To reach for the stars: The Photographs of Jelieta Walinski

Nov. 28, 2016

[Night in the Wilderness by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

[Night in the Wilderness by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – When she was younger, her father would always tell her that no matter how far she was from them, she would only have to look up to the night sky, and know that they were all looking at the same shimmering stars, and that the stars would lead her back to them. That is what drove Jelieta Walinsky to not only look at the stars for inspiration for her photographs, but to overcome the various hurdles between her and her dreams.

Jelieta Walinski, PhD is a multi-awarded professional photographer based in Minnesota, US who opened her photo exhibit on Monday, Nov.21 at the Ateneo De Davao University here. Her photographs were put on sale and all proceeds were given to the Kaugmaran Pagpagahum Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization who caters to the Ata-Manobo of Marilog district here.

Walinski’s photos have been published in the book Capture Minnesota, as well as in magazines like Western Update, Canon Europe, and Professional Photographers Magazine in UK. Some of her works can also be viewed online via Viewbug.

[Innocence by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

[Innocence by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

Humble Beginnings 

Jelieta, also known to her friends as Gigi, is a Mandaya from Davao Oriental. Now 48 years old, Walinski said that as a young girl, she would walk 14 kilometers to school and back everyday, because she saw education as the only way out of poverty. Walinski sad her 10 brothers did not see the point of school at an early age and gave it up to help her father in the farm, but she pushed on.

“Grade 4 pako, nag-working student nako. Mamaligya kog palwa sa lubi, uling, kung makahigayon magharvest ug mamaligya sad kog lemonsito para gyud makatiwas kog iskwela,” (I was already a working student when I was in the 4th grade. I would sell coconut fronds, charcoal, and from to time I would harvest our calamansi and sell them just to finish school) Walinski said.

Walinski’s hunger for education was strong. Upon seeing that it was impossible for her father to send her to school anymore, she wrote to Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of the United Kingdom. Walinski said she found Thatcher’s name habitually in a piece of newsprint used to package dried fish, and then concluded that Thatcher was probably a powerful person that could help her finish school.

To her surprise, Thatcher responded, and she received 14 pages of recommendation papers that she was directed to submit to the Embassy of Great Britain in Manila. However, as a poor farming family in Agusan, her father told her that they couldn’t afford to go to Manila. The desire to have an education was so strong in her that she even considered swimming the distance.

[Persed Meteor Shower by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

[Persed Meteor Shower by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

Tragedy would strike the young Walinski, when one rainy day, her father used the 14 page recommendation to fill the leaks in their roof.

“Didto namatay ang akong akong mga pangandoy nga naay makatabang sa akoa,” (There and then, my dreams of finishing school through sponsorship died,” Walinski recalls with amusement.

But that did not stop her. She continued to work odd jobs and was eventually able to study at the University of Southeastern Philippines in Davao City and eventually graduated to become a teacher in Catalunan Grande Elementary School. Later on, Walinski would also earn her Master’s degree and Doctorate, which the World Education Services would recognize as equivalent to a PhD in Education in 2010.

Sometime in 2009, she married her husband, James and moved to Minnesota where she studied Photography at the New York Institute of Photography. Walinski finished the the six-year course in four.


Before becoming a professional photographer in the US, Walinski also spent much of her time as an activist in Davao. Walinski said she joined the militant youth organization League of Filipino Students during her years as a college student at the University of Southeastern Philippines. This was during the martial law years.

“Marcos was not a hero. A lot of people died during the martial law,” Walinski said.

One of Walinski’s brothers, Jose Jr., who voiced his active opposition against environmental destruction, perished during the martial law years. He was shot to death by unidentified gunmen in Tagum City.

“That’s why Marcos should not have been buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani,” Walinski said.

Walinski also expressed her indignation at the continued militarization that the Lumad are facing, saying that as Mandaya herself, she experienced the same problems that the Lumad of today are facing.

Back in Agusan, Walinski shared that the military would bomb their communities during the 1980s in the guise of counter-insurgency. However, it later surfaced that the military were simply offloading their howitzer bombs in their arsenal to make way for new equipment in the next budget. Walinski also said that after the bombing, next would come the miners.

