New Zealand photographer Danial Eriksen traveled 8,000 kilometers to photograph Smokey Mountain—a Filipino landfill that houses thousands of people. But once he started snapping pictures, government officials immediately sent him away.
With no back up plan, Danial headed to a nearby island, where he heard about the Cemeterio Del Norte, a graveyard previously explored by VICE Japan. The twist of the story? The graveyard is inhabited by people who pull bones from tombs to build "apartments." It's an entire slum community, populated by gang members, runaways, sex workers, and laborers who rank among the poorest of the world's poor.
In the midst of Manila's critical housing shortage, the cemetery has become a safe haven for many families seeking refuge from the streets. It's a crazy situation when living between rubbish and human remains seems like the better option.
For a week, Danial lived in Cemeterio Del Norte and befriended the locals. He watched women string washing lines between mausoleums, played cards with the elders, and watched cockfights with local families. Finally on the last day of his stay, he pulled out his camera. VICE spoke to Danial to hear what it's like to live among the dead.
VICE: Hey Danial, tell me how you ended up living in a graveyard after getting kicked off Smokey Mountain?
Daniel: Well, I kind of gave up and left to surf on an island called Siargo. One day I pulled up into a little bar and I heard someone about the cemetery slum in Manila. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. This graveyard community where people from the provinces come and move into as their home. So I went looking for it.
How would you describe the conditions for people living in Cemeterio Del Norte?
It took me a while to process it it. I hadn't been there ten minutes when I met a young 18-year-old boy named Genre. He rode this pink rundown scooter, and spoke broken English. I jumped on the back of his bike and he showed me around. I found out later that he'd been living on the street since he was seven years old.
Seeing people inside tombs looking out, kids jumping from tomb to tomb—it was pretty bizarre. You'd see the bones piled up in corners or put outside in rucksacks. No tags. That made me annoyed.
That seems crazy to me. Were the locals superstitious about interfering with the dead?
There's not really any superstition related to the dead anymore. No one was scared. It's so normal to them. An elder said to me, "The dead can't hurt you," and that really stuck with me. Having said that I think it bothers them that bones are taken from the tombs and not labeled.
Basically, the graveyard is still used by the Filipinos in the neighboring villages to bury the dead. That means they still have to pay rent to house bodies. So the bones are often moved and dumped if the rent has not been paid. In some of the bigger tombs I visited people were often sleeping on top of raised coffins which still had human skeletons in them.
Did it affect you, seeing all of those human remains?
It was so weird, but because all the people were around it was just an everyday thing. I'd have to say the most bizarre experience, or what moved me most was when I met a local cemetery resident at the neighborhood cockfighting ring. Cocks are treated like royalty, everyone gambles on them. He asked me to meet his family so I followed him to his family's compound. When we arrived I saw his tiny daughter in this little shack connected to the tombs, with bones and toys all around her. My heart melted.
It must have been bizarre to watch everyone live ordinary lives in these very extraordinary surroundings.
Definitely. I was also invited to an 80th birthday, which was in a cave of tombs. I think her husband was buried there and they had a birthday cake on top of his tomb. That was so spooky. All the tombs around were smashed open and empty. It genuinely felt like I was in another world.
Were the locals in Cemeterio Del Norte welcoming? Did anyone try to swindle you?
No not at all! They didn't even want to take my money! There's not a lot of crime in there, apparently. They seem to have built their own security system and everything. I think they're pretty grateful. There was real laughter, real happiness, and so much love.
What kind of perspective did that give you about your life back in New Zealand?
I mean that's why I do these projects; it makes me appreciate what I have back home. After a while I realized they didn't have much but they were very happy. I don't think it matters where you live or where you come from, as long as you have family and a strong community spirit that supports, we can be happy.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.