Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th Century Philippines
by Benito M. Vergara, Jr.
University of the Philippines Press
Load. Focus. Click. The snap of a shutter permanently suspends images in time mechanical and iconized.
After Daguerre and Talbot's technical innovations in 1839 and the popularization of Kodak cameras in 1888, photographs rapidly evolved from chemical and optic reproductions into signifying structures themselves. Aesthetic notions of pictures being strictly "objective" gave way to an awareness of the medium as a means for social critique as well. The capacity for mass reproducing images heralded the surge of a "new visual order" and with it, the power plays behind such representations. Artistic production thus began to be based on politics. "Who controls the manufacture of such images? Who is being addressed? Where is the site of the real? Is understanding reality a function of representation?" art critic Lisa Phillips asks.
In his book Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in the Early 20th Century Philippines, author Benito M. Vergara draws along this line, analyzing 25 selected pre-war photographs as metaphors for the American expansionist perspective, re-examining representations of Filipinos originating from this vantage point. As he explicitly points out, the book attempts to "explore the role of photography in the legitimization of the American colonial enterprise in the Philippines" and to create an "alternative narrative."
Why photography? Located within the scope of the times then were notions of the authenticity and factuality previously attributed to photographs. Objectivity was strongly equated with photographic realism in the popular mind then. Vergara posits that it was this same veil of "authentication" that gave leeway to colonialist preconceptions, which eventually produced such images. He also enumerates production devices and compositional considerations that render the photograph a conduit of ideology as well. "The photograph is ideal for the transmission of ideas: the illusion of truth effectively masks the mechanics of deceit," he asserts.
Written in lucid and forceful prose, Vergara starts off his exposition with a melange of images and fantasies conjured by minds from the other side of the globe. Quoting from Millet's The Expedition to the Philippines, he cites elements comprising the "script for colonialism." Apart from harping declarations of imperial destiny, the X of not knowing persisted. The Philippines -- "the exotic unknown," mentally associated with coils of bright yellow rope and cigars -- was nowhere what he termed as the "kodak zone ... unmapped, uncharted, unphotographed."
"The photograph of the colonized Filipino in a way were already taken long before...the colonized had to be necessarily inferior in order to be subjected to the civilizing process," Vergara contends. Photography thus provided the visual cues for the `pre-destined master' of the colony. Throughout the text, Vergara consistently connects the images to what he terms as the "colonial narrative." This, coupled with the reproducibility and mass circulation of photographs, produced stereotypes of the Filipino which provided justification for America's acts of expansionism. Drawing further, he contends that the images themselves were not just images of the colonial narrative, but "demonstrations of the colonial process itself"--representing the state and its surveying power over its subjects.
The glut of Vergara's images draws mostly from official colonial documents such as Dean Worcester's The Philippines Past and Present, the 1903 Census of the Philippine Islands, and The World Fair, a compilation of photographic material from the 1904 St. Louis exposition held in Misouri, with 75,000 indigenous exhibits and 1,100 representatives of each ethno-linguistic type from the Philippine reservation. Photos culled from a lucrative travelogue industry as well as ethnological studies also crop up.
In his analysis of the images, he effectively touches on various aspects: compositional criteria, the spatial relations between subjects, the juxtaposition of several images (as with a diptych), the relations between the photo and text/caption, the absence of certain images and the social mechanisms producing and consuming the photos as commodities. He takes note, for instance, of the imposed dichotomy between "Christian/civilized" and "non-christian/uncivilized/wild tribes" as sections of the population. While the latter are rendered into catalogued, immobilized icons-commonly portrayed with the "white sheet" background, in the frontal/profile pose and bedecked with an appalling load of tribal gear--the former are rendered into a "civilized", depersonalized mass. Their relatively "tame" group photos are often shot in either the municipal hall or studio as a facade, each person frozen in a studied casual pose, the social hierarchy evident.
While such portrayals may bring on an induced nostalgia, it is this same sense of loss that Vergara sighs over as he concludes, "For it is, in a sense, death we are talking about; not just in the sense of immobility...but in the sense of the forever-gone. The act of viewing the photographs in this present is a constant reminder of loss; the act of producing the photographs, within the American colonial narrative, is a constant reminder of death."
Vergara's book consistently reflects a recurring malady especially prevalent during those times: a piquant interest in representing Filipinos as the "other" - which has effectively stifled conditions for a native and empowering discourse to emerge. As he pointed out through the photographs, cultural minorities were made to be seen as posing problems of integration and cohesion into a homogenous national culture. Most of early American scholarly interest in the Philippines then centered on exoticization, highlighting differences between a multitude of "tribes". In a time that caters to the flamboyant caprices and equally misleading representations induced by the Centennial "fever" (where more Filipinos are similarly put on display), it is a lesson to keep in mind.
The book also presents a fresh view of the dominant discourse in history as exemplified by what Zaide and like-minded authors have to offer by prescribing valuations in terms of representation. By integrating these pictures as texts for historical [re]interpretation, Vergara brings the readers to a perceptual awareness of the politics behind the images foisted on them.
Lastly, while Vergara's attempt to bring these visual insights to fore is laudable, the reader has yet to see the element of struggle from those colonized, the "history from below" as historian Reynaldo Ileto puts it. Like Ileto, who made use of folk oral literature and traditions -- such as the Pasyon - as tools for historical reinterpretation, his novel appropriation of colonial photography adds vitality to a discipline long equated with dusty manuscripts.
Yet unlike Ileto, he leaves the question unanswered: where is the subversive streak beneath all this? Faced with the gaping absence of this in the text, one could probably dismiss it as beyond the intentions of the book. For to write history "from below" requires sources and texts "from below." We recall that Vergara made use of photos from travel literature and official documents which were primarily produced for the colonizers' eyes -- they being both the curators and the viewers to the whole catalogued display of Filipinos. Would a `counter-representation' have emerged, had he analyzed images of Filipinos produced by and for Filipinos themselves?
This contention aside, what the book attempts to convey within its own strict self-imposed range, inside the set parameters Vergara focuses his lens on, is sufficiently accomplished.
This book is available in at least 12 libraries in the LibraryLink Network. Click here to find out where.
Source: Review by Lisa Cariño Ito. First appeared in the Philippine Collegian, “Book Reviews,” November 23, 1998