Penman No. 265: Photography as Propaganda


Penman for Monday, August 21, 2017


I HAVE a cabinet in my home office where I keep shelves of my most valued books—first editions, signed copies, antiquarian volumes, and such. One shelf is occupied by a special mini-collection of books from the turn of the 20th century, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of them having to do with what we’ve come to call the Philippine-American War. Bearing titles like War in the Philippines and Life of Dewey, Under MacArthur in Luzon, and An Army Boy in the Philippines, the books purport to chronicle—“celebrate” might be the better term—the occupation of the Philippines by the United States from 1898 onward.

I picked up many of these books more than 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest and on the prowl for Philippine-related material in used bookstores and flea markets. When eBay came along, I found many more, and was pleased to secure a few, often for less than $20 plus shipping.

While old, these books weren’t necessarily rare, because they must have been printed in the high tens or hundreds of thousands as a form of patriotic propaganda that straddled journalism and popular entertainment. Often written in a triumphal tone and exulting in the victory of America—then a rising naval and imperial power—over decrepit Spain, they blended into travelogues exploring the US’ new possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines—turning a military project into a story of adventure in exotic lands.


These stories—and their accompanying illustrations—were very much on my mind last week when Beng and I attended a fascinating lecture at Ateneo de Manila University by an expert who had made that dark period (which few Americans and, sadly, just as few Filipinos seem to remember) part of her academic specialty. Dr. Nerissa Balce was in Manila to read from and talk about her book Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive (AdMU Press, 2017; U of Michigan Press, 2016), and we thought it was a good opportunity to catch up with and learn from an old friend (she married my Trivial Pursuit antagonist, the poet Fidelito Cortes).

After working as a journalist in Manila, Nerissa went to the University of California-Berkeley for a PhD in Ethnic Studies, took a postdoc at the University of Oregon, and taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before joining the State University of New York-Stony Brook’s Department of Asian and Asian American Studies.

Through photographs and a refreshingly lucid lecture shorn of much of the academic jargon that often renders these presentations impenetrable to many listeners—even fellow professors like me—Nerissa showed how American photographers who were (to use a later term) embedded with the US military forces used their work to celebrate but then also obliquely if unintentionally criticize the violence of a colonial war. Photographs, she would argue in her book, have a life of their own, once taken and published; they may have been originally meant to depict the power of one side over another, and the abject position of the presumptive loser in the conflict, but seen or used a different way, they can convey other messages, like the subject’s insistent humanity or resistance.

I’d seen many such images in my books from that war; one of them—F. Tennyson Neely’s Fighting in the Philippines—typically portrays American soldiers towering angularly over the slack corpses of Filipino “insurgents” (as our fighters would be referred to for the longest time) as Filipino gravediggers prepare to bury their compatriots. This was what Washington wanted the American public to see: visual proof of American power and dominance. It must have been effective propaganda, especially when accompanied by narratives explaining America’s “civilizing” mission.


But, as Nerissa and other scholars point out, the very same photographs proved useful to those opposed to America’s imperial expansion. The Anti-Imperialist League published a collection of antiwar poems using a picture of a corpse-filled trench as its frontispiece. “The different political uses for the same photograph suggest the paradoxical power of the photographic image, and how photographs can celebrate as well as expose the violence of colonialism and war.” She goes beyond the battlefield to discuss how the empire shaped our image, and how that image, in a way, shaped the empire. Pictures of native women doing embroidery suggested a colony stabilizing into happy domesticity under a benign regime.

I’m not a historian, but if you want a reasonably reliable account of that period, read Brian McAllister Linn’s The Philippine War 1899-1902 (The University Press of Kansas, 2000); to see how that war was waged on the cultural front, Balce’s book makes a great companion piece. In this present time when, more than ever, pictures speak louder than words, and dead men’s bodies have begun to pile up again, we’d have to wonder what new empire is growing out of the shadows.


[Photo from]


Penman No. 177: Compress, One More, Wacky!


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.








Penman No. 123: The Power of Panorama

Penman for Monday, November 17, 2014


I’M BY no means a professional photographer, but as a fairly frequent traveler and occasional journalist, I’ve had to take my own photographs to accompany my articles and my blog pieces. Not surprisingly, some of my pictures have been good, some bad, although I would hope that I’ve shot more of the former than the latter overall. I’ve been dabbling in photography, after all, since the 1970s, when we learned to develop and print our own black-and-white film, and were ever aware of how much film and paper cost, not to mention the SLRs and the lenses that we lugged around.

