Review of “Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines” by Mark Rice

By JPaul S. Manzanilla

[First published] Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, Volume 65, Number 4, December 2017, pp. 546-550 (Review)
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/phs.2017.0042

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Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015. 270 pages.

Before Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands was published, the only book-length study of American colonial photographs of the Philippines was Benito Vergara Jr.’s Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th-Century Philippines (University of the Philippines Press, 1995). Vergara showed how the country was “visually possessed” by means of travel pictures and made to represent the colonial narrative of progress through the use of before-and-after images in official photography of the state. While
Displaying Filipinos tackled official and travel photography of the early years of American rule, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands focuses on a huge photographic collection of one of the most important personalities of US imperial rule: that of zoologist, ethnologist, public official, and entrepreneur Dean Conant Worcester.

Worcester was an exceptional person of his time. He had visited the Philippines while it was still a Spanish territory, collecting specimens as part of a scientific expedition. When the question of the country’s future was being debated and later on when it became a laboratory of colonial rule, he shared his knowledge with American officials, a knowledge he later fashioned as “expertise.” Much of this expertise was derived from his prolific production—and strategic use—of photographs. Readers should note at the outset that not all photographs were taken by Worcester himself; the man, in fact, asserted authenticity of pictures from the “scientific and governmental credentials” of the photographers (42).

“Establishing the Archive,” the first chapter, leads us to the primary sources of the author’s study. These voluminous documents are not innocent products of Worcester’s documentary zeal; they are object lessons for understanding some of the prevailing technological, scientific, artistic, and political imperatives of the period. It is telling that Worcester did not submit to the camera’s presumably truthful nature; he believed that it “can be made to tell the truth” (2), reminding us of the agency that lies outside the medium and debunking an idealist conception of truth as something that only has to be told. He communicated the truth of and about his subjects—the Philippines and its people—through skillful utilization of the camera, its attendant photographic processes, and the subsequent ways and means of displaying the “objective” pictures to various peoples. His use of photographic technologies, developments of which he was so attentive to and which he maximized, buttressed the special knowledge of the Philippines that Worcester claimed. On this point, it is important to consider the epistemological implications of the ontological condition of photography, which here does not simply mean the physical snapshot but also the procedures of its production and most importantly the materiality of its exhibition, display, and circulation—indeed, its constitution as a “photography complex,” according to historian James Hevia.

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The second chapter tackles what may be considered the most observable feature of Worcester’s photographic subjects: the Filipinos’ states of nakedness and nudity. Rice uses the descriptions “dressed” and “undressed” to highlight the “symbolic uses of clothing as markers of savagery and civilization” (48). Naked and partially covered bodies are dense images that reveal the photographer’s dispositions to capture them and the eventual reader’s prejudices in how to see them. We all know that they were not seen
for “what they were,” but according to certain assumptions of how human beings should appear and what “proper” citizens of a modern nation and state should look like. Because being photographed is being controlled, photographed bodies were posed according to the visual predilections of the photographer. The erotics of capture and display, the pedagogical mission to appraise Filipino natives as being closer to African Americans and even label some of them as the “missing link” to man’s primate ancestor (52), and the close scrutiny of the human bodies and their parts to the point of scientific “exactitude” are practices that demonstrate that knowing the people of America’s first colony entails subjugating others in the process of enlightening Americans at home. And Rice exposes a lie. The famous and frequently reproduced Igorot sequence presenting a three-picture set of a man “gradually advancing” from being a partially clothed and slouching “wild” man to an upright and formally clothed member of the Philippine
Constabulary was only fabricated to convince fellow Americans and the world of the beneficial effects of colonialism. The pictures were not taken in successive years: the clothing in the second photograph was not related to the Constabulary; and the three men were not the same person! Only the first two men are the same person, in fact; he was Don Francisco Muro, a noble man of the Bontoc ethnolinguistic group who was able to negotiate with the Americans (80).

Chapter 3 deals with Worcester’s representation of the Philippines to a wider audience through the mass-circulated and very popular National Geographic Magazine. Rice argues that “Worcester was anything but a marginal figure in that magazine’s emergence as a major publication in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Worcester’s photographs were at the very center of the entwined histories of National Geographic and American
colonialism” (95). Abundant with pictures, his articles published from 1911 to 1913 became pivotal in representing the islands to the world. They enabled images of a previous terra incognita, i.e., the Philippines, to enter the homes of millions, rendering the colony a visual personal possession. His visual taste was the determining factor for graphically illustrating the country. Rice details how Worcester performed this process by highlighting the diversity and “savagery” of its peoples and their “progress” during American rule, publishing bare-breasted women that lured more viewers (hence, the
perception of the magazine as almost pornographic), and sharing 1903 census photographs that enabled scrutiny of morphological features and facilitated comparison among peoples, races, and nations. The reproductive power of photography hence popularized the twin ideals of “commercial expansion” and “moral tutelage” (112). Worcester’s depictions verged on the messianic, submitting a view that non-Christian Filipinos, to be saved, depended on him and American tutelage.

Rice’s penultimate chapter discusses how Worcester brought his ethnographic documentary campaign to a special audience that would affect perceptions of and decisions on US governance of the country. The indefatigable Worcester delivered dozens of lectures at civic gatherings in different parts of the US to shape public opinion in favor of continuing colonization. He contrasted the different stages of development of ethnic
groups and therefore stressed their heterogeneity and the absence of a Filipino people or nation, and cleverly utilized still images to depict “savage” peoples and motion picture to emphasize developing subjects of empire. He earned huge sums of money in the process. In the last chapter, the author pursues how Worcester’s photographic projects effected “very real consequences” with “distinct political value” (184) when he served as a resource speaker at hearings conducted by the US Senate Committee on the Philippines, finally resulting in the passage of the Jones Act or Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916, which did not have any provision on the definite time of Philippine independence. We learn then that Philippine sovereignty—or its deferment or negation—was anchored on a distinct visual production of the nation. The hermeneutic circle of Worcester’s photographic project was now coming to a full close. From his participation in ethnological work in the last decades of the nineteenth century to his role as an expert detailing the conditions of the islands, Worcester went on to serve as the country’s first Secretary of the Interior (1901–1913), politically governing the peoples he studied and (mis)represented. He ended his career as a successful businessman exploiting the
riches of their territories.

