The Face of Resilience - A Photo Essay of Noel Quintana

A visual B&W storytelling hour of Noel Quintana's story & his resilience against anti-Asian hate in the city he calls home.

Film Photo Essay: The Face of Resilience - A Portrait of Noel Quintana
"I can't imagine what you went through – I really can't. It's awful. I don't want this photo to be about that (the incident)."

It was the first time I met Noel, and we were alone in a small studio in Tribeca. The atmosphere was intimate but relaxed, poignant but buoyant.

Resilience.

Noel hadn't had a formal photo of him taken since the scar. The picture in the articles documenting this heinous assault was a dated image taken when he took the stage during one of the Anti-Asian Hate rallies in New York. Though a set of prints was taken of him after he was discharged from the hospital, those were solely intended to show the injury, not him.

How do we even begin to talk about such things without drowning in the void of heartbreak and anger? How do we find hope in these difficult conversations about a brutal reality in our society, nation, and city?

I moved from a small, predominantly white Midwestern town to New York City to find some sense of belongingness–to no longer feel outnumbered, to relate, to pursue my dreams, and to reconnect with my culture. But not even a month after I arrived, I found Noel's story–how he was slashed across the face during his 8 AM commute.

I've had my fair share of racist encounters, but upon reading that news in a Manhattan cafe, a more dark and inescapable reality settled in.

Photos Taken on Mamiya RB67 & Portra 400

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Noel had a tenderness about him, an innocent optimism you wouldn't mistake to come from someone who not only experienced such a violent crime but also still carried the scar it left him.

"How long were you in the hospital?"

"Just overnight."

In February 2021, the pandemic was still ravaging New York City, and it was on this very same L train, the same one I take to work every day, that Noel encountered his perpetrator. As I loaded the film into my medium format camera, I encouraged Noel to feel in control of the narrative – to be able to discuss or refuse any topic of conversation, as this shoot was for him, not for myself.

Noel is usually outgoing — cherishes the joys of spring, loves the beach, and frequents parks and zoos during summertime. However, like the rest, he had been forced to spend much more at home during the pandemic.

Ever since the attack, Noel has steered clear of the subway. He lives in Brooklyn but works in Harlem; he takes four buses daily, which equals a two-hour commute. He was eventually transferred to Brooklyn, which reduced his commute to an hour. He applied for an Access-A-Ride, but was denied at first; with the help of lawyers, he was approved for a limited time.

He arrived at our shoot through Access-A-Ride.

After reading the news, I wasn't immediately on the hunt for an interview with Noel. Yet, several weeks later, I chanced upon a Facebook group advocating self-defense classes for Asian Americans in New York City. The organizer was a Filipino priest who was acquainted with Noel. Once I reached out and discovered that the priest and I were initially from the same island and town. He generously welcomed me and shared his knowledge of Noel.

Noel was from Quezon City, located in the northern islands of the Philippines, while I was from Iloilo City, located on the island of Panay in the Central region. Noel worked for an agricultural company back in the Philippines, and they had a warehouse in Iloilo City. He used to go there every year for inventory work. He frequented Tatoy's, a staple restaurant on my island's coast. We both had fond memories of the place; we mainly talked about our love for seafood. Biscocho House, a renowned bakery from my hometown, was also reminisced. We spoke of our favorite Filipino food and the delicacies we missed the most; we reminisced about pancit Molo–a noodle dish from the town of Molo, which wasn't far from where I grew up–as well as palabok and Jollibee.

Our conversations were a gentle reminder that the world is a small place.

Noel's love affair with the Big Apple began in 1999 when he first visited the iconic Twin Towers and knew this bustling city would one day be his home. His sister, who currently lives in Florida, often took him to explore the city and discover all it offers. Now, Noel is a certified New Yorker, a true local who can provide an insider's insight into the best places to find Filipino food, groceries, parties, and restaurant joints, such as Max's and Chow King, in New Jersey.

Noel has forged a life in this beautiful metropolis full of big dreams and aspirations. He is the epitome of a true New Yorker, embodying the bold and adventurous spirit of the city.

Noel still has relatives dispersed among the Philippines.

"When I talked to them, they were strong," he said after I asked how they reacted when they found out about the attack. His family, who had been peacefully sleeping, were abruptly awakened in the dead of night by American media outlets, notifying them of Noel's admittance to the ER.

Not only did his sister frantically phone multiple doctors, but she relentlessly searched for a trustworthy plastic surgeon to mask the scar's permanence. Yet, despite her efforts, the scar naturally mended on its own— the face of resilience.

