Young photographer’s images of hope
LONDON - When Elija Paul Villanueva came to the UK four years ago, he brought along his second-hand Canon Rebel xti camera to document his new life overseas. "I was aware I was entering a new phase of my life and I wanted to record it as much as possible," he recalls. Only 21, he had responded to the call of family duty and put his newly-minted nursing degree to good use, securing a job as a carer in London, to support his family in Manila.
The UK capital, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, with its heritage, arts, architecture and urban energy, certainly had much to captivate Villanueva, who had acquired some photography skills working as marketing associate for a studio in Manila. He started snapping away at familiar London sights as a pastime.
His eye for detail soon caught the attention of members of the Filipino community in London, who asked him to take pictures at community events. Before he knew it, he became an "official" photographer" in a very active Pinoy social calendar, being asked by kababayan to take their portraits or document their special occasions. Eventually, he was invited by various London companies to take photographs of events such as fashion shows and openings.
His interest in photography deepened with his "professional" experience and he started exploring the artistic potentials of the medium. He experimented with nature photography and fashion and photographic manipulation, with special effects. He also joined photography contests, such as Faith Through A Lens, where his striking photograph of a man backdropped by St. Paul's Cathedral drew many admirers on the online site. His photograph received a citation from acclaimed British photojournalist Don McCullin (best known for his war photography), one of the competition judges.
Villanueva's bright-eyed take on his new world and his optimist's view on life were the subjects of a recent photography exhibit, Kulay, at the Philippine embassy on Suffolk St. in central London. Held to raise funds for his younger sister, who has lymphoma cancer, Kulay showed a young, earnest photographer with a delicate eye for finding the sublime in the ordinary.
His photographs are an explosion of lines and colors, deep-hued and kinetic. His compositions seem to be in flux, or at least poised for movement. London twinkles and shines with light, dazzling at night, incandescent by day. Even his nature photography, which captures slices of stillness, hints at impending action.
Villanueva is an eternal optimist, his natural response to a life of striving. Educated on scholarships by the Dominican priests and nuns in San Juan city, who saw his potentials as a leader and enterprising individual, he graduated from Aquinas high school and Dominican College with honors. He was council president and an active student leader, and also became a disc jockey and theater actor. Wishing to help his family - his father was a tricycle driver who became severely ill and could hardly work - he seized the opportunity to work in the UK as a carer. In London, his will to improve himself never stopped, he subsequently took up business studies at a local college and is now pursuing management studies at a London university. In between, he tries to develop his photography.
'I want to start a business in the Philippines, possibly a photography studio," he says. "I still do not have a professional camera, by the way (laughs) but I get by. I consider myself a very determined person." He recently gave an online talk to 250 students in Manila on leadership training and self-improvement.
His latest and by far most difficult challenge is helping his beloved younger sister beat cancer. The news that his 19-year-old sister Myla had lymphoma has galvanized Villanueva into action. Practically his entire waking life has been devoted to ensuring his sister gets the proper medical care and emotional support from her family. He has held fundraisers in London, including in his university, to contribute to Myla's medical fund. He started a Facebook and website to raise awareness about childhood cancer. He even cut his long hair, in sympathy with his sister, who was going bald due to chemotherapy.
During his exhibit, he moved guests with a video presentation featuring Myla, showing a brave teenager facing the most difficult time in her life with cheer and optimism.
Balancing studies, work, supporting his family in the Philippines, caring for an ailing sister and nurturing his art can be tough on a 24-year-old. It is typical for Villanueva to go for days without sleep. Once, exhausted from work and putting up his fundraising exhibit, he lost consciousness in an Underground station and was fortunately aided by some Good Samaritans who took him to their home to recover.
Still, he refuses to slow down, even a little. He is continuously coming up with projects to raise awareness of his sister's plight, the latest of which is an online reveal of the film he made about her. Villanueva also uses his spare time to make flyers and distribute letters all over London soliciting help for Myla. A new photography exhibit is also in the works.
"My sister is one of the most beautiful persons I know, with a good heart and a very positive attitude to life. My whole life now is dedicated to helping her win this battle. I know I have to do everything I can for her. I have to make sure that I have tried my very best."
Has his sister's illness changed the way he captures the world with his camera? "My photography has always been about emphasizing the positive. Myla's attitude toward life is so uplifting. I want to my photographs to have the same effect on people."
Contributions to Myla Villanueva's medical fund are most welcome. Please visit Elijah Villanueva's website, mysistersbattleismybattle.com for more information.