usually really out of reach, so this award was really unexpected. I’m also really thankful to Getty Images for including my photo in the body of work that they submitted. I guess in the past year I focused really hard on covering the pandemic as best I could because it was the most important story last year, but to have my picture nominated alongside everyone else’s work was really special, because Getty’s submission had pictures from around the world, from Mexico to the United States, so I’m really thankful for my editors as well.

What stories are you planning on covering next?
Right now, I’m going to continue to cover the situation in the Philippines. We have the presidential elections coming up next year, which will be a big story soon, especially because President Duterte wants his daughter to be president and he will run alongside as vice president. There’s also the situation with the International Criminal Court planning to investigate Duterte for his war on drugs. But his presidency is ending soon and it’s also a good time to reflect on everything that has happened over the last six years. A big part of that, of course, is the war on drugs and all of the people who were killed as a result of it.


See more Gen.T Honourees from the Media, Marketing & Advertising category of the Gen.T List 2020

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