Compassion photojournalist Edwin Estioko breathes the same air as the children we serve in the Philippines. He has seen firsthand the transforming power of the local church in a child’s life—and, even after 20 years, he never tires of sharing about it.

Have you ever wondered how Compassion discovers the incredible stories of the children we serve? We sat down with Edwin to explore the journey of a Compassion story in the Philippines. Come behind the scenes and discover how our local photojournalists capture children’s stories thoughtfully, responsibly and with dignity.

Could you introduce yourself and share where you're from and where you're based at the moment?

Edwin: I am the senior photojournalist for Compassion in the Philippines. I'm based in the Philippines, and I live near the capital city of Manila. I get to visit the sponsored children and I get to spend time with them. If they're too young to be interviewed, I talk to the parents and the siblings or sometimes the entire family. I basically get to know them and chat with them. It doesn't sound like work at all—I also get to play with the kids.

The goal is to see how they are being blessed through Compassion and through the local church. So it's basically finding out or hearing their stories to see how they are being released from poverty in Jesus' name. It’s actually getting to see that the goal of Compassion is for real. The children are being released from poverty in Jesus’ name.

It's not really difficult writing the stories—they write themselves. It's amazing. We're not making things up. The kids tell their stories and we just pen them down.

And it's also not difficult taking the pictures because they smile a lot and you can see evidence that the Lord is working in their lives. So, it's a cool job! Being out there, getting to travel and being with the children, gathering content not only through interviews but also photography and videos. It's the complete package.

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How did you start working with Compassion?

Edwin: I've been doing this for a long time. 20 years—wow! Before Compassion, I was the writer and production manager for a leading Christian publisher here in the Philippines. Somehow, I just saw an ad for a Communication Specialist for Compassion, the Philippines.

I've been serving the children in my church since I was a young person and I've been going to these communities since I was a youth. I grew up near slum areas and our church—I grew up in a Baptist church—we ministered to the children in the community. And I remember going and teaching little children, bringing food, rainwater, gathering them, singing together. And yeah, I feel that the Lord really led me to this organisation. I never left it. And I don't intend to.

How has your life and work been impacted by COVID-19 in recent years?

Edwin: Like everybody in the world, we learned to stay at home full-time. Everything stopped. Workwise, I used to go to the churches 75 per cent of the time—I'm always out on the field, travelling around the country. I missed being with the churches, but at the same time, I'm grateful for the chance to just be at home with my own kids, to minister to my own family.

It also opened another avenue or dimension to the work that we do. I got to train churches through Zoom and teach them how to take good pictures, editorial quality pictures and how to engage with the kids. And they started taking pictures and many of them who I engaged with through this pandemic are very grateful for the opportunity, because all the stories I was able to send in since March 2020 came from the church staff themselves.

Just last month, I started traveling again. So there are good sides and bad sides to this pandemic. There are still several areas where I cannot visit due to pandemic restrictions. Yes, we have to wear masks. We have to show proof that we have been vaccinated. And we are still far from being what it used to be.

What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?

Edwin: Most of the stories begin with a request from Compassion US, Compassion Australia, Canada, UK, Korea. They would ask for stories tackling certain topics or focusing on certain children, issues or countries. Based on that request, I go through a list of churches. We have more than 300 church partners in the Philippines. My advantage in being here for so many years is that I know a lot of these churches and stories already. So, I go to these areas.

But some stories are based on my initiative. For example, I know there's an issue on child protection—I noticed that there's an ongoing problem here in the Philippines. I pitched this to Compassion and I get a reply saying, ‘Yes, go ahead.’ And that's an important issue [to cover and raise awareness].

We have over 300 church partners and all of them are doing a great job. So how do I choose stories? I'm not being corny or spiritualising things, but it's really through prayer. I believe that the Lord has been leading me to these stories.

I pray, “Lord, which way, which story? Which church can really provide a story that will impact the asking country and the sponsors?’”

And on the administration side, there's a lot to be done. Preparing for the trips, our safety, hotels. Because we don't go to tourist areas, we go to the places where there is danger, the poorest areas where there are criminals. So much prayer goes into it and coordination with the church partners. Compassion has partnership facilitators who [support the church partners] and live in the areas where our churches are located. I know those places, but these facilitators know them much better, so they help me out.

