Photo Essay

Portraits from the Field

I remember quite vividly the first time I discovered Irving Penn’s images from Papua New Guinea—of tribal men and women in elaborate mud masks and headdresses. Here was a photographer best known for his celebrity portraits and fashion images, in the middle of the jungle taking pictures of the most “primitive” members of humanity.

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It only took a split second to understand his point: That these people were far from primitive. The images Penn created were a document of the intricate and beautiful manifestation of culture that people are capable of. 
 
So, as a young photographer, I decided to follow in those very large footsteps, traveling with a background whenever I could, taking portraits of people from Tahiti to Costa Rica. 
 
Of course it is impossible to approach the iconic status of Penn’s work photographed so many years ago. But it is possible to understand the process of investing time with strangers and photographing them in a more formal (mobile) studio environment. I would argue that these formal portraits enable the subjects to pose, to choose how they are to be photographed. By using techniques usually reserved for fashion models and glossy magazines, these images attempt to make the banal, the normal, into magical subjects. 

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The collection of the images published here were made during the filming of the TV show What I See. In the final run, you can see that I worked with a small black cloth, set up in any quiet corner we could find. The subjects range from farmers to fishermen, faith healers to seafarers. The idea was to capture portraits of Filipinos in the field, to bring a mobile studio to them. 
 
I will argue that these images represent cultural, social and economic diversity—how Filipino identity is plural and not the simplistic concept that we try to cram under the blanket term “Pinoy pride.” 

In reality these are just portraits of everyday people. Travel does not always have to be about the next secret beach or the best resorts. I find that most of the time, it really is about a conversation with a farmer or an encounter with a faith healer—it’s about new viewpoints, not just new places.