“Ang akong baruganan, ihunong ang militarization, ihunong ang mining, ihunong ang pagputol sa mga kahoy, kay mao na ang life sa Lumad” (Stop the militarization, stop the mining, stop cutting the trees, that is my stand), Walinski said.

Walinski later got involved in other groups, such as Gabriela, Bagong Alyansa Makabayan, and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers.

“Teachers are very hard to organize, but we always have to find a unity point with them to make alliances,” Walinski said.

Walinski recalls a particular incident where she stood up to her principal for her activism.

Then president Gloria Macapal Arroyo was in power, and which Walinski joined as a teacher. Fellow educator and former Gabriela Women’s Partylist representative Luz Ilagan was supposed to be giving the speech, but could not be found. Walinski rose to the challenge and took on the microphone, eventually giving the president a “failed grade” when it comes to addressing the needs of the Education sector. Her photo would be in the front page of national broadsheets the next day.

Walinski said her principal at the Catalunan Grande Elementary School scolded her for using the institution of teaching in her activism, and said she was inviting trouble. Walinski did not bow down to her superior, which had earned the respect of her colleagues. She had already earned the rank of a Master Teacher III, but was not given any administrative duties because of her earlier conflict with her principal.

This free time, she dedicated to organizing more teachers to the movement.

[Enjoying The Flowers by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

[Enjoying The Flowers by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]


Walinski’s break into mainstream recognition as a professional photographer started in the United States of America, but her practice started even during her years as youth activist.

“Mahilig talaga siyang kumuha ng litrato. Kumukuha yan ng litrato ng rally, instamatic pa gamit” (She really had a knack for taking pictures. She used to take pictures of protest rallies using an instamatic camera), said Davao Today photojournalist Medel Hernani, a veteran lens man based in Davao City who covered Mindanao stories for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Bureau.

Walinski also trained students in photojournalism during her practice as a teacher where she was able to produce national winners in the annual National Schools Press Conference.

“Kadtong 1996, mipalit ko sauna ug Sony nga point and shoot nga camera, ug mag sige ra ko ug take ug pictures. Teacher pako ani sa Catalunan Grande Elementary School” (In 1996, I bought my Sony point and shoot camera, and I would take a lot of pictures. I was still a teacher then in Catalunan Grande Elementary School), Walinski said.

“There is a lot to learn in photography,” Walinski said. “First, it teaches you patience.”

[To Reach The Stars by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

[To Reach The Stars by Jelieta Walinski, PhD]

Walinski’s work in astrophotography is not easy. One of her photographs displayed in her exhibit titled To Reach The Stars took her seven hours to take. Walinski used an intervalometer to take around 2000 photographs to capture the movement of the Earth in relation to the stars using a photo editing software. Walinski then composited herself reaching for the stars in the middle of the photo. The final result is of Walinski on top of her step ladder, reaching for a trail of stars in the middle of a field of Shasta Daisies.

“Astrophotography requires a lot of patience. It takes hours to produce a single photograph, and you have to be careful because there are other animals lurking in the night. Another thing to look out for is the fog. You have to wipe your lens from time to time or your image will be ruined,” Walinski shared.

“Photography also teaches you love of nature,” Walinski claims. While Walinski said she is not picky when it comes to her subjects, Walinski’s exhibit is rife with landscapes, often at the backdrop of starry skies. One of Walinski’s most awarded photographs is the Rock Garden, which won Grand Jury Award in Boulders Photo Contest, and was published in UK’s Professional Photographers magazine. Another crowd favorite is Enjoying the Flowers, which was a finalist in Little Birds Photo Contest, an international photo contest.

“Lastly, it teaches you to give back,” Walinski said.

Her hardships as a young working student in Agusan, as a human rights activist in her youth, and as a photographer in adulthood inspired her to give back to her community. Her exhibit, which closed on Nov. 26, was able to raise P 70,000.00 and was formally turned over to the Kaugmaran Pagpagahum  Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization catering to the indigenous peoples, particularly the Ata-Manobo children of Marilog District in Davao City.

Her final advise to young photographers: “Never stop dreaming, dream high, reach for the stars. Don’t be bothered by obstacles because they are there for you to become strong.”

“Reach for your own stars, never stop trying,” Walinski added. (

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