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All throughout his work, Rice belies claims of photographic transparency, objectivity, truthfulness, naturalness, and “unmediatedness” when he points out how Worcester: slyly employed captions to profess representativeness of persons as types and impart particular truths about their social and cultural maturity; used the same photos for different objectives; muddled identities, times, and dates; applied focus, distance, color, cropping, and framing to mean differently; and juxtaposed images to evoke “contrasts” among various groups of peoples within the country and between Filipinos and Americans. The book comes at a time when the archives of US imperial rule are inexhaustibly being read to understand how the colonial endeavor was implemented and ferociously defended through the ways native subjects were represented.

A number of recent works in Philippine studies carried out critiques of ideology by using the tropes of “dreaming” and “fantasy” as an approach to understand the symbolic production of the racial, class, and gender Other. Yet a major weakness of the book is the absence of an explanation for the conceptual underpinnings of the author’s term “fantasy islands.” Was the archipelago a projection of colonial desires of an other place and time, unbelievably utopian and thus too “unreal” that it had to be produced through the realist medium of photographs? Or was the tropical colony too (negatively) different that it had to be politically—and photographically—conquered, governed, and assimilated, thereby rendering its otherness a vanishing one, but memorialized in pictures? The necessity of contrivance directs us to the material form and practice of photography, on the one hand, and the subliminal operations of fantasy, on the other, but the author has to carefully connect the two.

Scholars, particularly of history and anthropology, American and empire studies, history of photography and visual culture, and Philippine studies, will benefit from reading this book. Tracing the movement of photographs from the field to government documents, newspapers, magazines, social halls, and on to the archives, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands shows us how the picturing of native subjects is a tenacious effort to know, and enforce power upon, a seemingly irredeemable, because intractable, colonized.

JPaul S. Manzanilla
Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore
<jpaulmanzanilla@u.nus.edu>

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Art Fair Philippines 2018 Photography Showcase

By A.g. De Mesa

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For the first time, Art Fair Philippines 2018 (1 to 4 March) dedicates an entire section (and a day of talks) to photography. It is an excellent showcase of the young and old, from contemporary to conceptual, from the journalistic to the artistic. Placed in the spotlight for the first time in recent years, it has the daunting task of defending its place in the Philippines where in some circles, photography is still being doubted as art. It’s sad, but for it to grow, it needs to prove itself. It more than justifies its place here at the fair, but there is still so much more to be done.

The Exhibitions

We start with the show presented by the International Center of Photography (ICP), showcasing the photographs of Arthur Fellig (or Weegee) — the 1920s photographer who hunted the night streets of New York. He was always on the lookout for the next newsworthy photograph.

His subjects range from crime scenes, celebrities, and even people inside cinemas. The use of flash is usually frowned upon in modern photojournalism but Weegee was from a different era. Without any hesitation, he blasted his flash on anything that was worth photographing.

You will weave around the pillars where the frames are displayed as if emulating Weegee’s movements while photographing the night. The light of his flash was harsh and unforgiving. This was a blunt, possibly reckless approach, but Weegee knew what he needed to do to get the pictures that he wanted.

Next up is Neil Oshima’s Kin. From a distance, you will see the distinct black-and-white portraits of the Austronesian tribes of Southern Mindanao, most notably those of the B’laan people. I admit I had no idea that the B’laan existed, but that’s the thing about photography, especially in the heyday of Life magazine and National Geographic: it can (and to an extent, still does) transport a person to another place. The standout pieces are the portraits shot against a dark backdrop — a motif that we will revisit later.

German publisher Steidl Verlag’s booth is on the opposite side. The publisher brought in a few photo books from the region, the highlight of which is Jake Verzosa’s The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga. I have already written about that work (together with Geloy Concepcion’s Reyna Delas Flores: Manila’s Golden Gays) over here. With Verzosa’s prints on the wall, the audience are able to compare them with the way they are presented through the intimacy of his photo book published by Steidl.

Silverlens, as always, puts up a good show. The gallery has been focusing on photography for a long time.

It’s always nice to see one of my favorites, Johann Espiritu, being featured here. His multi-exposed/layered photographs of Japanese vending machines from Cy Près elevate the supposedly mundane to the extraordinary. Frank Callaghan’s Search/Night is also featured. Consisting of photographs of the coast lit by a lighthouse not present in the frame, the beam of light divides the sea and the sky. Wawi Navarozza’s Medusa focuses on the material of marble and how its dust imprints the land and people who work with it. These three works showcase the possibilities of the camera: Espiritu’s manipulation of the image, Callaghan’s dance with light, and Navarroza’s capturing of space.

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Photographs of Teodulo Protomartir

Silverlens also presented Teodulo Protomartir’s work. The discovery of Protomartir’s photographs by Rosauro “Direk Uro” Dela Cruz represents one of the most important finds in tracing photography’s history in the Philippines. Protomartir’s images of the post-WWII rubble of Manila may seem fairly simple in today’s eyes but his intent was crucial. It reminds us of the basis of photography: A camera in hand, a photographer willing to witness and see, leading to the formation of an object through his/her action.

