Residents of the Philippines’ Thitu, a remote island in the contested waters of the South China Sea, face a unique set of challenges heightened by China’s assertive presence along its coast.

China claims Thitu, known locally as Pag-asa, as its own and is engaged in a years-long territorial dispute with the Philippines and other nearby countries. Currently, China’s vessels patrol Thitu, leaving island residents under near-constant surveillance.

Local fishermen have reported instances of harassment and cyanide fishing, both of which affect their livelihood. This adds to the demands of living on Thitu, where the topography renders it highly susceptible to the elements, making it difficult for most crops and vegetation to thrive. Additionally, a powerful typhoon in 2021 caused extensive damage to most of its structures, and many residents are still in the process of rebuilding to this day. Despite the hardship and growing security risks, the islanders are determined to stay, emphasizing their territorial ownership and resilience against external pressures.

To contend with rising tensions, the Philippines is adopting a nonmilitary strategy emphasizing civilian presence, infrastructure development, and tourism. This approach has turned the 255 civilians of Thitu into a symbol of Philippine resistance against the growing Chinese militia presence in the South China Sea.

Rosem Morton, a native Filipina, has been documenting Filipino fishing communities in the South China Sea since 2021.

Artist Bios

  • Rosem Morton

    Rosem Morton is a documentary photographer from the Philippines whose work focuses on daily life amidst gender, health, and racial adversity.

    As a National Geographic Explorer and an International Women’s Media Foundation Fellow, she explores issues from the effects of gender-based violence and the unheard stories of healthcare workers to the forgotten histories that have shaped Filipino culture and migration. She has written and photographed stories for National Geographic, The Washington Post, NPR, and CNN, among others. She has been recognized by World Press Photo 6×6 Talent, Pictures of the Year International, and The 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch. She has received the Leica Women Photo Award and the Visa d’or Daily Press Award.


  • Photoville


    Founded in 2011 in Brooklyn, NY, Photoville was built on the principles of addressing cultural equity and inclusion, which we are always striving for, by ensuring that the artists we exhibit are diverse in gender, class, and race.

    In pursuit of its mission, Photoville produces an annual, city-wide open air photography festival in New York City, a wide range of free educational community initiatives, and a nationwide program of public art exhibitions.

    By activating public spaces, amplifying visual storytellers, and creating unique and highly innovative exhibition and programming environments, we join the cause of nurturing a new lens of representation.

    Through creative partnerships with festivals, city agencies, and other nonprofit organizations, Photoville offers visual storytellers, educators, and students financial support, mentorship, and promotional & production resources, on a range of exhibition opportunities.

    For more information about Photoville visit,

Guardians of Thitu

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Featuring: Rosem Morton

Presented by: Photoville
  • Photoville


ON VIEW AT: PhotoCube 57

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The project was published on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, with additional reporting by Fruhlein Chrys Econar. It was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

This website was made possible thanks to the generous support and partnership of Photowings