Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. V, No. 50      January 29 - February 4, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines

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CULTURE

Images from the Margins
The Mangyan struggle against dispossession
in the documentary-photography of Raymond Panaligan

Unlike colonial-age 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
Bulatlat

Raymond Panaligan's 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.

The Mangyan 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.

Panaligan's 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.

The conscious 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.

Instead, Panaligan's 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 videos.

The photographs 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 calderos, 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.

The photographs 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. Bulatlat

 

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