Eduardo Masferre’s work is also featured at the fair. He is one of the most important names in Philippine photography. His photographs of the Kankanay-ey are playful, with their smiles ever present. Their curiosity at the camera (appearing up-close in the photographs) gives credence that the tribe had allowed it to be present in their lives.

There are rumors that on the first day of the fair, all his photographs were sold to a collector. On one hand, it is unfortunate if these prints dwell in someone’s private collection, locked up and hidden. But it is also a good sign that there is interest in the market. I can’t seem to make a conclusion for now. Either way, the presence of Masferre’s work in this showcase is absolutely crucial.

Next up is, in my opinion, the most powerful exhibition at the fair, Everyday Impunity’s Ang Walang Pangalan (“Those with No Names”). Curated by Erwin Romulo, the exhibit showcases Carlo Gabuco’s coverage of the drug war. An entire wall is filled with desaturated images of the dead, the wailing, and the artifacts left behind.

It is an extensive look at the damage of this war. By being desaturated, these images provide a respectful view of the victims while not forgetting the craft and authorship in photography. As a viewer, this quickly triggered a conflicted thought: “How can these beautiful images be derived from something so devastating?”

The addition of Juan Miguel Sobrepeña’s haunting music, Mark Laccay’s interrogation room-style lighting design, and the voice of young Christine retelling the story of her father’s death add to the atmosphere of the space.

The centerpiece of this hall is a blue armchair with a bullet hole — the very same armchair where Christine’s father was shot and killed. As you sit on the chair, a red laser will be directed at your chest, tracing the trajectory of the bullet. On the wall behind the chair, in an unassuming ziplock pack, you will find an actual bullet casing from the scene. As you exit the space, you will be left with the image of the couch — an object so commonplace and simple but the site of an unimaginable tragedy.

The photographs are strong but the message is further augmented by the design and installation of the show. This exhibition is not meant to scare, but to remind the audience of the human cost of this war on drugs.

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Provocations: Philippine Documentary Photography, curated by Neil Oshima and Angela Shaw, deserves a post of its own. It presents the tradition of documentary photography in the Philippines. The diversity and level of the works can be easily discerned: Tommy Hafalla’s ethnographic photographs of the Cordillera from decades past; Alex Baluyut’s visual reflections of Mindanao; Kat Palasi’s documentation of her Ibaloy roots; Boy Yniguez’s chronicling of the changing face of Baguio; Jose Enrique Soriano’s photographs of Mandaluyong Mental Hospital; Nana Buxani’s photographs of the city jail.

Young and mid-career photographers are also featured: Geloy Concepcion’s portraits of Metro Manila’s Golden Gays; Francisco Guerrero’s portraits of people whom he met in his travels around the country; RJ Fernandez and her ethereal photographs of mining sites; Jes Aznar’s frontline photographs of the war in Mindanao; Veejay Villafranca’s images of the impact of environmental disasters (from his recently published photo book, Signos).

And finally, the quirky and the curious: Kawayan De Guia’s experimental approach to personal documentary; Marta Lovina’s presentation of a photo story using only objects.

The details in Provocations succeed in engaging the audience. Framing Geloy Concepcion’s photographs to evoke the Polaroid adds to the nostalgia, as if to remind us of something we once had in the past. The works of Nana Buxani and Kat Palasi feature handwritten exhibition notes. RJ Fernandez’s Dusseldorf School-approach turns the destructive into something beautiful. Veejay Villafranca’s high-contrast black-and-white images emphasize the damage of the storms. The use of the black backdrop recurs in the works of Neil Oshima, Tommy Hafalla, and Francisco Guerrero.

The recurrence of this motif is due to the simple “rule” of documentary photography: It’s not about the photographer, it’s about the person/event/objects being photographed. By removing all semblance of color, the focus is solely on the subject. One may suggest that this is about the former colony looking for what was lost to the colonizers and other academic ideas.

I can’t help but agree with the decision to title the show, Provocations. The root word ‘provoke’ is already a signature to fans of Japanese photography while in this case, Oshima and Shaw are inciting the audience to look deeper into the pictures and the issues that they explore.

Last but not the least, the Art Fair also presented a selection from the Julius Baer collection. Most notable is Julian Charriere’s Polygon XXI — a shot of nuclear wasteland exposed through thermonuclear strata and printed on baryta paper, resulting in a visually arresting image that perfectly marries message and execution.

Sadly, this image was mostly used as a “selfie” background at the fair, a testament to the visual impact of the photograph. I hope the irony is not lost on those who took the selfies.

The placement of the Julius Baer Collection as the last exhibit suggests to me a future that we can aspire. I can confidently say that the Philippine works are on par here, based on the acclaim that our photographers received, but we also need to bring our audience with us on this journey.

The Talks

The talks on photography took place on 4 March 2018. The day started with ICP collections manager James Kopp introducing their collection and philosophy, while Raffy Lerma and Ezra Acayan shared stories of the night shift photographers documenting the war on drugs in the Philippines.

Lerma gained notoriety for the ‘Pieta’ photo, which went viral and irked the president. Acayan is one of the youngest and most talented photographers working the night shift. It was a heavy and emotional talk. Members of the audience were shedding tears and yearning for solutions. I already follow their works consistently, but seeing all the violence and death during the talk left me empty and hopeless. I had to lie down on the roof-top parking lot for a moment to look at the sky and breathe.

This is the challenge of looking at these works. How do you find critical distance to a subject matter so heavy that it has burdened the photographers emotionally and physically? It has already compromised the capacity of those who are convinced about the power of photography. What about others whom we are trying to educate about the medium and this particular issue? This conversation needs to begin as these images are not just about the war on drugs. As Lerma puts it, this represents the frontline of the war for Filipino morality.

