From the perspective of memory, photography appears
as a jumble that consists partly of garbage…
—Siegfried Kracauer, Photography
I’m going to be in Manila soon, for a month’s visit to see family and friends, and of course I’ll have my camera with me, though I didn’t use it much the last time I was there (in 2007.)
I did a search for some sort of “list of things to shoot while you are traveling” on the internet, and found a few that were sort of what I was after, though because these lists are guidelines for all travellers, to all countries, they’re pretty broad. There were basic topics like water, old people, young people, religion, sports, socializing, rich, poor, economy, food, art, history, views, architecture…
There was one category called “Odd/whacky/other”—like, huh? Why would you want to take anything else?
And there was that ever-popular theme (embodying everything there is to deplore about hackneyed National Geographic fodder) called Modern Vs. Traditional. One is assailed immediately by images of a water buffalo and farmer against glass skyscrapers in the setting sun…or hot young things walking leggily past wrinkled old women hunched over rice paddy mud…or lion dancers in full costume taking a burger break at McDonald’s…or (this one was offered by my friend Jan Carter) the photographer and his camera, with a zillion ragged members of the tribe (take your pick…Peru, Sakhalin, Kalinga, Angola) gawking behind him. The clichéd ‘cultural anthropology’ photograph.
I realized that if I took the lazy approach and followed someone’s internet list, I’d end up with a collection of mediocre photographs, good for little more than some cheesy Visit The Philippines website, a low-budget travel agency’s brochure, or yet another educational DVD marketed to schools (like this photograph, which was used to illustrate the geographical event “A river” As in, a generic river. Oh boy.)
So I got off my lazy butt and wrote a hit list of my own:
- meat and fish markets
- the slums
- the stark, the raving, the mad
- street children and beggars
- funeral parlours and tombstone carvers
- the train tracks and the slums along the tracks
- Chinatown and Muslim town
- the heartbreaking and nightmarish Manila Zoo
- the pedophiles
- the animals: horses pulling the carts, the alley cats, the pigeons, the dogs…
- street food and street vendors
- pedicabs and jeepneys, because they’re awesome
- plus many of the conventional topics I mentioned at the beginning of this post, of course…
In the end, it’s all garbage, anyway, but if I’m going to collect garbage, it may as well be different from everyone else’s garbage, no?
I think that because it was My Home for 31 years, I have never bothered to photograph The Philippines seriously. Took it for granted, as one does those all those familiar, everyday sights and places. This time around, however, I feel a real desire to take pictures of the things that make her distinctive (perhaps this is my way of gently acknowledging or announcing, to myself as well as to others, that Manila is no longer My Home…nor is the Philippines my ‘homeland’ anymore, for that matter. I have grown estranged from her, I have grown away. I could not go back there to live, and be happy, again.
Sad, yes, but hopeful, too…it is a re-enactment of the ritual of the child who grows up and walks away from the place where she was raised, this way that human beings have spread out into the world for centuries: driven away by conditions at home…or in search of conditions that couldn’t be had at home.
There are those who choose to stay—if you take them away, they wilt like Dutch flowers at the equator, their hearts are so emotionally woven into the soil of their families and homeland—and there are those who cannot wait to get out, desperate to shake off the ties that bind them to a place.
Kris and I were born the latter: he built his first wooden boat—in the dirty courtyard of their Communist-era apartment in Prague, and having never seen the sea— at the age of 10. And the first time my mother found me gregariously engaged with strangers, several heart-stopping blocks away from our Makati City apartment, I was three years old.
I’ve been wandering off, further and further afield, ever since. So much that I approach this upcoming trip to Manila like a tourist (with a list of subjects to shoot!), having moved so far away from it in my heart. Is this what Eliot meant when he wrote “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”?