HOPE – by Alexander von Wiedenbeck


It can be summed up in one sentence that this was by far the worst and at the same time most wonderful trip of my life so far. Terrible on the one hand due to the disastrous and in fact surreal living conditions of the children on the Philippines. On the other hand, though these children opened up my heart so much more than I had ever thought possible. The hope, faith and love of these children is much greater than the world they live in.



They told me it’s a different world but I answered, no, it’s the same world!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



But let’s go back to the beginning. It was the thought of giving something back. With all the countless advertising productions, fashion shoots, portraits around the world I have experienced and seen a great deal, usually just good things. I have met inspiring people, travelled to magical places and experienced intense moments. The world has given me a great deal, it’s about time I returned the favor. But how, where and above all with whom? So I wrote to ten German aid organizations and offered my support and more importantly presented my vision of a pioneering social responsibility project within the photography industry. Following numerous talks, considerations and after comparing the brutal facts I then chose the “Aktionsgruppe Kinder in Not e.V.”  from Windhagen with its projects on the Philippines. Children living in cemeteries, rubbish dumps, forced child prostitution were concepts that had stopped me in my tracks and moved me to start here.


So I’d taken the first step, the project was happening, what next? How should I prepare myself for the trip, physically with vaccinations etc. or the far more important question, mentally? After all, you can imagine that you’re about to be confronted with quite a bit when you hear about children living in cemeteries and rubbish dumps. I did of course do some research beforehand, read reports, watched documentaries about them but looking back now there was nothing that could have actually prepared me for this trip. When you’re standing in the middle of a quagmire of rubbish, rats, starving and sick dogs for the first time and then a little girl is standing in front of you crying and surrounded by flies in a just 2 x 2 meter wooden hut… what on earth are you going to prepare and how can you even presume at all that you could prepare for something like this. 



Unimaginable – life in a just 2 x 2 meter wooden hut, day in day out!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



And yet I have my mission and therefore have to function as the person I am… the photographer, the supposed voyeur who captures and documents the moment without interacting, without changing anything. And what should you change, should you say to a crying child “Smile, say cheese”?… bullshit! The moment was there in its full and merciless cruelty, unadorned… so I hold up my camera and press the shutter release!


I remember one of the first evenings in Cebu City really well, I was sitting together with my travel companions from the “Aktionsgruppe” having dinner in their hotel and we were talking about the day’s experiences or to be more precise we were processing them. The walk back to my hotel afterwards led me approx. 500 m through the city center. Just before my hotel I was crossing over a large busy junction when I could see the figure of a small person on the pavement. I went up to it and it was in fact a little girl, barely five years old lying on the pavement dressed in shorts, a t-shirt with no shoes, with her head towards a steep downward slope without a pillow or anything similar. In the headlights of the cars driving past you could see the heavy clouds of smoke of the unfiltered exhaust fumes drifting over her.



All people, all children have one thing in common: their right to live, their right to exist!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



I stood there frozen for at least half an hour next to the sleeping girl and considered my options. Who could I call, the police or ambulance, probably not, what should I do though? Who can help in this kind of situation? Not really knowing where to turn I approached the hotel’s security staff who had already been watching me from not far away. I asked him whether he knew the girl and where the parents were. He said she is homeless and her parents are probably out collecting returnable bottles or something similar. After insistently asking once again what we could do, he simply shrugged his shoulders. So I went back to the girl where an American and his little daughter had now arrived. He’d also seen the girl and wanted to show his daughter that she/we should be grateful for our circumstances in the Western world. We chatted for quite a while about the girl and what we could do. For one moment I had even considered booking a room in the hotel for the girl so that she could sleep in a proper bed for once and shower or take a bath… but what could I do the next day then? And as we were standing there deliberating another member of security approached us, he waved his torch light up and down the little girl, kicked the girl to wake her up and shooed her away. Under the bridge opposite, in the middle of the road junction, I could just make out her silhouette in the dark still as she once again laid down on the floor to sleep. Shocked, confused and absolutely incredulous about what I had just seen I asked the man whether that was better now, he just shrugged his shoulders like the one before and said in his broken English, “what should we do?” And at that moment I also thought, he’s right, what can we do? I didn’t get a wink of sleep that night.


