The Counter-Archive of Alfonso Ongpin: A Methodological Essay

Binondo Church, Chinatown, Manila, 1902. Photo: University of Michigan


This essay defines the methods I am using to examine a selection of Real Photo Postcards (RPPC) from two sets of archives. Both sets were taken in the Philippines during the early years of American colonial rule (1898-1946). One consists of ethnological portraits of tribesmen produced by American colonial administrators and the other, privately-made studio portraits by Alfonso Ongpin of a bourgeois Filipino family. I discuss the complementing notions of the archive from Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and then query this pairing with ideas by Filipino socialist thinker Isabelo de los Reyes. Thereafter, I discuss the materiality and visual features of RPPCs which suggests that the studio portraits served as a counter-archive to ethnological pictures. I reflect on the compatibility of the concept of visual sovereignty and survivance in my comparisons that demonstrate how photographs can be public and colonial, and contrastingly, private and counter-hegemonic. Through a re-reading of historian Vicente Rafael insights on bourgeois portraiture, I established that the makers of these photographic postcards addressed an invisible third party correspondent. The ethnological photographs addressed the colonial state under whose authority such pictures were taken and circulated; but in the counter-archive, the recipient is a contingent entity located in a future time, a deferred reader and perceived inheritor of a visually sovereign future.

Keywords: kodak, ilford, real photo postcards, binondo, filipino-chinese, survivance, counter-hegemony

Email the author for the full article

Create a website or blog at