Category Archives: The Philippines

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)

dean_worgesters_fantasy_islands_photography_film_and_the_colonial_philippines_mark_rice-1_1024x1024Mark Rice
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.


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.


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

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?


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, a photography site managed by A.g. De Mesa in Manila. I have slightly edited the text for clarity.]


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. /

Unguarded Moments (2008)

By Teena Saulo

I remember my childhood in several contrasting episodes. The more beautiful parts, I guess, were spent in my grandparents’ household where photography, music and religion were a way of life. In the darkroom that my grandfather built, a crucifix hung on the wall, together with unframed photographs and an overused apron stained with Kodak chemicals. The handcrafted wooden xylophone and bajo de arco (double bass) stood out majestically across the equally large photo enlarger and some developing trays. Siesta times would be spent listening to my grandfather playing music. Wednesday nights would be spent praying the novena and reciting the litanies. There were many days when I saw my grandfather watch my uncle process rolls of films. After retiring from Kodak Philippines where he was darkroom supervisor for many years, my grandfather continued to print in the house, bringing home his love for the medium and unconsciously passing on the skills to his grandchildren.

I had easy access to his camera, the enlarger, photo paper and the chemicals. My grandfather did not have any prohibitions. I don’t remember being told not to touch anything belonging to my grandfather. As his grandchildren, we made photograms from boxes of expired photo paper, exposing them to the sunlight while creating imprints with our hands, before the images disappeared with further exposure as the paper turned black. At age 9, I received my first box camera and at 10, my first rangefinder. When my grandfather passed away when I was a teenager, I inherited his Argus Argoflex twin lens camera, which I later used for personal projects.

Whenever I am asked when my interest in photography started, my mind will instantly fly back to the darkroom where I watched my grandfather print large photographs of places and faces of common people. Patiently and with careful precision, he would expose the paper to the light of the enlarger before immersing it into the developer. I watched in fascination and wonderment. Slowly, a vague and faint image would emerge on the paper and I would squint my eyes to see it under the infrared light. A few seconds later, this image would become clearer and more magical to a six-year-old, as the image of a face, for instance, “came out”, the eyes alive and vivid as in real life. Then, grandpa would dip the paper into the stop bath before desensitizing it in the fixer to form a permanent image.

Despite this early exposure, I did not wish to become a photographer. It did not occur to me then that it was something one had to study formally. To me, photography was just there, a part of my grandfather’s life. It was as available as the piano and as omnipresent as God was to him, a devout Catholic.

In my family, the women who came before me did not have the chance to extend their horizons beyond the confines of the home and did not have much of a “world view” to encourage us, the younger generation of women, to indulge in art or in social sciences like anthropology. Instead, the women in my family encouraged us to become nurses, midwives, teachers or secretaries, with the constant, subtle reminder that any of these careers should eventually lead to motherhood.

I never wanted to pursue any of these prescribed careers. Instead, my mind wondered about places and people. Once in grade school, I read about a group of people who lived in a place in northern Philippines called Bacun and they were called the Kankanaey. I remember the soft, washed out image on the page of the textbook—a group of half naked men, women and children with shabby hair, sitting awkwardly on top of a rock. They were facing the camera, their faces blank and almost forlorn. Not much was said of them, except what they were called and where they lived. I wondered what they had to say for themselves. Why were they staring blankly at the camera?

My first interaction with indigenous people happened in the 90s. I was then working as a researcher in the university. Although we were doing feminist research and I was doing part time photography work, I was not required to do much fieldwork. I felt creatively underwhelmed. I wanted to immerse myself in community work where I could talk face-to-face with people and learn about their culture, their everyday life and experiences. In 1999, as a novice photographer, I embarked on a personal project. With little resources and fueled only by inspiration from the works of admired photographers, I packed my bags and took a 16-hour boat ride to Palawan.

That first trip took me to places in Puerto Princesa—some of which were already discovered and frequented by tourists, while others were yet to be explored. One of these unexplored areas was the Batak indigenous community at Sitio Kalaquansan, one of the eight Batak settlements found in the north-central and central-eastern parts of Puerto Princesa. This place, together with the Babuyan and Langogan settlements, constitute the largest Batak communities at Puerto Princesa.

In 1999, this particular settlement was a four-hour drive from the city. One had to travel rough, dusty roads to San Rafael, from where, after a further nine to ten-kilometer trek, the trail to the Batak settlement would begin. Visiting travelers rode on old minibuses and jeepneys filled mostly with peasants travelling for trade. More often than not, these traders also transported domestic animals, usually piglets, goats and native chickens, to the northern towns of Puerto Princesa. Despite the inconvenience, I consider myself fortunate to have travelled there, experiencing the beauty of the rainforest before the trees were cut down and the river destroyed (due to the massive quarrying for the construction of a nearby road). My first visit to the Batak community, though brief, provided me with a glimpse of their daily grind. I was grateful for the many conversations I had with the Batak women—the wives and mothers who shared stories about family life, relationships with husbands, joys and difficulties of motherhood, and the struggles for survival. All these narratives informed the research and photographic work that I would conduct on the Batak in the years that followed.