We can see that the old ways of presenting photography are no longer working as before. Distrust against the digital platform and the discrediting of news outlets are taking their toll. Maybe a new approach is needed. Maybe the pictures and those who create and curate them must believe that their work can help change the world. Perhaps it’s as simple as having that uncomfortable conversation with your family or friends and sharing these pictures as a straightforward proof that no matter what the context is, people are dying, justice is not being served, and this is cause for our greatest concern.

The next two talks take the form of conversations amongst the Philippine artists featured in the different photo exhibitions. As the photographers discussed their works and shared their concerns, members of the audience poked and prodded the proceedings. I think one thing is clear: Philippine photography is finally confronting itself.

The issues are bursting at the seams. This is one of the rare occasions where everyone who is/was involved or has/had made a major contribution to Philippine photography can be found gathered in a single room. Gallerists asked about the economics and marketability of photography. The academe questioned our lack of photographic identity. This prompted the photographers outside of Manila to ask how we can properly represent indigenous cultures and works outside the capital, which led to another discussion on why the photography community has been divided into cliques like the ‘art folks’ or the ‘photojourns’, for instance.

Someone from the audience inquired as to where we can find photographic archives of those who are in the ‘Philippine Photography’s Pantheon’. There are also remarks on how this lack of identity and archiving has prompted the young photographers to turn to Instagram influencers with millions of followers instead of what the art establishment offers. This raises the question of how to engage an ever-distracted audience.

The discussions prompted me to ask a simple question: Given all these points, what comes next? Or more importantly, what do we need to do?

How I wish the day could have gone on longer. How I wish more people were there. How I wish those who have something negative to say about the fair were present to issue their criticisms. How I wish your typical hobbyist or aspiring young photographer who wants to make it big on Instagram was there. How I wish the marketing departments of camera companies in the Philippines were there.

There are many questions I wanted to ask and many more I want to be answered: everything from the money trail behind the purchase of photographic works to where the buyers will store their artworks, from the human capital involved in being part of the Philippine photography’s infrastructure to how marketing departments of camera companies are shaping impressions about the medium.

Yet, like any other discussion about saving the world, you can’t do it in one sitting. The discussions are a good start. As talk moderator Angela Velasco Shaw puts it: “Ask yourself now, what can you do to contribute to photography?”

To no one’s surprise, it all boils down to doing the work. Learn from the names we look up to by helping them with their archives. Start your series with a critical approach. Publish your book. Write something on that work you have seen. Start on your research. Make that letter to the gallery. Start that uncomfortable conversation with your family or friends about EJK [extrajudicial killings] and other issues. Curate your show. Demand more from your gallery. Demand more from your audience. Execute and be critical of your own work and those of others. What else can we do but put in the work?

Reflections

A single event or initiative will not fix everything. It seems like a daunting feat but as Filipinos, we will do it our way; get our hands dirty and put in the muscle. Maybe when we do the work we’ll just wake up and see something different. Who knows? Maybe on the next occasion, we will finally see a celebration of Philippine photography and how it is making its mark on the global stage.

With the way things are, we’re not there yet but we’ll get there. I know we’ll get there.

[Ed: This review is first published on http://readingphotographs.asia/post/171894095792/artfair2018, a photography site managed by A.g. De Mesa in Manila. I have slightly edited the text for clarity.]

 

Dreaming in Light Leaks: Reflections on a Quasi Experimental Research and Mentoring Programme with Underprivileged Teenagers in Lengkok Bahru, Singapore (2016)

By Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer and Sim Jui Liang

[Editor’s note: Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer is a sociologist with an interest in race, religion, public policy and migration. Sim Jui Liang is a Research Associate (Special Project) at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.]

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Article Summary

In 2014, a group of friends started mentoring nine underprivileged teenagers who lived in public rental housing in Singapore. We started by introducing them to the basics of photography. The idea was for these teenagers to capture what they felt were important elements in their neighbourhood of Lengkok Bahru and their lives, rather than having us capture what we imagined to be representative of life in a public rental neighbourhood. We distributed film cameras to the teenagers and deliberately gave them ambiguous, open themes that they were supposed to creatively interpret and capture on film. They were: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. Five months in, we collected over 400 photos, some of which were eventually used in two public exhibitions at SCAPE, a non-profit youth organisation, and Artistry Café in 2015. In the text below, we reflect on the issue of representation in structuring photography programmes for underprivileged groups as well as the politics which undergirds the curation of a photography exhibition.

Inequality, Representation and Photography

Photographic representations do not just shape people’s perceptions of a subject but also affect the subject too. For instance, photographers’ expectations of poverty often lead them to ‘force the frame’, pushing photographic subjects to behave or appear in accordance to pre-conceived notions of what poverty entails. But some of these ‘subjects’ contest such framings of despair, even negotiating for greater involvement in representing themselves in photographs. Some photographers have in fact collaborated with them.

The very idea of incorporating photography into our quasi academic inquiry of class inequality was inspired by this turn in photography to include the ‘subjects’ as participants in the process of constructing the narrative. The main idea was to upend the inherent unequal dynamics in the practice of photography and to grant agency to the human constituents of photographic images. To that end, rather than capturing subjects in their ‘natural’ environment or constructing a narrative to represent them, the photographer facilitates the shaping of how they wish to be presented to the public either through co-organising an exhibition or giving them cameras to take their own photos, which was something we did for this project.

