Penman for Monday, December 7, 2015
GET SEVEN or more Pinoys together for a group photo and you’ll invariably hear this mantra: “Compress! One more! Wacky!” To the uninitiated foreigner—already surprised by our propensity to grab them by the arm for a quick and giggly shot—they’re orders that demand translation, so here goes:
“Compress!” technically means that not everyone can fit into the shot and that everyone should therefore squeeze together, at which point people will take a deep breath and turn sideways, turning a 40” midsection into what they imagine is a svelter 38”. This process can morph into a quick trip-to-Jerusalem rearrangement of the subjects, if the hold-your-breath trick doesn’t work. “Small ones in front!” or “Kneel! Kneel!” will be the next order of business, followed by a flurry of to-ing and fro-ing, and split-second negotiations over who’s taller than the other by half an inch, or whose knees can take the bending.
“Compress!” can also mean some young swain’s opportunity to snuggle up to an unsuspecting loved one. But even without the side benefit of romance, “Compress!” manifests the Pinoy’s sense of personal space, which is to say, ”I’ll let you dig your elbow into my rib cage, or touch your knee against mine—but I warn you, go no further, lest you think me immodest!”
The coming of the selfie—or more precisely, that new word I picked up from a book launch last week, the “groufie”—has made compression even more necessary than ever—which, let’s admit it, is a lot more fun than the scientific solution, which is to get a wider-angle lens.
“One more!” reaffirms the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong and that the first shot taken will prove to be a bad one, or will mysteriously vanish into some dark photographic abyss, from which no memorable snapshot ever returneth. This seems to have been more likely to happen in the bygone days of film, when everything from a faulty sprocket to invasive sunlight could spoil the most carefully posed portrait. But the onset of digital photography has clearly offered no measure of assurance to the Pinoy, who remains deathly suspicious of solitary shots, and who will scream, from the back of the pack, “One more!,” as if the course of history depended on the preservation of that instant.
And so the photographer dutifully fires off a few more shots, giving the subjects a chance to modulate and modify their poses and expressions—more often for naught, because the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong just happens to be correct, and the camera almost always takes the shot at the worst possible millisecond, when one’s mouth is half-open or one’s eyes are half-closed. This foreknowledge, seared by experience into the Pinoy’s subconscious, likely accounts for the multiplicity of shots taken at every occasion, and “One more!” is never meant to be taken literally, but rather to resound like an echo.
Let’s not forget the equally inevitable complication to this phase. Just when it seems all the angles have been exhausted and the smiles have dried on people’s incisors, some latecomer—who had been blithely chatting away on her cellphone across the grounds, in full view of the pictorial entourage—just has to make a mad dash across the grass, yelling, “Wait! Me, too!” And being the world’s most hospitable people, Pinoys will invariably accommodate the catcher-upper with a frozen smile, even as their eyes glare at her like live coals. And having wedged herself into the frame with a cheery sigh, Ms. Latecomer, of course, will have every right to demand “One more!”
“Wacky!” is probably the most perplexing word in the vocabulary of Pinoy photography for the foreign observer. “Compress!” and “One more!” at least make practical sense, but the command to go “Wacky!”—sometimes given in dead seriousness by some phlegmatic photographer—taxes Occidental logic. To visitors who’ve never witnessed it—meaning, you haven’t been here for more than 24 hours—“Wacky!” means assuming some ridiculous stance, or putting on a clownish face, the permutations of which are theoretically endless, but which typically reduce themselves to tongues stuck out, googly eyes, hands like Mickey Mouse ears, and poses like zombies or broken marionettes.
It isn’t all that strange when the subjects of the “Wacky!” shot are fifteen years old and younger—after all, it’s second nature to juveniles, who don’t need to be asked to act like they were, well, kids. It approaches the bizarre when—say at the closing of the 16th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Society of Gerontology or of the National Consultative Assembly of Tripartite Wage Boards—grown men and women in shiny barongs and power suits are exhorted to do their “Wacky!” best, and deliver on demand.
Professional anthropologists and sociologists (who do the same thing at their conventions, for certain) will have a proper explanation for this behavior, but it can’t be too far-fetched to surmise that the photographic display of Pinoy wackiness is meant to be a healthy release of our inhibitions, even a democratizing gesture of self-effacement and bonhomie. It’s good to look and feel silly once in a while. Never mind that, given our itch to socialize, to see and be seen, “once in a while” happens three times a week on average.
As Paul Anka put it, “the times of your life” will always be worth remembering, and always worth compressing for, one more time, the wackier the better.