In 1998, I held a solo exhibit at the UP Vargas Museum in Manila showing photographs which were more focused on form rather than on the lives of people. I felt it wasn’t what I wanted to do. For me, it was more an exercise in visual calisthenics than being connected with my creative vision. A close friend believed that this exhibition was an unconscious attempt to free myself from memories of a turbulent childhood. It was an escape taking the form of beautiful landscape. Childhood was represented in photographs of dark corners, and silhouette images of doors after doors, windows after windows.

The plan to pursue the Batak project came to a halt. I entered a new phase in my life, got married to another artist and became pregnant with my child. At that time, I received another invitation to hold another solo exhibition. The photographs I presented, although different, were again basically about forms and shapes—a repetition of the first show. It was not because I had not taken any photographs of people since the first solo, but because I felt that I did not have the chance to know the people in my photographs well enough, either through research or interviews.

Batak Woman and Children of Kalaquasan Taken with Kodak TRI-X 400 2000
Batak Woman and Children of Kalaquasan
Taken with Kodak TRI-X 400

When I gave birth to my son the following year, the dream of doing some serious photographic work took a backseat. Marriage was a lonely journey and motherhood was about sacrificing some dreams and aspirations. Motherhood consumed me, leaving me very little time to do photo assignments.

Sadly, this hiatus became an extended one. In 2001, my parents passed away one after the other. I remember the day my father woke up from coma and I had to break the news of my mother’s passing to him. It was unbearable. I was completely unprepared for their deaths and for the life of being a single parent after my marriage ended.

The next four years were years of paralysis. I was in limbo. Those were years of helplessness, of in-between-jobs, of being alone, of accepting photographic work that did not interest me. With two deaths and a failed relationship, my son was the only reason for me to stay alive.

I struggled to do something creative. I knocked on doors, seeking funding for documentary photography work. As doors closed one after the other, I became more desolate and dysfunctional. I had lost my enthusiasm and thought of giving up photography. I felt that I could not recover from extreme loneliness and from my intense disbelief in the God of my childhood.

During one Lent season, I experienced a moment of epiphany when I saw, in the distance from my house, a group of youngsters performing the Cenaculo (a play depicting the life, sufferings and death of Christ). It amazed me. I had not seen youngsters perform the Cenaculo before. The dramatization looked real and photographic from where I was. I rushed to grab an old manual camera loaded with TRI-X film and a fixed lens. I took a few shots. While seeing the youngsters through my viewfinder, I wondered what adult atrocities and life challenges would compromise their pure and innocent faith in future.

When I finally made the contact print, I was struck by the image of the young Christ: his head looking up, his arms outstretched on the cross, depicting total surrender. I immediately recalled what John Berger wrote in that “the visual is astonishing and why memory, based upon the visual, is freer than reason”. Suddenly, my photos were making some of my life’s realizations obvious to me.

Cenaculo Makati, Philippines Taken with Kodak TRI X 400 2001
Makati, Philippines
Taken with Kodak TRI X 400

Holding the camera again, taking that shot and printing it in the darkroom—the whole chain of events felt absolutely right. I never felt good for a long time. A month later, I made a conscious decision to photograph again. I went back to Palawan to do serious research and photographic work on the Batak for my graduate thesis at the University of the Philippines. I received a modest grant from the Philippine Social Science Council, Air Philippines, YKL Color and administrative/fieldwork support from Haribon (an NGO focusing on environmental issues). The subsequent trip received another grant from BPI Foundation, allowing me to visit the rest of the Batak communities across Puerto Princesa.

Though a nomadic group, the Batak have permanent settlements where they stay whenever they are not gathering food or farming in the mountains. We spent most of our time at these settlements, building rapport with the groups. We immersed ourselves in the communities and conducted interviews. Since 1999, I have collected materials in the form of oral narratives and photographs on many aspects of their everyday life.

I have also documented the Tagbanua, another indigenous people that live alongside the Batak. Over the years, I have witnessed the children growing up, men and women ageing, and elders succumbing to illnesses. They struggled with hunger, malnutrition and epidemics while trying to maintain their traditional life, resisting total assimilation to modernity.

It was not always a bliss to visit the Batak. Fieldwork was challenging because of issues like the shortage of food and drinking water, the threat of malaria (which affected my research team during the fourth fieldtrip) and the difficulty of transporting photographic equipment, especially when we followed the Batak as they roamed the forest.

If left alone, the life of the Batak would be simple. However, due to external factors like the destruction of their primeval forests, their fight for survival has become more complex. I still dream of continuing my work on the Batak, capturing their rituals in moving visuals, establishing a school of living traditions run by the elders, and helping them market their crafts.

In 2005, I spent a fruitful year in Thailand when I was granted an Asian Scholarship Foundation fellowship to conduct research and pursue documentary work on a small group of people living in the mountains along the Thai-Laotian border. Known as the Mlabri, they were resettled permanently in villages across two northern provinces of Thailand, namely Nan and Phrae, due to the communist insurgency and the massive destruction of forests.