In this sense, we appear to be ignoring the photographers’ right to project their own interpretations of what they feel to be relevant in their artistic field. In fact, some would argue that this very process of interpreting and creating a narrative is what defines photography as a craft. It is indeed a valid concern. However, we feel that the whole poverty angle has been grossly overplayed, even fetishised to a point where such images do a disservice to not just the people they’re supposed to represent but also to the discourse on inequality. We view the shift in how photography is being practised – especially when dealing with vulnerable subjects – as an important step in quelling the expropriation of photographic narratives which, more often than not, lead to crass poverty porn. Ultimately, we feel that the answer to the question ‘who stands to gain from the production of images?’ should somehow address the issues raised by our young collaborators from Lengkok Bahru and by this, we don’t just mean parroting the clichéd ‘raising awareness’ argument. Beyond that, we believe that the programme should at least instill confidence in the participants and hopefully link them with opportunities brought about by their participation.

Going Old School with Film

Going in, we had to decide what the programme participants would be using to take the photographs. For a start, we didn’t even pretend to be experts in photography. Sure, we knew the technical basics of DSLR photography – ISO, aperture size, shutter speed. After a 10-minute tutorial on YouTube, we knew the basics of photo composition. But we didn’t want the technical aspects of photography to overwhelm the young participants and displace the storytelling aspect. One of us had the idea of using vintage point-and-shoot film cameras. They could be had for cheap and were pretty easy to use. The only difficult part was refilling batteries and of course, the film. Apart from introducing them to vintage photography equipment, we also thought that it would be interesting to expose the participants to the non-immediate dimension of film photography; sans the ability to review and edit the photographs, we hoped to be able to elicit the rawness of youth in the captured images and deliver a more impactful narrative. The lack of review capability and limited exposures (24 per film roll) however would force the participants to put in more thought in the composition of frames to be captured.

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We felt compelled to highlight the extent of inequality in Singapore. But we didn’t feel that presenting heart-tugging images of hardship would be the most effective way of doing so. Inequality is an extremely complex issue and what is often lost in the discussion are the voices of the very people who live it. Letting the youth participants dictate what they wished to capture was one way of empowering them to highlight the ordinariness of life in public rental housing. At the same time, we wanted the audience to be able to identify the nuances in the photographs, to consume the images not just as representations of something alien (which often lead to the fetishisation of the poor) but also as symbols in a life world which, while constraining by normative standards, form part of the everyday routine for these individuals. Focusing on the life world of the programme participants was one way in which the seemingly polarising objectives of empowerment and the presentation of inequality could be achieved. We assigned them four interrelated themes to work with: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. The process was as interesting as the photos that the youth participants took. Every week, we gave them a new roll of film and we collected the spent film roll for processing. We repeated this for about five cycles. Because it was the first time they actually used film cameras, the first few cycles yielded poor photos. Some of the exposures were totally unusable because the curious teenagers had tinkered with the cameras, leading to overexposed photos. Eventually, they learned to maintain the cameras well and produced great photos over the span of four months.

Organising, Interpreting, Curating the Exhibition

Essentially, curating an exhibition requires the act of interpreting ‘data’ in the form of images and presenting them in a way that relays an idea or message. As such, curators can be said to inhabit a position of authority vis-a-vis the audience and in this case, the producers of the images. Although we started out with the intention of including the Lengkok Bahru teenagers in the selection of their photographs, we were constrained by prohibitive deadlines. There just wasn’t enough time to train them in the basic qualitative method of identifying and surfacing (inter-connected) themes from the myriad of photographs. Naturally, the task fell to us as facilitators in the programme. As we went through the hundreds of images appearing on the projector screen, some questions were raised: How do we avoid over-interpreting the significance of some of the images? How do we move away from transposing our preconceived notions or even ideals in these photos? Does the photo of a goldsmith shop front reflect the participants’ sensitivity towards their low socioeconomic status and/or their aspiration towards material wealth? Is the image of a milk carton in the fridge supposed to inform viewers of the photographer’s awareness of nutrition?

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Our immediate response to this problem was to return to Lengkok Bahru to talk to the teenagers. It wasn’t that we hadn’t spent enough time in Lengkok Bahru. We were there quite frequently. But we realised that we were so absorbed in the execution of the programme that we missed getting to know some of these participants and more importantly, how the photographs connected with their lives. Fully aware that some of these teenagers were reticent, we probed them gently to uncover their motivations for taking certain photographs. We learned more about their lives, daily routines in the neighbourhood and, most importantly, their dreams. Through this approach of triangulating data, we felt that we managed to bridge the interpretive gap and better represent the images and the biographies behind these images. Eventually, we arrived at three overarching themes for the exhibition: 1) Lengkok Bahru, our Home, 2) Strategies and 3) Aspirations.

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The theme of ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ is rather self-explanatory with the participants focusing on the physical landscape of their neighbourhood, such as the façades of the housing blocks that they stay in and the stairwells. Some participants also invited us into their humble abodes, through the images of clothes hanging in the kitchen and a set of exercise dumbbells left on the floor. Contrary to the stereotype of impoverished families as dysfunctional, many of the photographs portrayed close-knit ties among family members and neighbours. A crowd-pleaser among visitors to the exhibition is a photograph featuring a participant’s adorable cousins strumming the guitar on bed. Even the neighbourhood’s cat made an appearance in the photographs. In visual ethnography, images provide viewers with a brief insight to the thinking of the photographer; in this case, the capturing of such intimate spaces, all of which mean something important to our photographers, represent the everyday spaces they utilise. In documenting these images, the photographers indulge in place-making, creating associations between identity and place.  It is here that we truly discover the malleability of the idea of ‘home’ and its connectedness with a variety of other appropriated spaces seen in the pictures – the corridor, the street soccer court, an empty bus, the community centre, the study space at the void deck or the library. Home for these photographers ceases to be a mere place of dwelling and expands to include public spaces, which can be privately appropriated for however long they deem comfortable or possible.

