A.G.: Coming back from a small hiatus, I’m bringing you my analysis and some personal thoughts of Manila photographed by Jun Abe and published by Vaccum Press. I would like to apologize if the images of the book is bad, the actual book is absolutely brilliant. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled features next week!
Manila, Philippines. August, 1983. Then President Ferdinand Marcos just lifted Martial Law a few years prior but still hold absolute power over the Philippines. The country was in a state of constant flux due to President’s’ aggressive development plans under his dictatorship. This dictatorship was met with heavy opposition from his political rivals. Most notable is Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. It is in this month that Ninoy was shot dead in the then called Manila International Airport. With political turmoil and social instability plaguing the country, it was in this period when Jun Abe, armed with his camera, photographed the city of Manila.
30 years later, Vaccum Press comes out with the photographs coming from that trip.
Abe simply shows the city as he sees it, no secret messages or revealing truths, it is about the month he spent in Manila. What he shows is more or less the same as what you would see if you walk there today. A densely populated area where people go about their business and the occasional bystanders. A derelict capital city with an intense sense of history which was heavily bombed and destroyed during the second world war. Despite the massive infrastructure and modernization projects, it is struggling to regain the beauty it once had.
The editing of the book seemed to highlight that struggle. It just jumps erratically from one image to another. Its as if it was just pieced together, bound, and placed in one book but I’m sure it is not the case as the images are given space to breathe by having one image per spread and there is and odd flow showing the prevailing themes.
Two recurring elements can be seen in the book one of them is religion. Being the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, the Philippines is one of the most (if the not, the most) devout and pious believers of the catholic faith. Religion is part of life and is always present in all parts of the country. Manila also hosts a sizable number of faithful to the Islamic faith which Abe did not fail to show.
That is why I find it intriguing that the other recurring theme is imprisonment. The way it is presented is not so much a cause and effect but rather, a present and looming factor in the lives of Manileños. I’m not sure if it was indeed religion that pushed Abe to point his camera at imprisonment but it can be argued that Martial Law or the poverty seen around the city could be reasons as well. I think he just found it interesting. So interesting that he obtained access to the over crowded Manila City Jail.
As to why he was there is a mystery that John Sypal pointed it out best in his review of the book:
“…the flow of images is structured so that you don’t really know how you got there, or even when you arrived. Just like the rest of the country he saw under an August sun almost 30 years ago every surface is worn, ragged, sometimes missing teeth, and decorated.”
I would assume that the photos Abe produced from the prison might illicit shock and disgust but to me it was something that sadly, my eyes are used to. However, his images from the prison are perhaps the best in the book.
As for each his images, they contain the classical characteristics of a street photograph such as layering, juxtapositions, and geometries which are masterful. Classical street photography emphasizes on being invisible but Abe’s images breaks that notion of invisibility by having his subjects recognize his presence. It is evident in the smiles and weird stares thrown at him as if to say “Why are you here?” or “Why are you taking a picture of me?”. This reinforces his messages that he was just there: Taking pictures and doing nothing else.
On a personal note
I developed an obsession with the book. Immersing myself in the photographs, it’s flow, and his purpose and meaning behind it. I jotted down a lot of questions and asked people for opinions if Abe’s Manila accurately describes the state of the country during 1983. I guess my obsession stems from the fact that this could possibly be our “The Americans”.
Robert Frank’s seminal masterpiece is called by the John Szarkowski as the quintessential window of the american life during the Eisenhower era. It showed that a photo novel was possible in communicating a message or statement about a place. There is no question that The Americans left a great legacy that influenced photographers and put the appreciation and the art of photography into the spotlight.
I was wishing Manila would have the same impact to Filipinos as The Americans had with Americans and westerners. Photography in the Philippines has not reached a point where it is given high regard like in Japan (although there are various groups, organizations, and people trying to change that) and I was hoping that this book could be “the one” that could bring photography to mass consciousness. It didn’t have that impact I was looking for but it made me realized something: photography need not be grand or romanticized. Sometimes, photography boils down to showing the obvious or the thing that you have seen. Nothing deep or insightful to it. The meaning of the photograph is the relationship that the photographer built with the viewer through the image he made. The set of images by Abe did not meet the expectations I want but rather it taught me to appreciate photography for what it really is: A bunch of elements stuck in a frame. Some are organized beautifully like Cartier Bresson, or full of meaning as Frank, or for the case of Jun Abe, as simple as showing where he was.
Abe did not concern himself with making a socio-political statement or revealing a something new about Manila despite the timing of his presence in the place. The book just shows Abe’s time in Manila and snapping images that are unusual, sometimes touristy, and very third world. An evidence that he was here in the month of August in the year 1983.
Aside from what John Sypal said about the book, I invite you to check out Derick Choo’s opinion over at Invisible Photographer Asia (and better photographs of the book!) as well as this article highlighting his thoughts on some of Jun Abe’s other works (worth a read!)
What do you think? Should I do more book analysis? Do you agree or disagree with some of thoughts? Is there anything I haven’t mentioned that is worth noting? Again, I am obsessed with this work and I am sincerely open to your opinions and thoughts so please share it in the comments below :)