The counter-gaze in the Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) of an “Igorote group”
“Igorote Group”, Photo: Dean Worcester Collection- No names provided
Among the recently digitized photographs from the Dean C. Worcester Photographic Collection is an RPPC of a group of six young Igorots. Nothing much is written about the Igorots on the front or verso of the RPPC except for a small caption in white ink that says they belong to the “Igorot Group.” The young men stand in various degrees of attention all wearing long strips of handwoven loincloth. The men in the back row look despondent. The figure in the center seems to be asking a question or impatiently waiting for the camera to shutter. My attention is consistently being taken by the figure on the lower left, the man who is the least muscularly built in the group. He could be anywhere between 15-25 years of age. He is the only one not looking at the camera, as if distracted by some happening beyond the frame. Perhaps he has grown weary of the exercise and is impatient for this photo to be taken. In his figure, I remember Tina Campt’s analysis of stillness at the exact moment when the camera “radically disables” the movement of its subject. Campt compares the act of photography to being “arrested” or institutionally remembered (75). Understood in this context, an indexical image, such as the RPPC of the group of young Igorots, which meant to communicate to the recipient that the sender has been in the vicinity of these exotic characters, can be understood as a form of bondage that can only speak of its realities from below (98). Their quiet resistance in the quotidian practice of ethnological cataloguing continues to manifest through the punctum of the counter-gaze and the refusal to look at the camera. Through a close reading of their inattention to the camera, perhaps due to the long shutter speed or heat of the sun, the RPPC becomes an “indisputably haptic repository of re/collection” (71).
Harvey Young, in his chapter “Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photograph, and the Black Body,” parallels this idea in his concept of “stillness” as the slave’s ironic “active performance of arrest” (27). By being compelled to sit in front of the camera, Young contends that Delia from the Zealy photographs becomes the embodiment of “‘specimen,’ and an idealized xenotype of the ‘other’”(38). The young Igorots in this group photo were certainly treated as specimens but they were also treated as an object of curiosity, characters that were deemed fit to be captured in postcards and sent, primarily to metropolitan audiences in the United States. This concept dovetails with Allan Sekula’s notion of the instrumental nature of the photograph as a “silence that silences” (6). The primacy put upon photographs by criminologists such as Alphonse Bertillon, which we will see more clearly in the case of Daniel Folkmar, who applied the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement, elevated its status as evidence for potential deviant behaviour (6). The Igorot came to represent the “uncivilized” other in the American colony.
Both Harvey Young and Tina Campt, explore the shift in the relationship between sitter and image producer by introducing an autonomous machine into the process of translating one’s appearance into an image. Young, in particular, proffers the idea that the “stillness” of the photograph serves to give us not only a trans-historical memorial of captive people but also subjects whose fixed gaze pierce through the photograph and look upon its viewer. My focus on this particular photograph rather than the larger collection follows Campt’s critique of the tendency to focus on a larger archive that emphasizes the seriality of the compulsory photo; such seriality holds its subject captive beyond the years of their physical captivity (81). Through this short and focused analysis, I echo Alfonso T. Ongpin’s counter-archive, where the mere relocation of the photographs from an institutional archive to a personal collection, foils the genre of the ethnological photography, which is meant to record the biometric inferiority of the captured subject. Here I am registering the young Igorot’s counter gaze that according to Campt “guaranteed both their fugitivity and the futurity of that fugitivity” that allows them to “speak” to those willing to listen (97).
1. From David P. Barrows, The Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes for the Philippine Islands, Circular of Information Instructions for Volunteer Field Workers, Manila, December 1901
2. See Mary Jane Rodriquez, 2010, “Reading a Colonial Bureau: The politics of cultural investigation of the non-Christian Filipinos,” Social Science Dilman 6:1-27
3. March 3, 1927; correspondence in UMMA Worcester records
4. For a recent discussion of the use of photography in U.S. ethnological surveys conducted between 1900 and 1905, and the commercial uses, cultural effects, and political debates that such photographs instigated, see Paul A. Kramer, ”The Pragmatic Empire: U.S. Anthropology and Colonial Politics in the Occupied Philippines,1898-1916” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1998). See also Vergara, Displaying Filipinos.
Harvey Young, “Chapter two: Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photography, and the Black Body,” Embodying Black experience:Stillness, critical memory, and the Black body. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Tina Campt, “Haptic Temporalities,” Listening to Images, Durham : Duke University Press, 2017.
Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October, Winter, 1986, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986), 3-6.
Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American photographs : images as history, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans / Alan Trachtenberg, Hill and Wang, (New York, N.Y.) 1989, 60.