Photo-essay: Growing up in Metro Manila

Skipping rope in front of a neighbourhood shop in Tondo

The life of the children of street traders and trishaw drivers

By Inge Colijn

In January 2020 I spent a week in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I was struck by the many young children I saw being cared for by grandparents, parents and siblings. The children were looked after while their family tended to the business of selling fruit, vegetables and household items, or waited with a trishaw for passengers.

Being myself from the old Dutch generation of Rust, Reinheid en Regelmaat (Rest, Cleanliness and Regularity) as the mantra, I wondered about the way these kids grow up in the street. There is a constant cacophony, dirt is everywhere and the people are very poor.


With a friend at dad’s trishaw in Tondo, Photo copyright Inge Colijn

Jumping from dad’s trishaw in Tondo, photo copyright Inge Colijn

Reading about Tondo Manila, I found the following description: The Tondo is the largest slum of the country’s capital. It has a high poverty incidence due to lack of regular and decent jobs while social services like health and education are inaccessible.


Caring for her little sister in Barangay Aroma

A boy looking into the small room shared by his family in Baclaran, Inge Colijn

In addition to the lack of income and social services, there is also a lack of accommodation. This often results in people sleeping outside, or taking turns in using places to sleep. Advertisements for bed space are not uncommon.

In 2014, Al Jazeera aired a documentary about Tondo, showing the rough side of life for the people living there. Outsiders are fascinated by the life in Barangay Aroma. This is the part of Manila, its smallest district, where garbage is collected and sorted. It is a reminder of that notorious Manila landfill, Smokey Mountain, which closed in the 1990s.  

Most of the garbage sorting is done at night, as this is when people collect the trash from the city and transport it to Barangay Aroma. I visited Barangay Aroma early morning. At that time, it is relatively quiet.


Waiting for customers with grandma in Baclaran, Inge Colijn

Playing in a box outside the shop where mum works in Tondo, Inge Colijn

Grandfather in Tondo taking care of his granddaughters while running a little shop

Looking back at the photos I took in Barangay Aroma, as well as those I took in other poor areas of Metro Manila, the children in them seemed pretty happy despite the dirt and poverty. It made me realise once more that children accept the environment they are born into as normal.


Brothers playing outside their house in Barangay Aroma, Inge Colijn

In late 1995 in the North of Sri Lanka, in Kilinochchi, the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, I saw children going to school. Girls in white dresses with long braided pigtails and boys in white shorts and shirts with wet combed hair. They happily chatted together and rode their bikes as if there were no lack of anything, and as if the bombing they were subject to didn’t take place every night. They approached life with all the resilience they had at their disposal.


Playing in dirty water in Barangay Aroma

Growing up in the street is tough. If children are lucky enough to be well cared for by grandparents, parents, siblings, or even neighbours, and if they feel loved and protected, they can still be happy. And the hardships they face in childhood will prepare them for the tough road ahead.


Showing an old trishaw in Tondo to the photographer, and then your little sister shows off by jumping into it, Inge Colijn

Inge Colijn, photographer

Inge Colijn took up photography as a teenager. Later, as a student of Cultural Anthropology she took a course in Ethnographic Photography. While working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Inge always carried a camera with her in the field, but photography was more of an afterthought to her main job. After retiring from UNHCR Inge enrolled in photography workshops and got excited about street photography. She is part of a group of street photographers who regularly travel together and these photos of Manila were taken during a trip to the Philippines in January 2020. 

Photos by Inge were shown at Women Street Photographers exhibitions in Brussels and Kuala Lumpur. Inge was a finalist in the 2021 Life Framer competition Street-Life, curated by Bruce Gilden.Two of her photos were included in the book Tales of the Unwritten, published in connection with the Exhibit Around exhibition at the 2021 Trieste Photo Days. Recently Inge was a finalist in the (Disfa) Street Photography Awards Vol. 2.