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The home-place-space dynamic is closely tied to their socioeconomic status. Living in relatively small and spartan public rental flats where they don’t necessarily have access to their own space, luxuries such as air-conditioning, WiFi, computer or even quietude, the Lengkok Bahru teenagers actively look for ways to appropriate usable spaces. They spend countless hours engaging in outdoor play, strumming the guitar, singing and mingling with their friends at the common corridor. A photograph of a boy lying on the corridor exemplifies this agentic stretching of the limits of home. Other photos depict the façades of the neighbourhood’s library and community centre; they do not look aesthetically pleasing but to the participants, these places afforded them luxurious spaces to complete their school assignments. Finding ways to overcome the challenges imposed by their physical living environment and socioeconomic status could be equated with ‘Strategies’. The teenagers’ spirit of improvisation is aptly portrayed in a photograph of a construction cone standing on a parched field. The construction cone was used by the soccer-loving teenagers as a makeshift goal post.

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Perhaps best encapsulating the theme of ‘Aspirations’ is the photo of two pairs of cleaned soccer boots perched securely on the window ledge, left to sun. No surprises here – the photograph’s creator harbours hopes of making it big as a soccer player. Another photo features two rows of dancers – mostly females – clad in colourful traditional Malay costumes and striking elegant poses. They might be part of a dance group in school but to the photographer, it symbolised her dream of performing on a bigger stage.

To a large extent, these themes are in line with the objectives of this project – to make visible the rather invisible experiences and narratives of individuals living in public rental housing in Singapore and to debunk some of the stereotypes and myths associated with poverty. For instance, in a society that prizes meritocracy, individual attributes (such as a lack of ambition) rather than structural impediments have often been highlighted in the discussion on income inequality and social mobility.

At the same time, we were wary of the possibility of unintentionally generating the effect of poverty porn through the photos exhibited. It was imperative that the photographs selected, while raising awareness of the challenges faced by the participants and their families, also illustrated the human agency and empowerment as embodied in the teenagers. This explains the exhibition’s emphasis on the participants’ aspirations and strategies. Given the sensitive nature that the issue of income inequality poses to some people, the representation of Lengkok Bahru and its residents is intertwined with ethical considerations as aforementioned. Initially, one of the photographs selected under the theme ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ featured the father of one of the participants. When the exhibition date drew closer and as we were unable to obtain permission from him, we decided to err on the side of caution by removing the photograph from the exhibition.

Of Light Leaks and Dreams

For any other exhibition, to showcase photographs which are out-of-focus, poorly composed or over-exposed is tantamount to committing career suicide. Yet quite a number of the photographs we chose to exhibit had these ‘flaws’. Rather than rejecting them outright, we decided to embrace photographic ‘flaws’, incorporating them as a central feature in the overarching narrative. The purpose wasn’t just to invite the audience to reflect on art accessibility and cultural capital as crucial to producing art, but to also rethink the ideals of photography and art. Do light leaks necessarily mean that the camera needs better sealing? Or are they symptomatic of photographer-related idiosyncrasies? For our mobile phone-dependent participants, using the film camera was a novelty that quickly became a source of anxiety. Unsure if the film had been properly locked in the camera and whether the images had been captured on film, some of the participants actually opened up the film compartment to reassure themselves. The result: yellow-hued spots which engulfed parts or all of the images. Of course, there were purists who remarked how our presentation of these overexposed pictures as ‘artistic’ had degraded the craft. If so, they had completely missed the underlying message we were trying to present: that the medium, flawed as it may be, is the message. We wanted the audience to be able to accept this amateurism and use it as a starting point for interaction with the photographer’s life world to better understand a different side of Singapore.

Although we had lofty ambitions for the project, we really didn’t expect much given the circumstances. Without any financial support at the beginning and juggling full-time jobs, we were never able to fully commit to the programme. But the enthusiasm showed by the teenagers willed us on and as we continued working with them, we realised that there was so much that we could achieve together. So even though the teenagers weren’t directly involved in the selection of the pictures for the exhibition, they contributed through other ways such as availing themselves as docents at the exhibition, addressing the audience in the question-and-answer session and the creating of the exhibition space. On the eve of the two-day exhibition at Scape, some of the young photographers brought along cherished belongings such as a soccer jersey and a tournament trophy to be displayed alongside the photos, thereby adding personal touches to an otherwise formal space. Throughout the whole process, the participative element remained intact and this happily coincided with our objective of instilling confidence in the participants, who narrated their biographies within the context of Lengkok Bahru through the photos.

Their interaction with the public wasn’t at all scripted. Rather, the teenagers spoke earnestly and very honestly of their circumstances. Now this may seem like a normal occurrence one expects in exhibitions but the fact is that these teenagers are very shy and not used to being given a platform to be listened to. Thus to see them seize the opportunity to tell their stories to strangers filled our hearts with pride and joy. It was a poignant moment, one which reflected the potential that participative photography holds in effecting small yet very substantial changes to the lives of the participants. Inevitably, this programme has not eradicated the problem of economic inequality in society nor has it claimed to be. But, it is an important start; an essential experiment, one which marries the sociological paradigm, with its durable concepts such as social and cultural capital, and the visual medium of photography.