The next day the trip continued on to Cebu City’s cemetery children. You could try to see their terrible circumstances at least a little bit positively, as unlike the little girl they can at least sleep with a roof over their heads. However, lying under the roof of a cleared out grave on the dust of a corpse that was once buried there is not really a better situation. A shiver still runs down my spine today whenever I think about how I shocked I was as a little girl suddenly came running past high up on the grave walls. The grave wall, an estimated five meters high and one hundred meters long and then this little person, barely a meter tall, standing up there as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s certainly not an uncommon picture on the Philippines but it really shocked me to the core at that moment. Still trembling with shock, I grabbed for the camera straight away. But what I only noticed later back in Germany in my studio on an enlarged print was something even more terrible, as these graves in particular were children’s graves, none of them had lived to be much older than two years old. The little girl was literally standing on her possible immediate future.



Life is a precious gift – everyone should be given the opportunity to make the best of it!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



And yet in the middle of this hell on earth you could sense something time and time again in the children’s presence and see it in their bright eyes – hope! They hope for a better life, a better future and it is this unshakeable belief that drives them and gives them strength. I saw children searching for recyclable stuff in a dump of hospital waste to earn some money for their families. The kids were also really hungry for knowledge, they sat between the gravestones with their school books and studied for a good education and maybe the chance to make something more of their life one day.



 “It is not easy to hold on to one’s dreams but they can be our greatest motivation!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



If I had to retrospectively summarize now whether this hope is justified and will come true one day, then the answer is definitely – yes. Towards the end of our trip we visited more of the projects where the “Aktionsgruppe Kinder in Not e.V.” has already been working for many years, often for decades. It was really wonderful to see how the aid organization’s hard work is really paying off here. The schools have already produced attorneys and doctors and each one of these little great heroes is celebrated there. With large banners in front of the school they remind the little ones day in day out of what is possible and motivate them not to give up. Agriculture in the province of Alegria has also been organized more effectively thanks to the “Aktionsgruppe” and is more profitable today than many years ago. And when you see how many people and especially children are being helped in the aid organization’s health centers, you can claim without any qualms that numerous lives are really being saved here, which would otherwise have been condemned to death due to their former living circumstances.


I was to discover how much of an impact these experiences had on me even during by journey back to Germany. Out of pure decadence and the fact that I was expected at my studio for a client’s job straight away on the day I returned to Germany, it seemed a good idea to me at the start to book a Business Class ticket. However, when I was then sitting on this giant plane, with empty seats to the right and left of me, I was all of a sudden overcome by the new impressions that had left an impact on me and it was no longer possible for me to suppress my sorrow, anger and self-doubt…. I had never before questioned my own life, my existence and my work as much as at this moment.


Before my final leg to Munich I had a wait of several hours at the airport in Frankfurt. I sat in a small cafe there and watched the people. In doing so I became really aware for the first time ever of what a treadmill we are actually on. Bankers, air crew, tourists, they were all rushing stressed from A to B always under great time pressure. And if they did have a few minutes to spare, they purposefully strode to the next boutique to buy things that they either don’t need or already own several of them. And at the same time, nobody is in a mood to share a friendly smile or Hello. How could it be that here in Germany, where we really do lack for nothing now and have more than enough of everything, we’re running through life like remote controlled robots and on top of everything else are usually dissatisfied too. And there on the other side of the world, where people really do not have any possessions and children are over the moon about getting a toothbrush and are so grateful for it, there in that supposed Armageddon people are happy to give you a smile and always have a positive attitude. It is in fact bizarre.


Back at the studio I was of course instantly asked by my employees, what was it like, what I had experienced… but I couldn’t answer, I wasn’t even capable of saying that I didn’t want to talk about it. It took almost a month for me to get myself together again. My thoughts and reflections were constantly on the Philippines and the question of the meaning of life and justice was never more present than after this trip. What was going to happen now? How can I pick up my life after these experiences? Can I continue as before?



I think we mutually inspired each other and I saw myself in a new light thanks to the children!
Alexander von Wiedenbeck // Philippines, 2015



Now, as I’m sitting here in an air-conditioned lobby of a hotel, writing these lines, it’s no longer sorrow and anger that I feel but rather gratitude. Gratitude that I know about these children’s circumstances. Gratitude to have felt and experienced such hope and humanity and gratitude for my options and the chance to get something really amazing started. And that brings me back to the start of this story again and my thought of giving something back. I want to share my experiences, my story with the world and provide a glimpse and feeling of how terrible, but at the same time how sincere and hopeful the lives of these children on the Philippines are through my photos. “We are the world, we are the children,” Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie once wrote in a song that everyone surely knows. And that’s precisely it, we were all once children and we all have or will have children ourselves one day. They’re not just our personal future but the future of mankind and that is why it should be a matter dear to all our hearts to give them a little bit of hope by paying attention to them and having faith in them.