Sometimes I spend an entire day just traveling by bus, then by plane, then by boat or climbing mountains.

And when I get there, I get to know the church and everybody—it's really relational. You don't just go there and start interviewing. This is a ministry. This is relationship.

So I spend some time in the churches, I spend some time with the families and get to know everybody. And from there, I do the interviews and photography. I spend maybe a day at the church and another day with the family so that everybody gets comfortable and then go back for another day.

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You must sometimes find yourself connecting with children, families and staff about personal or sensitive topics. How do you build relationships and safe spaces for families to share in this way? What works well and what can be challenging?

Edwin: I believe that it is a best practice of Compassion that field reporters, photojournalists like me, are based in the field country. I am actually Filipino, so I know what's going on. I share the same experiences with the children and have the same skin colour. We speak the same language. So I'm very relatable. I know so many international organisations here in the country and I can see Westerners or foreigners coming over—we also do that sometimes with Compassion—but there's something special when people like me can interview them, so that's one advantage.

Another is that we are a faith-based organisation. So we are trusted by the people. They know that the interview will go to good use and they will not be exploited. This is for the ministry. And again, we have church partners in the area so we're not complete strangers. I remember the last interview I had with a vulnerable child, I made sure to visit her with the female pastor. Of course, it will be very difficult for her. I mean, I’m an older guy, you know, so I was with the female pastor and the conversation went well.

Another advantage, of course, is Compassion itself. People know Compassion. People in the area know who Compassion is, and they're actually very happy that someone from Compassion is coming to interview them. Especially in really, really remote areas. Next week, I'm going to a rural area and it's the first time that this church partner will be visited from somebody from the capital city. Wow! So it's easy being relatable and relational with them.

Do you have any language barriers with those that speak other dialects?

Edwin: Yeah, I believe we have hundreds of dialects [in the Philippines]. I can speak three. And if I can’t use those, I can just speak English. The local centre staff or volunteers act as translators.

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What do you wish supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty?

Edwin: I'd like to answer that specifically with the Filipino brand of poverty. I would like for sponsors or supporters in Australia to know that Filipinos are fun-loving people. We find ways to be happy. Despite everything that's going on, we are very resilient people. When you go to these communities, you can see evidence of hopelessness, risks of criminality and abuse, but there is no lack of smiling faces of happy people.

I'm saying this because I want to tell supporters that children and people in poverty also have something to share. This is something that I love about this ministry—we're building relationships. It's blessings going back and forth.

They can share genuine joy that is not based on material possessions. I really find the sponsorship program balances the world. People who have material possession can share that. But they may lack in other things like faith and simple joy. And that is what people here have. They may not have the comforts that other people do, but they can share genuine joy, despite the absence of material wealth. Personally, I'm also touched seeing the children. I am blessed seeing them happy and then having hope because of the sponsor.

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In your experience visiting child development centres and meeting sponsored children and their families, what impact does sponsorship have?

Edwin: It's a life-changer. It's for real. It's for real because I have friends and other ministries outside of Compassion and I can see the hopelessness. I can see churches that are not partners of Compassion struggling.

Compassion is not the answer. Compassion stands as a solution. I just want to make that clear. It’s our Saviour, Christ, who makes the difference. But our partners have an edge because of our benevolent and kind-hearted sponsors. And because of our effective ministry, our effective program, I can see how churches and families not being helped by Compassion struggle.

And then in contrast, I have seen sponsored children grow up and some of them are now professionals, pastors, visionaries, doctors.

You can get it from almost every graduate—how their lives have changed for the better. It's life changing. This is for real.

I saw a young lady on social media and she's really successful now. She has a business and I remember I interviewed her a few years ago. So I knew her and of course she remembers me too. She said she owes everything to the sponsor and to the program. These stories are everywhere.

What would you tell a supporter here in Australia who is hesitant about starting their first sponsorship with Compassion?

Edwin: I can tell them stories, lots and lots of stories. I know people who have gone through the program. Many of them are my friends now. I met them several years ago and they are now successful in life. They are also giving back. They do end up paying it forward. We now have an alumni organisation in the country and after the recent super typhoon, they gathered resources and they raised funds to help. So if a person in Australia is hesitating to start sponsorship, I would say, ‘don't hesitate!’ I can't stress it more. You know, it's for real.


Words and photography by Edwin Estioko, interview by Rachel Howlett.