As a means of collecting data, photographs taken by the participants yielded more than we could have gathered through merely doing interviews. Photographs provide an insight to how these teenagers view their world, how they make places intimate through the appropriation of spaces and how they define home, family and success, beyond what they would usually describe in words. Furthermore, the images which were washed out as a result of the light leaks reflected the anxiety the teenagers faced as a result of dealing with old technology, which effectively denied them the luxury of immediate review found in cameras today. Somehow, the effect gave the pictures an attractive sheen, a layer akin to the rose-tint lens through which we often perceive youth and childhood. In a way, this is true. The images depict the rawness and innocence of youth, of dreams and aspirations which bask in accidental light leaks.  But make no mistake, dreaming in light leaks is precarious; indulge too far in this romanticism and the images disappear, completely washed out along with the stories and aspirations of the youths in Lengkok Bahru.  

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Singapore Photobooks and Zines Review 2017

By Lee Chang Ming

[Lee Chang Ming is a photographer and writer based in Singapore. He runs Nope Fun.]

Here are a selection of photobooks and zines by Singaporean photographers/artists:

Nguan: How Loneliness Goes

One of my personal favorite photographers for the longest time, Nguan’s How Loneliness Goes is 48 paged, cloth bound and features 27 pictures.

How Loneliness Goes documents life in Singapore, as seen through Nguan’s subtle and quiet aesthetics. Something about the images speaks about solitude, yet provides a sense of solidarity… perhaps it’s just like that Star Anna’s song, We’re All Alone in This Together.

The first edition of this photobook was published in 2013. This series is also currently being exhibited at FOST Gallery in Singapore. Perhaps an interesting comparison/exercise to see how the series translates across different mediums.

How Loneliness Goes

Marilyn Yun Jun: Like Buttermilk Sky 

Like Buttermilk Sky is a black and white Risograph photobook by Marilyn Yun Jin. Her cinematic and emotive images form a narrative into the inner worlds of those around her, retold through her lens.

She also co-founded a Risograph and publication studio called Knuckles & Notch, which is a great space for anyone who loves printed matter.Like Buttermilk Sky

Genevieve Long: Secrets 

Secrets is a palm-sized publication by Genevieve Leong. The 32-page self-published photo zine celebrates the quiet moments: unexpected geometry in high-rise buildings, blooming bougainvilleas, a moment of solitude.

Secrets

ND Chow: ROOTS 

Singapore-born Tokyo-based photographer ND Chow, perhaps best known for his portraits of cultural icons, re-looks his humble beginnings in this collection of images taken while travelling around the world for 2 years in his younger days.

Contemplative images with an undertone of yearning. Yearning for moments long gone; longing for genuine connection with strangers that perhaps only lasted for the split second when the shutter was pressed.

ROOTS

 

Best Indonesian Photobooks of 2016

By Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah

[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]

2016 was atrocious.

We saw too many deaths. Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Indonesians (especially Jakartans) continue to deliberate over Ahok and the forthcoming gubernatorial election.

On the other hand, we witnessed the Indonesian photobook scene thrive as never before. There were publications, book tours, bookseller tours, photobook exhibitions, workshops and public interventions. We saw new voices and established practitioners publishing their latest work. We now have independent photobook publishers in Indonesia–Kamboja Press and Binatang Press. Kamboja published the books of Vira Talisa and Tampan Destawan respectively while Binatang brought out Anton Ismael’s.

Now that the bar has been raised, 2017 will hopefully bring more interesting publications onto the table.

Here are the best Indonesian photobooks of 2016 that caught our eyes. The criteria for selection are:

  • Published in Indonesia in 2016
  • Featured photographs made by Indonesians
  • The photobook should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
  • The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
  • The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.

In no particular order:

The New Sun by Rian Afriadi

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Some people will loathe the design, others will love it. The book is born under the collaboration of Rian Afriadi and artist-designer Natasha Gabriella Tontey. It feels like a story book with a dark twist at the end, which makes sense, since we’re looking at Rian’s imagining of another world under a different sun. The design and text fit the book well, though I wish they would choose another paper for the photographs.

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Flock Project Vol. 1 by Aji Susanto Anom, Kurniadi Widodo and Arif Furqan

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This volume results from experimentation and collaboration, two things that we believe in as well. As a result, these books are quite tightly edited and highly produced. The Flock guys have also been pushing boundaries, creating bridges with other communities, producing zines, while maintaining their sense of humour–something that’s increasingly rare amongst photographers today.

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After N by Gregory Rusmana

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What’s with Surakarta (Solo)? Every year, we find a few photobooks from that city, which always feature contrasty, black-and-white images, creating an impression that Solo only offers dark, bleak thoughts. After N is no different. However, it’s also refreshing to see how Greg envisions the world (the book is his edit) since his marriage. Again, we believe that good photographs deserve to be printed on the best paper.

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Honorable mention: #WISTAU by Flock Project

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Pokes fun at people who take things seriously: check.

Self deprecating humour: check.

Social commentary: check.

Designed in the spirit that only a zine can convey: check.

 

Best Indonesian Photobooks of 2015

By Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah

[Editor’s note: Ridzki Noviansyah and Tommy N. Armansyah are founding members of The Photobook Club-Jakarta in 2013. Its aim is to discuss issues relating to photobooks published in Indonesia and beyond.]

These are our picks for the best Indonesian photobooks of 2015.

If you need a reminder, these are the criteria for selection:
– Published in Indonesia
– Published in 2015
– Feature photographs made by Indonesians
– The book should be able to captivate viewers to revisit the work.
– The photographs should be able to make the viewers feel as though they are in the scene portrayed.
– The publication should have physical qualities that support the above criteria.

In no particular order:

Ruang Bermain
By Sri Sadono
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah

Sri Sadono - Ruang Bermain

Unlike 2014, when there were several long-term documentary projects being published as photobooks, we have had only a few in 2015. These include Yoppy Pieter’s Saujana Sumpu and S Rama Surya’s A Certain Grace. However, there are more personal projects (as distinct from street photography) that have become published as photobooks. One of them is Sri Sadono’s Ruang Bermain.