Digital photography, of course, has changed all that. I started toting a 2-megapixel Canon Ixus around 2001—costing me what a new iPhone 6 would today—and instantly I knew that there was no going back to dark rooms and smelly chemicals, at least for an amateur like me. (That Ixus, by the way, took amazingly sharp shots, one of which I still use as the wallpaper for my big iMac—proof that it isn’t all about megapixels.) Since then I’ve dealt with a train of other digital Canons, Casios, Panasonics, and Leicas, all of them rangefinders. And then, a few years ago, I switched to a Nikon DSLR, followed by the inevitable and financially excruciating lens chase that every photography enthusiast knows. Eventually I got those I really wanted—a long zoom, an ultrawide—and happily shot away in sorties to China, the US, Israel, Corregidor, Batanes, and many other places worth toting a heavy bagful of gear to.

And then the iPhone 4 came along. All of a sudden, I had a phone whose camera seemed good and sharp enough for most daily uses (night is something else). More and more, I began taking just the iPhone and leaving the bulky DSLR behind. Aside from and because of its small size, shooting with your phone’s camera has its advantages; you can shoot unobtrusively, within seconds of spotting your subject, and you won’t look like you’re begging to be mugged and to have your precious cargo carted away.

Cameraphones, conversely, have their disadvantages. They’re generally not too good for night shots, unless your subjects are brightly lit, and while the digital zoom can make your subjects bigger, the closer you get, the grainier the image becomes. In other words, for best quality and for mission-critical work, there’s really no perfect pocket substitute for the big cameras and lenses. (Other than the Nikon, my favorite standalone camera for many years was the Leica D-Lux 3, which created razor-sharp images in the 16:9 format.)

But that said, for most uses that don’t require more than a 4”x 6” printout or screen image, an iPhone’s camera will do just fine. My iPhone 5s was the only camera I brought with me on our family’s two-week jaunt across Western Europe last May, and it served us superbly in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Venice, Florence, and Paris—all places with fabulous photographic possibilities. Sure, I missed the kind of tightly cropped detail that a telephoto lens is great for, but casual tourism is mostly about scenery, which means that wide-angle or panoramic shots are more useful.

This brings me to my topic for the week, the power of panorama. It’s a power that’s been right there in your iPhone since iOS6 (and very possibly in other smartphones as well), waiting to be unleashed. A panorama is a very wide, narrow picture that covers practically everything before you, and maybe even behind you. The built-in Camera app on the iPhone offers several options for picturetaking: time-lapse, slo-mo, video, photo, square, and pano.

We take most pictures with the “photo” option, yielding a regular rectangular frame, vertical or horizontal. If you’re happy with those pictures, fine. But you should know that, especially when you’re in a spectacular tourist spot and need or want to capture as much of that scene to bring home with you, then the “pano” or panoramic option can be your best friend.

It takes a bit of self-training, and there are many guides online to help you take a good panoramic pic (just Google “taking panoramic shots with an iPhone”). What it basically involves is choosing and standing at a good vantage point, opening the camera, choosing “pano”, pressing the button, then moving on your heels in a semi-circle from left to right, following the guide arrow until the full panorama is taken.

Your first shots will likely be misfires, full of unwanted detail, bodies with missing heads, the same person appearing in two or three different spots, very bright and then very dark bands, and so on. But over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and learn to avoid the pitfalls. For example, you’ll learn to generally avoid scenes with lots of moving figures (although the motion blur and duplication of people can also be aesthetically appealing); you’ll learn to pre-visualize the scene, deciding just how much to cover instead of the full 240-degree sweep of the app.

If you’re careful and lucky (you’ll need to be both), you can capture a scene that’s not only visually breathtaking, but also socially observant, like a Hogarth drawing with a lot of interesting detail in the little corners. That’s what I was going for in my pano shot of an afternoon in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, where an anti-fascist rally literally marched right into the restful mood of other Madrileños in the frame. My shot of the riverfront of Cold Spring in upstate New York seeks to blend natural scenery with human habitation, and that of an early evening in Manhattan’s Bryant Park plays on light and shadow, and the city’s iconic skyline.

Don’t forget that you can and probably should crop and edit the image afterwards, to remove ragged edges up and down caused by uneven shooting (you weren’t following the arrow, tsk tsk), to go for a tighter frame, and to adjust the exposure. Consider, too, other apps like Google’s free Photo Sphere, which yields even more stunning—and seamless—360-degree pictures, for a fully immersive experience approaching virtual reality.

Whether you’re in your office or on top of the Great Wall of China, a good panoramic shot can be your best and most comprehensive reminder of where you were and what it felt like. But you’d have to remember the option. Speaking of the Great Wall, we were there a couple of Decembers ago, all by our freezing lonesome in Mutianyu. Rendered speechless by the majesty, it was only on the van back to downtown Beijing that I realized that I’d been on top of the world—and forgot to take it all in.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 34: Pens Noir

I DIDN’T realize how much more interesting my favorite pens could look until one afternoon this week when—during a long and rather boring meeting at the office—I played around with the two pens in my pocket and with my iPhone, and then applied the “noir” filter in my Camera app. Then I went home and took a few more shots of my other pens. Voila—a whole new way of looking at fine pens.