Born and raised in “The City of Gentle People,” photographer Hersley-Ven Casero finds magic in its mundanities.
Dumaguete. Known as the “City of Gentle People,” the capital of Negros Oriental is home to marine life, fishermen, sport divers, writers, and artists. It has developed fairly recently into a college town, housing contemporary Philippine literature’s most prized voices.
But, in the photo series “Islanders,” photographer and artist Hersley-Ven Casero explores another side of Dumaguete, sharing with viewers a sense of magical realism that feels unmistakably Negrense.
Hersley captures Dumagueteños, blissful in their own island and community. “We are all islanders with salt and water deep within the core of our cultural identity, and a community deeply connected to the sea: for nourishment, for respite from the biting tropical sun, for inspiration in its many forms, and for plenty of fun,” he tells Vogue Philippines.
The photos that make up “Islanders” were mostly taken just as COVID restrictions were starting to open. As restrictions loosened, the streets and shores of the beach town sprung with life again: “My aunts sang, my nephews played, market sellers giggled together, creative friends collaborated, teenagers dove fearlessly into the ocean,” Hersley says, “and upon witnessing all of this, I also felt like it was really important to record this side of the story during this strange time in history.”
Hersley’s camera captures the dynamic, layered moments that materialize by the shore. Among the photos in “Islanders” is that of a mother carrying her child who points at the distance, their silhouettes eclipsed by the sunset, and some fish hung on a tree. “This photograph was taken in July 2021, along Looc Beach, which is a location I frequently visit […] a fisherman had hung his catch of the day on a wooden post. I positioned myself so that a frame would be created between the fish on the post, and the fishing rods and fish cages. I waited there patiently and hoped that a subject might pass through and make an interesting gesture. The rest was up to the universe to deliver.”
Hersely says that he comes from very humble beginnings: “My parents didn’t have much at all. My very first memory of making pictures was drawings monsters in the dirt with a stick.” In his college years at the Foundation University in Dumaguete, Hersley recalls how he first got into the discipline of photography. Dr. Vicente G. Sinco, the vice president of the school, handed him a digital camera and asked him to take pictures for the school’s press.
“I have been taking photographs in my hometown of Dumaguete for around 20 years now. I try to make a habit of photowalking every day. It’s like a meditation for me,” he shares. “It’s a ritual that keeps me curious, grounded, and connected to my community and to myself. Although these specific images in this ‘Islanders’ series have mostly been taken more recently, they are still a culmination of two decades of experience, practice, patience, and getting to know the corners and characters of my city.”
Hersley has seen Dumaguete change over the years, and through his work, he also wants to capture the city’s evolving heritage: “It also gave me this fascination with recording these moments within a particular context at any given time, before it all just disappears and everybody and everything moves on as time inevitably goes on.”
“The Dumaguete life is city life with an air of island life,” Hersley says. “I find myself drawn to images of joy, of hope, of community, of making the best of what you have, of making the world a better place, and of little glimmers of magic in the mundane. I like to record the people in my community as they live this way,” he says.
Hersley has been doing the same rounds of his photowalks for years, often returning to the same places, running into the same people. Maybe this is how he romances Dumaguete with such respect. “It’s a very magical kind of feeling I have when I’m photowalking around Dumaguete now,” he says. “I’m connected to my breathing. I’m connected to my steps. I’m connected to my camera, and I’m connected to the world around me.”