I would describe this book in the same way as I would describe the children who appear in the book—unpretentious and lovely. The photographs portray Indonesian kids at their “playground”—whether it is an open field or an apartment high above. While the photographs are lovely enough to view, the book can use a bit more sequencing work and better production.

JKT
By Fanny Octavianus
Reviewed by Ridzki Noviansyah

JKT - Fanny Octavianus

With the increased interest in street photography, there has been an increase in the number of people who call themselves street photographers, showing up on the streets of Jakarta on every car-free day to take some shots. On the other hand, there are people like Erik Prasetya and Fanny Octavianus who have worked quietly for years, covering the streets of Jakarta.

Fanny Octavianus’ approach in photographing Jakarta reveals a constant tug-of-war. As a photojournalist, Fanny produces frames that are good enough to run on the front page of newspapers. However he also creates pictures that imbue a certain degree of romanticism. For Fanny, Jakarta is a place that he loathes and loves at the same time. This can be seen in JKT.

Saujana Sumpu
By Yoppy Pieter
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah

Saujana Sumpu - Yoppy Pieter

First, let me say the one thing that I do not like about this book. It concerns the closing picture, the strongest image, of a boy, his body half immersed in water, holding the head of an almost fully immersed girl. As an individual picture, even though it creates an unease in me, I like it very much. However, as part of the book, it is too strong, making it a bad fit with the rest of the book.

Overall, the book is wonderful. Looking at the pictures, walking through the pages, you can almost hear a saluang [editor’s note: musical instrument of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra] being played. The pictures are poetic. Yoppy is the master in making such images. If his intention is to take us, the readers, to look at present-day Sumpu (or Sumpur), where most of its male inhabitants have left for the cities for better employment opportunities, leaving behind women and children, he has done it beautifully. Published by PannaFoto Institute, the book design is simple—complementing the pictures, making the viewing enjoyable. The work is also featured in the recent Jakarta Biennale 2015.

As I Was Moving Ahead
By Homer Harianja
Reviewed by Tommy N Armansyah

As I Was Moving Ahead - Homer Harianja

In some ways, As I Was Moving Aheadis an odd inclusion. While the rest of the practitioners featured in this year’s selection are all professional photographers, Homer is an amateur photographer with a keen pair of eyes. All the photographs in the book are taken in analogue format. The photographs are witty and vibrant, concerning family holidays, church visits and other mundane daily activities. There are also repeated images of people (mostly kids) peeking through something.

This is the only colour photobook in our selection for 2015, published through the newly established Semarang-based print-on-demand company, “Retrospective Journal”.

 

 

Philippine Photobooks Review 2015 / A.g. De Mesa (The Philippines)

By A.g. De Mesa

In terms of the publication of photobooks in the Philippines, 2014 was a better year, with Wawi Navarroza’s Hunt Gather and Terraria and Jake Verzosa’s The Last Women of Kalinga being published. In 2015, only Dago Santos’ Lighght caught my attention. It is a simple book compiling the little moments when light and space converge, triggering a photographic response from Dago.

"Lighght" by Dago Santos
“Lighght” by Dago Santos

However, in the same year, we also witnessed the rise of photo zines, helping to raise awareness in terms of showcasing work in the book format. This is perhaps the result of Fotosemana Festival 2015, a micro-festival in Manila focusing on photobooks. The festival showcased Philippine photobooks and zines from the past few years. Selections from Self Publish, Be Happy, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive, and Indie Photobook Library were also displayed during the event.

The DIY effort of Philippine photographers helped to push forward the evolution of photo zines in the country. Notable examples in 2015 include Czar Kristoff’s Fugue, Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures, Erin Nøir’s Mono series, and Brian Sergio’s Bomba.

"Fugue" by Czar Kristoff
“Fugue” by Czar Kristoff

Fugue was released during Fotosemana and co-published by Thousandfold. As this is not made using offset printing, perhaps a discussion on the differences between a zine and a book is needed soon. The zine’s images, shot mainly in black-and-white, concern the small details and objects that are often disregarded. Only the orange wrap, the red centerfold and the blue cover bring color to the book. This allows the readers to concentrate on the ways in which the photographs interact with one another.

Jhemuel Salvador’s White Pictures compels the readers to question whether the objects in his pictures are actually white, made to be white, or appear as white through technical manipulation.

"White Pictures" by Jhemuel Salvador
“White Pictures” by Jhemuel Salvador

Mono by Erin Nøir takes the approach of the diaristic Japanese photo zines of the 1990s, much in the same vein as Hiromix and others, complete with datestamp and all. The zine even flips from right to left.

"Mono" series by Erin Nøir
“Mono” series by Erin Nøir

Brian Sergio’s Bomba is full of photos of naked women in suggestive poses. Crucially, its design is inspired by the Philippine tabloids in terms of size, paper and the absence of binding. These tabloids usually headline scantily clad women. Sergio’s zine ramps it up by a notch. Your mileage may vary with the images but the design is very interesting.

"Bomba" by Brian Sergio
“Bomba” by Brian Sergio

In 2016, I believe there will be more photo zines published in the Philippines. More importantly, there will be more people working on traditional photo books, targeting release in the next few years. As for content, they may focus on the political situation in the Philippines with the upcoming presidential elections. But it is hard to say.

Generally, photo zines work best when the approach is personal. If the momentum persists, practices in book making, designing, and the overall production of photobooks will gain further traction, expanding the options for photographers in terms of showcasing their work.

 

A.g. De Mesa is a Filipino photographer and writer. / http://readingphotographs.asia/