Images from the Margins
The Mangyan struggle against
in the documentary-photography of Raymond Panaligan
ethnographic studies and shots for foreign tourist consumption, Raymond
Panaligan's images are not voyeuristic tokens of the 'savage natives',
taken as samples of the exotic and uncivilized under the lying assumption
of cultural and material inferiority. Instead, Panaligan's photographs
are intimate and straightforward depictions of the Mangyans from their
point of view.
By Lisa C. Ito
images are postcards from the peripheries of the Philippines: intimate
snapshots of daily scenes from Mangyan communities in southern Mindoro.
Panaligan presents portraits of a people dispossessed by colonial and
contemporary incursions into their ancestral lands, disenfranchised in
their own communal territories, and left behind in an archipelago
surrounded by crisis.
documentation is an ongoing project of his. Using photography as a means
to document their presence, Panaligan has chronicled the day to day lives
of Mangyans through the years since 1993, during his excursions to their
communities in southern Mindoro. He has documented most closely the lines
of Hanunoo Mangyans, one of the seven existing tribes populating the
peripheries of Mansalay and Bulalacao at the southeastern fringes of
Mindoro Island. Panaligan has journeyed back and forth from Manila to
Mindoro since then, capturing their images through community and
individual immersions, fact-finding operations and peace missions.
documentation is relevant because of its historical value and from its
political import. While documentary evidence related to the Mangyan tribes
can be accessed through archives and libraries, existing visual evidence
of Mangyan communities is sparse and rare. Panaligan engages in a cultural
practice that charts and recreates their existence in collective and
public memory, a kind of assurance against transience and forgetting.
political import of Panaligan's choice to present images from the margins
is evident: as a recipient of the Asian Cultural Council Fellowship for
Photography in 1999, Panaligan could have chosen to continue producing
photographs of New York's grim realities. Or shots from his stints as a
Manila-based freelance photojournalist. Yet the Mangyan
photo-documentation project has remained a sustained and continuous
endeavor for more than a decade, something that Panaligan committed
himself to on a long-term basis.
The difference of
Panaligan's images from that of existing documentation of different
Mangyan tribes lies in their affinities with their subjects. Unlike
colonial-age ethnographic studies and shots for foreign tourist
consumption, the images are not voyeuristic tokens of the 'savage
natives': taken as samples of the exotic and uncivilized under the lying
assumption of cultural and material inferiority.
photographs are intimate and straightforward depictions of the Mangyans
from their point of view. This can be inferred from the way the images are
taken by the photographer: instead of staged frontal or profile poses of
the Mangyans intended to document their details of clothing or physique,
Panaligan unobtrusively captures spontaneous scenes and details from their
day to day lives, setting his lens whenever and wherever his subjects feel
comfortable in. The subjects behave naturally even as the lens captures
their images, perhaps indicating a degree of familiarity or ease with the
photographer's presence. This is a significant clue that points to the
photographer's affinity for the Mangyan way of life and struggle,
considering the persistence of pre-modern superstitions that believe
cameras 'capture' a part of a person's soul and the grim paranoia over
military surveillance through technological equipment, such as cameras and
attest to how the Hanunoo Mangyans have adhered to their traditions, kept
alive in the handicrafts and personal ornaments they produce by hand.
Panaligan's images of Mangyan mothers and their children document the
various communal crafts, such as basketry, which they engage in during
their spare time between kaingin
farming,child-rearing, and other chores. The photograph of a smiling
Mangyan baby, for instance, is laden with the beaded bracelets,
basketry,and textiles that Mangyan women have also started to produce as
for commercial, as well as personal, consumption over the years.
Yet, the images also
document surface manifestations of how Mangyans have been systematically
isolated from the mainland economy, politics, and culture. A photograph of
three tribes people wandering through a commercial area with a few
handwoven wares remind the viewer of their struggle to survive in an
economy and society that refuses to integrate their specific needs into
the whole. This dislocation and juxtaposition of differing cultural and
material differences is seen in a photograph of a young Mangyan girl at a
hand loom, weaving their traditional blue and white textile while wearing
a t-shirt with the acronym 'USA' (donated as a relief good or bought with
precious cash, perhaps).
Images of Mangyan
children populate Panaligan's works, perhaps as a metaphor for the
emergence of a new generation of dispossessed national minorities who grow
up in the ways of their ancestors but who are also systematically deprived
of their basic rights and needs up to the present.
The image of a lone
Mangyan child, crunched up in hunger before three empty
sums up the stark reminders of the
contrasting reality in Philippine society: in spite of all the state's
proclamations of economic development and 'progress', fundamental economic
and social problems continue to ravage national minorities such as the
Mangyan tribes. The photographs, simple depictions of deprivation they may
seem to be on the surface, attest to the painful persistence of problems
that are so basic: hunger, landlessness, terror wrought by militarization
and counter-insurgency campaigns, displacement by foreign multinational
incursions into potential mining sites, lack of access to basic social
services such as health care and education.
document the serenity and composure with which the Mangyans face their
trials, but much more lies beneath the black and white images. These
silently harbor the Mangyans testimonies of their perennial
problems with the
lack of irrigation, and damaging floods when the river overflows during
the rainy season. The images of Mangyan families eating together hide the
reality that people in this part of the archipelago are forced to eat only
once or twice a day. They subsist mainly on bananas and eat rice only once
or twice a week. While their harvest of mangoes and bananas is abundant,
the literal fruits of their labor remain underpriced. One sack containing
around 300 mangoes can be easily haggled local traders for only thirty to
forty pesos, for instance.
The images of Mangyan
children foraging in foliage underscore the fact that they are not in
school. The rare and far-flung schoolhouses in Mindoro's interior areas
(where most Mangyans live) stop at the grade school level due to the
chronic lack of teachers. Even then many children are forced to stop their
studies because they have to find food or work for their families. Even
medical and relief missions are rare, as compared to the seemingly
non-existent government health facilities scattered in a few towns.
Tuberculosis, long eradicated in developed countries, still remains a
scourge in these parts. There is little electricity and potable water
sources to speak of.
What the images do
not depict are more sinister. These are rarely documented through
photographs, but human rights violations by the military are common
occurrences, especially even since Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan was assigned
to head the counter-insurgency campaign in the Southern Tagalog region,
with special and bloodthirsty focus on Mindoro. Undocumented by
photographs are the murders and tortures of Mangyans suspected to be New
Peoples' Army (NPA) members or supporters. Soldiers actively recruited for
CAFGUs among Mangyans, promising a few thousand pesos per month and a free
coffin in return for their roles in the counter-insurgency campaigns.
Yet, at the same
time, the photographs stand as a testament to their struggle against
neocolonial and military exploitation and adherence to the values of their
ancestors. Their traditional and communal values of cooperation and
togetherness are seen in the photographs of Mangyan families having their
humble meals together in their cramped and handmade huts. At a time when
many other Filipino families are forced and encouraged by the state's
labor export policies to live apart in order to survive and stay together,
these images remind us that the Mangyans, among the most systematically
deprived in this nation of the exploited, have no little choice but to
find strength in unity and struggle.
In the end, it is the
photograph of a Mangyan child wielding a bolo and struggling to get
through through the thick foliage that provides the compelling metaphor
for a peoples' will to survive, stay true to their ancestors, and fight
amidst the hardships they face. Panaligan's photographs provide and revive
our memories of the disenfranchised in our land, and in doing so, raise
awareness of their conditions and struggle to survive.
PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION ■
© 2006 Bulatlat
Permission is granted to reprint or redistribute this article, provided
its author/s and Bulatlat are properly credited and notified.