A Man, A Camera, An Idea: Manila

I went out for a walk with the idea of taking some photos of the Philippines that’s a little closer to home than the beaches and boat rides I’ve posted previously. Manila is nothing like that. The only body of water here is a polluted bay that would make Washington DC’s Potomac seem drinkable. The only thing remotely beach-textured is the black grime and sludge on the streets. The overwhelming majority of buildings in Manila are poorly constructed, ad hoc shacks that threaten the boundaries of the word “building.”

I’ve hinted at my apprehension about cameras. I recently was gifted my first digital camera. I’d held out for years in favor of rarely used disposable cameras on a variety of grounds: the cost, the distraction of taking too-many photos, the spontaneity of disposables over tedious digital retakes, the weight of an expensive possession while traveling. Those reasons hide a moral philosophical objection that is harder to state succinctly but became apparent on my walk.

At the start of our walk, before encountering the crowds on the street that make Manila, it was easy to take photos of the cheap shacks and broken-down cars and scrap metal. It was like photographing landscape: the inversion of a fine beach in Palawan, a mountain range in the Andes. As soon as I was aware of people watching me take photos, I became uncomfortable. The presence of a camera creates a relationship between the photographer and the objects, one of control, influence, and power. I already stick out in Manila — in only the fanciest two or three clubs and bars do I ever see another American. Here in the neighborhood, I’ve never seen another American with discernible European heritage. Aware of this, aware of my status as a comparatively wealthy American, aware of myself as a camera-toting tourist, I feel like a hunter, someone here to collect once-living objects and send them back home for my friends to marvel at. I am somewhat revolting.

But now some kids are saying, “What’s up, Joe? Hey man! Hey! Take a photo!” Everyone is happy to have their photo taken; America exports its photo-narcissism. Two girls are giggling and posing. Mothers bring their kids! Young males look tough. “Hey, what’s your name?” “You play some pool?” The camera separates us; the camera brings us together. “Hey, NBA star!” I particularly like that one. “Give me five!” A guy who looks no older than me, shirtless, holds up his palm. I slap it. “…five pesos!” He laughs. I laugh. Time to move on. More photos, more curious people. Now we’ve assembled a formidable ragtag gang of youngsters. Group photo. Try to move on. Where did my friends go anyway? They are further along the path, talking to each other. I do my best to excuse myself: “Yeah, I live two blocks away. Barangay La Paz. We should play basketball sometime.” Need to come back sometime with a liter of beer and time to kill.

I put the camera back in my pocket and walk. Some effeminate teenagers watch me, and follow at a distance. Tagalog, not English, is all around me. I see a sort of street funeral going on; there’s a casket, some lights, a tent. I can’t take a photo of that, that would be crossing the line. It would be a good photo. I walk on. The street I live on, two blocks away, is quieter, richer. I am aware again of myself as an outsider looking in. It’s OK. I got some good photos.

The Neighborhood, Manila

Click the image for the gallery.

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5 responses to “A Man, A Camera, An Idea: Manila

  1. A good post. Definitely picks up steam at the end. You should write along these lines more often — not so much the philosophical stuff but the description. The part about the funeral resonates.

  2. I think you make an interesting point when you talk about the collection of images and experiences as a sort of “package” to take back with you. I’d like to think about that one more.

  3. In fact, in that sense the tag for this entry Violence of the Camera is extremely on point.

  4. What I like about your videos is flow. Passage, paths, and overlap through time instead of spots. As for the issue of camera self-consciousness, I tend to prefer recording sound walks. It removes the whole issue of lens as barrier/interface.

  5. There’s a NYT article on slum tours here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/travel/09heads.html

    One of the last points is a little lame, something like “slum tours are no substitute for development programs.” I don’t think anyone claims that.

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