Photographer Lawrence Sumulong shares portraits of families reunited in a typhoon-ravaged prison

After Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban in the Philippines, many families were dislocated – but a precious few families were reunited, in the ruins of a prison.

​Six months after the typhoon, American-Filipino photographer Lawrence Sumulong​ travelled to Tacloban to document the 60 families taking shelter in Leyte Provincial Jail. His series, Burying the Lead, is on exhibition in Sydney as part of Head On Photo Festival.

Detail of a family portrait from the series "Burying the Lead" on exhibition in Sydney as part of Head On Photo Festival. Detail of a family portrait from the series "Burying the Lead" on exhibition in Sydney as part of Head On Photo Festival. Photo: Lawrence Sumulong

For the first time, the sounds of family life filled Leyte jail. Babies were being born, children were playing, some husbands and wives were living together for the first time. 

"As a coping mechanism, the families were happy to be together, but there was a high level of solemnity; they were living in great uncertainty," Sumolong said.

"Nasken a rebbaek ta balayko tapno agbiagak / I must destroy my house in order to live," from the series "Burying the Lead". "Nasken a rebbaek ta balayko tapno agbiagak / I must destroy my house in order to live," from the series "Burying the Lead". Photo: Lawrence Sumulong

"The jail itself was still ravaged by the effects of the typhoon, the walls were still being repaired, much of it was open air. It was so damaged that you couldn't tell what room was what. It had basically become a refugee camp.

"Many of the prison inmates were in for serious crimes like murder, rape or drug trafficking ... but their court records had washed away ... the fact that families would move in with their incarcerated spouses or relatives reveals the Filipino family unit to be a complex and compelling force that seems to make its own rules about right and wrong."

Sumulong set about making classic, posed family portraits in the context of the ramshackle prison.

"The families lined up. It was almost like taking portraits for an old-fashioned commercial studio, 'proof-of-life' type of pictures," Sumulong said.

When he got back to his base in New York, Sumulong felt the images deserved better than a brief churn through the news cycle, so he took them to a traditional photography studio, where he worked with a master to create glass-plate ambrotypes. He wanted to create physical artefacts of the scenes he had witnessed.

Burying the Lead is on at Head On Photo Festival Hub Central, Level 3, Central Park from April 30-May 8.

Related posts