Type “El Nido” into Google Images and in the results, you’ll see hundreds of pictures of turquoise water over white sand; cliffs capped with lush greenery, enclosing idyllic coves.
But, when Oleg Tolstoy visited the Philippines last year, he wasn’t interested in capturing the beautiful scenery of the islands of Palawan like many photographers before him. He was fascinated by something different entirely.
The drivers-for-hire in Tolstoy’s latest photo series, Trikes of El Nido, decorate their vehicles with rainbow LED lights in order to compete for business on the small island. Before nightfall, both the trikes and their drivers are quite unremarkable. “In the daytime, the trikes are just these tin shells,” Tolstoy remarks. But, as night falls on the streets of El Nido and the colours of the land and sea are lost to the night, the roads across the island become sites of manmade beauty, lit by pools of candy pink, beams of red and spots of blue.
“At night, the trikes suddenly all turn on,” says the photographer. “I saw the LEDs and thought, ‘Wow. I need to photograph this.’” Tolstoy offered his subjects the price of a ride so that they would pose for him. “The only trouble was that if you saw an interesting one further down the trike queue, you’d have to pay the drivers in front too.”
Curious about the strange custom of decoration, Tolstoy began to ask locals for some context. He found that LEDs had only recently been introduced to the island in 2016, but that most drivers had already decked out their trikes with the multi-coloured lights. He learned of an annual competition for the best trike of Palawan, where drivers-for-hire in El Nido and its surrounding islands competed for the honour of having the most lit trike. Tolstoy was lucky enough to meet the crowning champion and take his portrait for his series. “The guy with the green lights on his trike, in front of the sandbags, he won it last year.”
Before the arrival of LEDs to the island, drivers were dependant on graphics and bumper stickers to make their trikes stand out from the rest. “You get these really funny graphics, like references to films or bands,” says Tolstoy. “It’s like they’ve just looked through a manual, like in a tattoo shop, and chosen something random.”
The Palawan subjects are a far cry from the London taxi drivers Tolstoy spent time snapping for his 2015 series, Who’s Driving You? (“the trikes would seem completely kitsch if you saw them in London, and you can’t imagine the system we have here over there – you just can’t compare the two”). Though predominantly a portraitist, Tolstoy finds the human interest element of photography far more compelling than shooting landscapes.
“To me, the LED lit trikes are more interesting than something you can Google in five seconds,” he concludes. “It’s something that very few people are aware of or have seen before.”
** Photography: Oleg Tolstoy working in collaboration with Tessie Gaertner **
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Words by Niamh Leonard-Bedwell