Photojournalist Captures Resiliency in the Philippines After Typhoon Haiyan

David Guttenfelder documents hope and rebuilding after devastation.

Photojournalist David Guttenfelder was on assignment in North Korea when he first learned about the catastrophic damage that Super Typhoon Haiyan had inflicted on the Philippines.

Guttenfelder, who is the chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press news agency and a frequent National Geographic contributor, read about it on Twitter while traveling in a car from the capital city of Pyongyang to the far northeast corner of the country, near the Russian border.

"There's 3G service in North Korea now, weirdly ... [and] I started to read about the scale of the destruction," Guttenfelder said. "I saw a picture someone had tweeted of the typhoon taken from space, which was really amazing."

But it wasn't until he saw another tweet, about the death toll from the typhoon, estimated to be in the thousands, that Guttenfelder knew he needed to see the devastation firsthand. "My job was to cover major events in Asia, so I knew I had to go," Guttenfelder said.

Shortly after, Guttenfelder was on a flight from Pyongyang to China, then to Japan, then to the capital city of the Philippines, Manila. From there, he hitched a ride with a military aid aircraft to Tacloban, the city hardest hit by the typhoon.

Typhoon aftermath in the Philippines city of Tacloban.

A photo posted by David Guttenfelder (@dguttenfelder) on

Since arriving, Guttenfelder has tried to focus on aspects of the disaster in the Philippines that have been overlooked in the popular press. He took pictures in Tacloban, but also traveled outside of the city to document how the disaster has played out in more remote villages.

Another major theme that's arisen in Guttenfelder's photographs is the resiliency and general good cheer of the Filipino people in the face of the disaster.

"It's almost confusing because people are so good-natured here," Guttenfelder said. "People laugh and are happy, even though their lives are just destroyed. They've built basketball hoops in rubble and play pickup games, and people watch and cheer.

"Filipino people have an incredible spirit and an incredible way of moving on. If it were any other place in the world, it would be so different."

A boy plays in the street in the Typhoon Haiyan destroyed town of Tacloban. #Philippines

A photo posted by David Guttenfelder (@dguttenfelder) on

We reached Guttenfelder in the Philippines and spoke to him about his experiences.

Where are you now?

I'm in the city of Tacloban, which is the biggest city that was wiped out by the typhoon.

What is it like in Tacloban now?

It's just a complete wasteland. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off and flattened the place. Nobody has power. There were bodies everywhere when I got here—on the road from the airport into town, just body after body.

Everybody's just wandering around trying to build some type of structure out of anything they can salvage.

And every day it rains for at least part of the day. And the people have nothing and they're just soggy.

I went to a church service recently and the roof was gone, and people were sitting in the pews praying and holding umbrellas because it was raining down on them.

What is the mood like in the city now?

You just can't exaggerate the good-natured, positive spirit of the people in this country. At the very least, they've lost everything they own, and at the very worst, they've lost members of their family, but they're still upbeat and positive.

There was a protest march recently, but it wasn't a protest against the government. It was a march to encourage everybody to be brave and to hang in there. They were carrying signs that said "we shall overcome."

I saw a guy carrying his kids on his shoulders, and people were wearing wigs. They were just having a blast, even though it was raining and they were walking past bodies.

Why did you feel it was important to photograph what was happening outside of Tacloban?

There were no other villages being covered in the beginning, really. Everyone was focused on Tacloban, mainly because of logistics and the size of the city.

If you're an independent photographer or if you're a media organization and you only have one person, it would've been natural to focus on Tacloban. But I work for Associated Press, so we have a big crew of people. And because I got here a bit later, I thought I'll just go and try to find out what the scale of the damage in other cities was in comparison to Tacloban, and if people were receiving aid or not.

For the most part, I think people are getting aid. The immediate worries of emergency medical evacuations and hunger are probably stable. But the scale of the disaster is just so immense that now it's hard to imagine how they're going to move on to the next step.

You're also posting some of your pictures to Instagram. Can you talk about that?

I've been using Instagram a lot in the past year. I started doing it as a personal diary, but it's become a very important part of my photojournalism and for communicating with people.

I feel like I'm reaching people directly, especially Filipino people. They can post comments, and I can comment back.

As a photojournalist, what are you looking for as you travel around Tacloban and the Philippines?

I first try to put the disaster into context and to show the overwhelming immensity of it. And then I try to show how people are surviving. I'm really focused on how refugees and displaced people are getting by.

And because of the way Filipino people are, I tend to focus a lot on their resiliency. You just can't exaggerate the good-natured, positive spirit of these people. It's like their natural identity is to smile. The hardest thing here is to take a photograph that doesn't have a child grinning from ear to ear in the background.

And the people here totally get what I'm trying to do. Nobody's asked me to please give them water; they're saying take a picture of me so [aid organizations] bring me water. I went to a village and people were saying, "Help us, put us on Facebook!"

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