A few days in the Cordillera and some thoughts

Almost two weeks into my journey I am still feeling excited and fascinated, but there’s also a whole lot of frustration. These are probably the usual initial feelings that arise any time I visit somewhere new.

What am I excited about? The very idea of new, before unseen places still excites me very much. The fascination has come from the incredibly interesting history and culture of the people of the Cordillera mountain range. A couple of visits to the area’s museums and a glance at some photos from the old times couldn’t have left a person like me indifferent. The problem and a partial source of frustration is that most of the exciting, amazing stuff related to actual people now survives only in museums and photographs. One isn’t likely to find much living tradition in the form of costumes, adornments or even houses these days.

Some of it is there, there are a few villages the odd old traditional, wooden, grass-roof house here and there, as well as some old folks with tattoos and women with some fascinating adornments like a snake’s spine, used as a hair band. But these few remaining “relics” from the past are quite inaccessible or at least not accessible in the way that I’d want to encounter them. There’s surprisingly little real information about what’s out in the villages, even in the museums and thus so far, the only way to get out to the traditional villages has been with a guide.

I guess I have a problem with guides when it comes to what I do. I think most guides are great if you want to take a walk in the woods/jungle, do some sight-seeing and learn a bit about the places which you’re passing. However, when you’re photographing people, it’s different, you need to have the right person helping you out. Usually a guide, at least in my experience is not the right person. The reason firstly is that I am not a tourist, I have a specific purpose and this confuses a regular guide. This part can be fixed though and the more important reason is that we have different motives. My primary motive is not money, a professional guide’s is. Guiding is a job, most often, it is a job before it is a passion and after doing a job for many years it’s probably natural for someone to want to cut corners and to simply want to get to the end of the work-day as soon as possible.

Once money is involved many attachments and an endless array of issues arise. Something that could be more pure, a cultural exchange of a sort, an interesting chat with the right person, often becomes something that can essentially be called a “consumption of culture” when you are with a guide. I hate being a “consumer of culture”. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with it and in some cases, as in Vanuatu the money from this “consumption” helps entire communities, but this is still not what I like to do.

My personal approach when I ‘m photographing people is to build some genuine relationships, friendships. I try to go into villages with people who are excited about sharing their culture, people who are happy to have a guest. The actual clicking of the shutter is such a small part of the photographic process when it comes to making photos of people. The things before and even after that click matter much, much more. It’s the state of mind that I’m in, it’s how the person I am photographing perceives me. Am I a guest or a “customer” of a sort? I believe that these things will be reflected in the final result.

There is a point to this rant. I often get emails asking me about my approach to photographing people, the question has been raised a few times in the two weeks that I’ve been here too. I think that a lot of my approach was and is quite instinctual, but I am now better able to put it into words. Overall the topic of people photography is one that needs a lot of attention, but I have been reminded that if you want to make truly special photographs, one of the main things is to not be a “consumer” in the sense that I’ve mentioned. One needs to be as much on the same page as the person in the photograph as possible, or at least as much on the same page as the person who is acting as your bridge between you and whoever you’re framing in the camera viewfinder. Everything else comes naturally and fairly easily if that’s in place. The act of making the photo no longer becomes an act of taking, but a collaboration of a sort.

I have not had any collaboration of that kind yet and I am not going to have it in the Cordillera any time soon, since I have left the more remote, semi-traditional areas for now. I may return in March, when it’s drier, but most importantly when I might hook up with some more like-minded individuals from a university in Baguio.

I did like the Cordillera though. The people in the smaller towns, away from Baguio are quite different to the other Filipinos in the country. As mountain folks around many places on earth they tend to speak a little less and are a bit more timid. Nevertheless, a smile still results in a return smile and everyone I’ve met, without exception has been very polite and just generally nice.

I’m not yet sure where I we are going next, but I think it will be in the direction of Tacloban, where my motorcycle awaits me and some final paperwork. Oh, how I long to be able to ride and not to have to catch the buses up and down the winding mountain roads. :)