Monday, October 21, 2013

Depicting the world around

I really enjoy reading the newspapers when I'm in the Philippines. Not only do they make life in Australia, where news can be made from politicians misusing hundreds of dollars of public funds (only hundreds of dollars) seem (thankfully) very dull and uneventful, but they present a range and diversity of opinion pieces that I find entertainingly unpredictable. There's lots of religion and pious advice, there's cultural and artistic comment, and often expert political, historical or sociological analysis. A few days ago I read a thought-provoking piece in the Philippine Inquirer by Maria Ceres P Doyo titled 'Poverty Porn' in which she explored the way that graphic images of poverty are used. She sees 'poverty porn' as
the use and display of stark images of persons in extreme poverty that border on the exploitative and intrusive, in order to generate sympathy and donations, to increase newspaper circulation and TV ratings, or even to gain fame.
In her view, even noble ends do not justify exploitation.

A day or so after reading this article I saw a small exhibition of photographs by an English photographer, Justin James Wright. He'd spent many months photographing the inhabitants of Isla Pulo, a precarious water's edge squatter community on the northern side of Manila Bay. The photographs were arresting - mostly black and white, with every detail of both the back- and foreground perfectly clear. Though the people depicted were very poor, the photographs didn't seem exploitative. I wondered why... Clearly the photographer knew well the people he'd photographed, and they trusted him. But that's not enough. I think the answer is that all the subjects were captured in dignified situations where they were active participants; working, studying, playing, just getting on with life in ways they and the photographer valued. I liked the work so much I bought one of the photos:

Isla Pulo photo

Many of the most striking photographs were of children, but I was taken by this photograph of Loretta, a woman in her seventies who still works at recycling discarded items to survive.

The matter of how to depict the world around you came up again in a different way. While I was in Manila we decided to visit Corregidor Island - a rocky island within the entrance to Manila Bay that has been used to fortify and protect the Bay for many centuries. Over time it had been inhabited by the Dutch, the British and the Spanish as colonial dominance of southeast Asia and the Pacific ebbed and flowed.

Corregidor lighthouse

At the end of the nineteenth century the island, along with the rest of the Philippines, was ceded by the Spanish to the USA after the Spanish-American war, and across the first half of the twentieth century Corregidor became a significant military base for the US colonial victors. There are reminders of the American presence in the extensive ruins of barracks, guns and mortars across the island.

Corregidor barracks

Corregidor is best known as the last heroic stand of the American and Filipino troops against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in the early stages of the Pacific phase of the second world war. In 1941 the Japanese invaded the Philippines from the north, until the allied troops retreated to Corregidor. Even after the formal surrender of the mainland trooops to the Japanese, and the infamous Bataan death march, the troops on Corregidor continued their resistance until in May 1942 General Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese forces. For the last phase of resistance, around 7000 troops sheltered from constant Japanese bombardment in the Malinta tunnel - a main tunnel about 200 metres long with lateral tunnels forming barracks and hospitals.

Malinta tunnel
Malinta tunnel interior

We took a tour of the island on a 'tramvia' - an attempt to recreate the trams that once joined the various sites of the island - and went to the sound and light show that described the experiences of the Malinta tunnel. Our visit raised the usual questions of how best to represent the past to those of us inhabiting different times and different cultures. Coming from Australia I have no difficulty in accepting that we need to memorialise defeats as well as victories, and, in this case, Corregidor is also a site of victory as there was a battle in 1945 in which the island was re-taken from the Japanese. Inevitably, history needs to be simplified for casual tourists, and in a country where many of the inhabitants, including some of the still most powerful families, either were forced or chose to cooperate with the invading Japanese forces, 'history' can be a divisive force and is best dealt with delicately. One of my greatest regrets is that a visit to the island isn't possible for more people, as the 90 minute boat trip to and from the island and cost of the tour is prohibitively expensive for most Filipinos.

War history isn't my thing at all, but I'm always fascinated by people's stories in challenging circumstances. How did General Wainwright cope emotionally with surrender after resisting so valiantly and fruitlessly? What were the stories of the female nurses who chose to stay on the island through the worst of the bombardment and nurse the injured? How did the US and Filipino troops relate to one another when forced into close proximity? What risks were taken by residents of Bataan in smuggling supplies to the island?

Inevitably, there were lots of stories we weren't able to hear.

Corregidor coast


Anonymous said...

The photo is beautiful and dignified. It looks like a lovely piece, and I can understand why you bought it.

We have some Michael Wolf photos of public housing dwellers in Hong Kong and I don't see them as poverty porn (but then again, porn is apparently in the eye of the beholder)!

DrK said...

its funny you know, im not into war histories either but i find myself working with them at the moment mostly because, as you just said, there are so many stories there that we havent heard, that we dont hear because they dont fit neat national narratives. it so important to try and uncover them. that whole island looks amazing, as is that photo. she looks so dignified. i really like it.