By A.g. De Mesa
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.]