From the Field: Atom and Veejay

  • Aug
  • 31

Atom Araullo & Veejay Villafranca

Catching up with two journalists in between documenting humanitarian missions for the UNHCR.

Every year, across the world, millions of men, women and children are forced to flee their homes to escape conflict, persecution, and disaster. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) leads international action to support and protect these people in over 125 countries worldwide, including the Philippines.

Broadcast journalist and UNHCR High Profile Supporter Atom Araullo recently returned from a mission to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugee communities that have found safety in this country. To support the Jordanian government and the 667,000 Syrian refugees it has admitted since 2011, UNHCR manages the largest Refugee Registration Center in the Middle East and a dedicated Helpline. Reflecting on the generosity and compassion of the Jordanian people for the refugee community, Atom said that the mission to Jordan has given him hope as forced displacement worldwide continues to hit record numbers. “There’s a lot of insecurity, and sometimes we feel like the world is breaking apart. But when you go to places like these—where people from other countries are working together to help each other out, to help people who are in need, to help people who have nothing to their name—[I think] this is how things should be done. I choose to believe that this is the true nature of people, and not the other extreme. A little compassion goes a long way.”

Together with photojournalist Veejay Villafranca, who worked with Atom during the Jordan mission, the busy journalist sat with the GRID team and shared their insights on traveling to places affected by crisis and conflict, and how covering stories about communities have shaped their perspective as travelers and as storytellers.


After seven years of destruction and displacement, Syria remains the largest refugee crisis in the world. Stand #WithRefugees and with the people of Syria today. Your gift helps us provide critically-needed life-saving aid, protection, and solutions to the most vulnerable:


GRID: Tell us more about your experience working together on your mission for UNHCR. Have you worked together previously, what did you learn from your photojournalist and reporter partnership while working on and off the ground?

Atom Araullo: Veejay and I only started working together with the UNHCR when we went on my first mission to Iligan last year. Then the next time was this one in Jordan. I guess you could say we speak a common language, so it was very easy to work with Veejay. Parang he knows what it’s like to chase after news events. We talk about, obviously, his experiences covering trends when it comes to storytelling, the equipment he uses, adventures he’s gone on, going to different countries, and of course that compassion that always has to shine through from people who are covering the news—as storytellers.

Veejay Villafranca: The UNHCR mission with Atom was my first dive into the world of video. Yung first mission in Marawi was my first official video assignment. It really pushed me to the edge. I was like, “Shit, may high-profile reporter tapos important story,” so I really had to keep up with that discipline. The next one was in Jordan agad—an international assignment. So yeah, I learned a lot and got tips from Atom as well on working with video, making video documentaries, and also how it is to work with people on the ground.

GRID: As journalists and as storytellers, what are your insights on how we can shape the narratives that we share about the places we see and explore, the people we encounter, and the lives we impact in some way through this type of work?

Veejay Villafranca: I think it is our role and we need to emphasize our responsibility of reminding people that communities different from us exist and it is our responsibility to highlight that, in either a very technical way for a specific audience or a very day-in-a-life way. A day in the life of a Syrian refugee who walked thousands of kilometers to be able to find some safety.

Atom Araullo: I think as the world becomes more connected—you can even say hyperconnected—in this day and age, we have to make sure that it brings us together rather than pushes us apart. And one of the prevailing issues of our time is that a lot of people are getting displaced and it might be for many different reasons. In the course of doing my work as a reporter and now as a documentarist, I’ve seen how it [displacement] affects the lives of people and also how it affects their future. We can talk about displacement in the form of fighting, as we’ve seen in Mindanao; we can talk about displacement in the form of extreme weather events as what happened in Tacloban and surrounding provinces. Increasingly, displacement also happens to people who are persecuted and people who are affected adversely by climate change. And that’s the common denominator: people are moving, and the borders as they exist today sometimes makes it more difficult for them. Having gone through so much to actually start anew. As storytellers, as journalists, as writers, videographers—as communicators, our job is to tell people about what’s happening but also give them a human face so that the rest of the world knows that this can happen to you, to any of us. It’s not just the right thing to stay informed, it’s the morally correct thing to do.


You both travel for a living, basically. And when you travel as much and for as long as you both have, doing the kind of work you do, do you think your perspective on travel has changed? If it has, how so?

Atom: [It has changed] a lot throughout the years. Like anyone, when I was much younger, I was more interested in traveling to see exotic places: the Pyramids of Giza, the Angkor Wat, maybe go on grand vacations. Locally, we all wanted to go to Boracay, or see the Mayon volcano; it was much about seeing destinations. But, in the process of encountering and learning about different cultures, your perspective about travel ultimately also changes. I’m sure this has happened to Veejay, or to anyone who travels as often and as deeply. Look, I like taking pictures, and even the pictures I take whenever I travel has evolved so much over the years from just taking beautiful pictures to asking, what exactly is a beautiful picture? When we travel, you can try very hard to just take in the beautiful things—conventional, beautiful things—but it will exhaust you. It makes more sense to just accept everything as one big reality that’s interconnected. And this will also make your storytelling that much richer because I don’t think one has to focus only on the problems of the world necessarily, but you have to give it a bit of perspective by finding and showing both the good and the bad, and how both interact and affect each other, all that what makes a culture unique.

