Filipino Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales Has an Eye for Capturing Warmth Amidst Adversity
The ‘National Geographic’ Explorer’s work tells the stories of those affected by poverty and injustice.
Based in Manila, Hannah Reyes Morales is a photographer and National Geographic Explorer who’s on a mission to document the connections between diverse cultures. Her love for photography dates back to when she was still a young girl. As a child who spent most of her days indoors, Morales grew curious about what’s outside. “I had no visibility of the outside world, really,” she once shared in an interview. However, thanks to magazines like Life and National Geographic, she was able to catch a glimpse of what life beyond four walls looked like. “I loved that I could stay with a moment for as long as I wanted, and that it felt like I was looking through someone else’s eyes,” Morales recalls what sparked her interest in the art form. “At the same time, it also made me feel connected to others and it allowed me to see into different worlds.”
Over the years, the creative has been recognized by some of the world’s most influential publications. Prior to becoming an official National Geographic Explorer, Morales reported on human trafficking at sea for The New York Times‘ The Outlaw Ocean series in 2015 and documented the war crimes against Cambodian women for Al Jazeera. With her impactful visuals that honor lives affected by poverty and injustice, Morales was awarded a grant by the National Geographic Society in 2019, allowing her to provide a platform for untold stories by photographing indigenous cultures in her home country of the Philippines.
Most recently, Morales has worked on a project called Redefining Beauty, which aims to challenge social media’s idea of beauty and show the world that we are all equally beautiful. “I learned so much from working on this story, and it dismantled so many of my own preconceived notions about beauty, femininity and style,” she explains.
In conversation with HYPEBAE, Morales shares how she became a National Geographic Explorer, the concept behind Redefining Beauty, how she defines a “good story” and more.
What initially sparked your interest in photography?
I’ve always been drawn to images. I loved that I could stay with a moment for as long as I wanted, and that it felt like I was looking through someone else’s eyes. At the same time, it also made me feel connected to others and it allowed me to see into different worlds.
What inspired you to document the connections between diverse cultures?
I am a curious person, and I love that the camera allows me to connect not just with my own community, but also with people whose realities are different from my own. Images allow people to look into lives that are different than theirs. At best, they help us understand each other, even just a tiny bit more.
How did the opportunity to photograph for National Geographic come to be?
I never imagined that I could be a photographer, let alone a photographer for a magazine I grew up reading as a child. I got my first assignment from the magazine through the editor Jennifer Samuel, who saw my work and later on encouraged me to pitch to the magazine. Without her patience, belief and thoughtful guidance, I never would have been able to believe in myself enough to even attempt this, so I feel incredibly lucky that her eyes fell on my work.
Could you elaborate on the concept behind Redefining Beauty and what it was like working on this story?
I learned so much from working on this story, and it dismantled so many of my own preconceived notions about beauty, femininity and style. I asked most of the people I photographed what beauty meant to them, and it was always different for each person. For some, beauty is armor. For others, it means transformation. A lot of folks I met gathered together through beauty rituals to create safe spaces that allowed them to come as they are, to heal and to celebrate their bodies. While the overall beauty landscape still has a long way to go when it comes to true inclusivity, there are so many inspiring movements around the world that use fashion and beauty — things that have historically been exclusionary — to challenge and expand its definition.
Can you recall the first camera you ever used?
The first camera that was actually mine was the Polaroid i-Zone, which produced instant images that were about an inch and a half on the long side and maybe less than an inch on the short side. It was magical. I loved being able to take a photo that size and put it in tiny spaces, as if it was a secret.
Does the type of camera and lens actually matter?
When I was starting out, the only camera I had was the one that I could afford. However, I learned so much from the camera I used and felt very grateful for everything it taught me. I couldn’t afford better lenses, so I learned to work with the one I had. I feel glad that earlier on, I didn’t become very obsessed with more and more gear. I learned to move with the equipment I had on hand and be creative with how I used it. Today, I tend to work with smaller, unobtrusive cameras that allow me to be as light as possible, and I still rarely change lenses.
What are some roadblocks you’ve had to overcome since starting your photography career?
I really struggled with validating my own perspective and understanding the value of my voice and where it was coming from, which makes me quite sad. I remember being undermined as a young woman with a camera, and making myself smaller and smaller, or trying to form myself into shapes that I was not in order to “fit the mold” of what a photographer should be. I wish I had asked myself what a photographer could be, instead of what they should be.
What is the definition of a “good story” for you?
Stories that help us see what’s true. Stories that remind us of things we might have forgotten. Stories with secrets and love stories. There are so many great stories. I wish I could hear them all.
In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
I love photographs that feel like they will stand the test of time. As we consume and produce more images than ever, I always feel a tingle when I see an image that will stay with me for a while.
Who are some of your creative inspirations?
Some of my greatest heroes are my wonderful friends and mentors: Malin Fezehai, Laurel Chor, Daniella Zalcman, Eloisa Lopez and Erika Larsen. Beyond their images, I am inspired by the way they move through the world, the way they ask questions and the way they think. All these go into making images and getting to feel that in friendship inspires me.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers around the world?
Spend more time listening.