After the attack, Noel's mornings were filled with dread as he turned on the morning news, learning that similar attacks had happened since his own. His psychiatrist urged him to start facing his trauma head-on by taking walks and using the subway again. The world had taken a different shape, and the once familiar places seemed treacherous.

His psychiatrist reassured him that his attack was random and wouldn't happen again - except it did. Two years prior, he had been walking down the street in Harlem when he was punched in the right eye, knocked to the floor, and winded. This attack, however, did not make the news. The police merely took Noel's statement and requested he signs an affidavit.

As we stood in solemn contemplation, the gravity of our situation became apparent. We searched for words to articulate how we felt about our world, its violent tendencies, its cruelty towards our community, and the unjust terms we are often left to burden.

"The one who did this, I don't think he had mental issues," he started, pointing at his scar. "He knew what he was doing because it was timed at the train's stop. In fact, it (happened) inside the train. So when the train stopped, he did it and walked outside."

Despite the perpetrator being behind bars when I captured Noel's photos, he was not arrested immediately; only after a few days was he apprehended for taking part in a robbery. He pleaded guilty to the theft but refused to accept culpability for his actions against Noel. His lawyer even made a plea to have the motion dismissed.

While entirely tragic and unacceptable, the most lamentable part of Noel's story is when no one dared help him.

Despite the severity of his wounds, he was left to suffer in solitude.

After the initial slash, his cheeks were profusely wounded while his hands were the only forte between his blood and the floor, yet nobody on the train dared to step up or call 911.

Once Noel stepped out of the door and onto the platform, no passengers or janitors raised in his defense.

It took another five minutes until someone finally called 911 and another ten for the cops to get there.

It was difficult not to raise the question about Trump's role in the frequency of all these attacks. From his statements and verbiage during the pandemic, such as calling it the Kung Flu/Chinese Virus, this was thought present in the minds of every Asian American.

"Somehow, it does, but I don't blame him all the time because most of the problems lie in the city itself," I asked him to elaborate. He revealed a deeper problem: there was no real action to keep the people in the city safe, help unhoused people, or minimize crimes in the subway.

"They know it's been a problem, but they're not doing anything. They increased police visibility in the subway but only put them in areas near Times Square or other gentrified, touristy neighborhoods."

I couldn't help but react and point out that despite this, Michelle Go still lost her life after being pushed off into the tracks in a subway station by Times Square. Noel quickly agreed.

"They strategically put the enforcement in places that bring revenue to the city," he went on. "A week later, there was a stabbing in Brooklyn, in Far Rockaway, on different days but with the same perpetrator — how could that happen, and in the same station?"

Noel isn't someone who speaks harsh words with a brassy voice; he expresses his thoughts with a gentle voice and profound stoicism.

He recalled an ex-Governor Cuomo statement: "I'm afraid of the subway: 'I don't even let my children go in New York City.' I said, even the governor is afraid of getting into the subway, going to the subway — and he has bodyguards! What about me, who has none?"

He spoke with an astonishingly calm and jovial air, despite the terrible nature of his words, like we were venting over dinner. In reality, there was a deep sorrow behind his words. His demeanor was so pleasant one could hardly believe the tragedy he described. His strength and resilience to remain so positive amidst such pain were remarkable.

"Yes, Trump has something to do with it, but let's not just blame one person." It's more nuanced than a single person; Noel believed that a collective is still responsible for the city's demise.

Multiple forces are at play — white supremacy was a pervasive force that had cast its shadow across the country and worldwide. We saw its insidious influence everywhere - in the Midwest, California, and New York. But this was not solely a problem of white America – Noel astutely noted that even people of color could be guilty of it, and this was true of the perpetrators in New York City.

And while we must not ignore the impact of white supremacy on vulnerable communities, it's also vital to consider the underlying mental health problems that have plagued the city.

Noel approached this notion with remarkable, unwavering optimism.

Noel now works for an organization that helps unhoused and mentally challenged persons. He has since made various public appearances, speaking on the incident and answering questions from news outlets in the Philippines. With such a powerful platform, not only has Noel been able to share his story- but he has been able to influence many lives positively.

"Most of the victims don't talk, and that's the reason why they're asking (for interviews) because I'm the only one (who's willing to talk)."

There was a whiff of hope in Noel's voice — and not just some concocted bliss to mask the horrors and pain, despite the scar, his new-founded defenses in public, and the phobia of subway stations.

"Maybe this happened so that I… there's a purpose for it. And it became my advocacy, and every time they ask for an interview, I say yes because nobody wants to talk."

Despite the violence and its frequency, he remained optimistic. He shared his opinions on how the issues should be resolved with a strong voice yet still retained an admirable degree of composure. It's a quality that is not often seen, even among the most esteemed people.