Veejay: For me, traveling was more of the familial tradition. My dad would always tell us how they would spend summers then later on, we’d do it also. Eventually, growing older and having a family, that tradition grows and grows. For me, after traveling both personally and for work, parang nagkaroon ng mas malalim na context. [I feel the] need to tell friends—acquaintances, colleagues, or family—why traveling to a certain place would be important. Or, I feel compelled to help them see travel as not just merely about sightseeing. We need to share what’s happening in these places. A good example now is what’s happening to Boracay. Many people have traveled there for the fantastic sunset without being aware of the surrounding issues, or what has happened to the island in the past decade. Same goes to other places in the world: Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, in the States, wherever. I think, for me, traveling should have a deeper intention, about more than just seeing fantastic images, I think the same goes with telling stories. You miss that opportunity of creating an imprint on a person, or actually moving a person away from their comfort zone to help them grow.

Atom: When I go to a new place, sure, of course, I want to see the sights. Maybe you’d want to see [these famous landmarks] once in your life, but then you start to research about the local communities in these places (and usually, many of these interesting communities are immigrant communities). You want to expand your perspective. And, in that sense, wala namang pilitan yun, eh. Kasi hindi mo naman puwedeng sabihin sa isang tao na, “A hindi, pag magpunta ka sa Paris, huwag ka magpunta sa Eiffel Tower lang, pumunta ka doon sa mga communities.” It has to be something you grow with, eh. I guess it’s different…for many different people who are at different stages in their life. But that’s just how I felt. That’s just how I changed over the years.


To put it candidly, are you still able to actually go on vacation? Meaning, are you able to turn off that “journalistic switch” in your brain when you go off on holiday, whether alone or with family?

Atom: Good question.

Veejay: My wife would say, “No, he can’t.” Kasi parang hindi ako mapakali. At the start of the trip, I’ll say, “I’m on vacation and I’m gonna wake up at 10AM, have breakfast at 12 noon”—but no, I’ll still end up waking up at 6AM. Mahirap, eh. There’s no turning it off.

Atom: Yeah, there’s no turning it off. As journalists, as storytellers, it’s automatic. In the same way that photographers—like Veejay, I’m sure—they see something and then they have an image in their mind. For storytellers, you go to a place and then there’s a story; you know that this would be a good story. And even as you try to relax, there is this instinct to dig a little deeper and it can get maddening to your travel buddies, but for me, parang tinanggap ko nalang. Ganoon na ako bumiyahe.

Veejay: For me, setting aside a big camera is such a liberating experience kasi parang wala akong trabaho today. Pero, I’ll still have my phone camera, or any other recording device, and I’ll still end up going—”Oh, there’s good light over there.”

Here at GRID, we’ve covered stories in places that are vulnerable to conflict, disaster, and displacement (such as Maguindanao, Lanao del Norte, Davao, Bohol, Tacloban, among others) and we understand the importance of telling these stories right—and how difficult that can be at times. With your experience of traveling and documenting the realities of various places across the world, what kind of stories do you think readers need to see more of?

Veejay: I think more than just suggesting what stories our readers or audiences should follow, I think we need to reevaluate our lenses—as media practitioners on how we tell the stories because for quite a long period of time, we’ve been using a lens maybe that is more centric to the big cities. Maybe Manila-centric. So I think now is the perfect time because of the availability of different platforms and devices to hear stories, directly by the storytellers from the ground. From the very people we cover: from the voices of Mindanaoans, from Visayans, from the voices of the Ifugaos, from the voices of different people displaced by typhoons, displaced by conflict. Instead of us asking them the questions that we think our readers would understand, why not let them tell their own stories first, and then we [as media] help in sharing it.

Atom: Yeah. I guess for me, the first thing I should say is to emphasize the need to tell stories about refugees and internally displaced—not just because nandito tayo sa UNHCR—but like I said earlier, displacement is a phenomenon that is becoming more serious. For the seventh year in a row, the number of displaced around the world has reached a new peak: 68.5 million people around the world. People who are displaced can have many different appearances. They can be on the margins of society, which we often see from stories in mainstream media, but they can also be people we can identify with, our readers can identify with, people who are educated, even professionals. I remember when the typhoon in Tacloban happened, in a perverted way it was like the great equalizer because everyone was reduced to their slippers, walking in the mud on the way to the airport; businessmen were there, media workers were there, even some government officials—they were all among the dirty sweaty masses. I think that we can certainly explore a little deeper how this phenomenon affects different communities in the Philippines because displacement happens in the Philippines all the time, all the time. And it has an impact on the culture of the place, and also the customs there, and you can also see inspiring stories from people who have embraced those who are in need.

But stories in general, especially when it comes to traveling or when it comes to exploring new destinations, I’m totally with Veejay. I guess we need to temper our tendencies of exoticizing new locations and looking at everything as another paradise—like another Boracay, where anyone can just escape to, and sit under coconut trees and drink mojitos. People actually live in these places and we have to always ask what the impact is on the local community, and the stories that they can tell to the rest of us as well.

Edited for clarity and concision.

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