The Thailand fellowship was a great opportunity to extend my work beyond my own country. The preparation, however, was not simple. I had to take into consideration the needs and safety of my four-year-old son who was travelling with me to Nan and to the mountains where the Mlabri people lived—often alongside the Hmong or the Meo (minority groups in the uplands of Thailand).

Prior to the move, I made two trips to Thailand to visit the Hilltribe Development Office and my host, the Social Science Institute at Chiang Mai University (CMU). I also had to secure research permits from the National Research Council of Thailand and the governor of Nan province. I used the second trip to find a house in the city and one in the mountains.

The job of a documentary photographer/researcher is not without romance. However, while every adventure brings me to new highs, it can also be at times frightening. In Thailand, I had the additional burden of protecting my child in an unfamiliar environment. The hut that was assigned to us by the Hilltribe Development Office was a very basic one. It was located in the heart of a Hmong village. No amenities were provided, not even a pile of firewood for the small cooking stove. We had nothing but four walls and a roof above our heads. In the kitchen, there was an opening covered by chicken wire, so that smoke from the stove would not be trapped inside the hut. The opening proved to be problematic during winter when the temperature would sometimes drop to five degrees. At times, my mind would be filled with anxiety, especially during festivities when the men in the village would get drunk, perhaps also high on opium, and would pound loudly at my door.

Luckily, nothing untoward happened during our stay. Instead, I got to know the Hmong very well. I had never seen such an industrious group of people, hardworking and committed to their families. The Mlabri are equally hardworking. However, due to their dwindling population and the scarcity of farming land, they depend on the Hmong for their economic needs. They have been working as farm laborers for the Hmong when the latter expanded their homesteads and shifted from cultivating opium to food crops. The Hmong way of life has greatly influenced that of the Mlabri people. From being hunter-gatherers, the Mlabri have become seasonal farmers. One of my most memorable shoots was during the harvest time. I traveled with the Mlabri on a truck, together with my son and camera bag. The truck took us to a higher mountain, where they would harvest rice. During the shoot, I had to tie my son around my waist to keep him from falling off the cliff. It was a hot and humid day but we both endured the shoot, and the photos turned out to be very interesting.

Since I could not speak or understand the Hmong or the Mlabri languages, I had to work by intuition. Later, my son would learn their languages and serve as my translator.

Mlabri Family Ban Huay Yuak, Nan, Thailand Taken with Kodak TRI X 400 2005
Mlabri Family
Ban Huay Yuak, Nan, Thailand
Taken with Kodak TRI X 400

Whenever we were in our rented house at Nan city, I had to follow a regimental schedule that allowed me to accomplish my work while performing my duties as a mother. I must have loved my work so much. Or else, I doubt I would be able to get through the exhaustion and the emotional ride. My enlarger and my photographic tanks were placed in the laundry area, so that I could process film and print while doing the laundry. I cooked while reading to my son. My roles as a researcher, writer, photographer and mother have always overlapped.

Being away for one full year from people I knew, while isolating initially, proved to be very rewarding. Being in a country where nobody knew me and the kind of work I did was definitely liberating. I liked the anonymity. Before that, the opinions of fellow photographers really mattered to me. I always needed affirmation about my work. At Nan, I did not need it. While I loved collaborative work, I was surprised to realize that I enjoyed working alone even more. I came face to face with my creative self and my own ability to make things work without assistance from anyone. For the first time in years, I was confronted by myself and felt extremely happy with the confrontation. In Nan, I was just an artist. I did not make pictures in order to compete or make myself known. Everything was pure and simple. I woke up every morning to conduct interviews and take photographs. At the end of the day, I would write and do my darkroom printing while my son was fast asleep.

The findings of this fieldwork were presented at CMU. It was followed by a solo exhibition of more than 40 black-and-white photographs at the CMU Art Center.

Looking back, I have always been fascinated by the everyday routine of people. I still find myself staring at people in their most unguarded moments, when they go about their daily routine in trains, in shops, in market places. In Thailand, I was able to take photographs of almost everything I saw—however mundane they might be. This habit of taking photographs of everyday affairs brings forth certain subtleties in human experiences that are often taken for granted. Immersing myself in photography has given me an understanding of how to represent people closest to the ways they wish to be seen and understood. I enjoy participating in their lives. It gives me a strong sense of human connection.

The images I love best are those of people in their most generic and unguarded moments. I always strive for absolute honesty in my work. I don’t wish to embellish my photographs or to exaggerate reality through juxtapositions or complex compositions. I prefer to shoot with my favorite 24mm and 90mm fixed lenses. I want to depict reality with my lines as straight as possible. I want my photographs to be honest, straight and simple.

Recently, I had to look at all my photographs in preparation for another exhibition. Looking at each photograph reminds me of every experience in my life. I think of home and being away from home. I remember the times when I had nothing but found something to pull me through. I look at my photographs of the poor and the marginalized, and see how their lives parallel my journey: how they grapple with poverty and exclusion, yet manage to find something to bring them to higher ground. How do you capture these ideas in photographs? There is no easy solution.

Teena Saulo is a photographer from the Philippines. This is a reflective piece concerning her documenting practice, written in 2008. Saulo is now a PhD student (Anthropology) at the Australian National University.