Let There be Blood! Good Friday with Infanta Penitents

Good Friday in the town of Infanta may have very well been the most absurd experience I’ve ever had in all of my travels. Just when I thought I was starting to understand how things “work” here, I was proven otherwise. The documentary photographer part in me was saying “Chill dude, you’ve seen ‘unusual’ rituals before”. But the regular person kept screaming, “This is some craaazy shit!” As the titles suggests, there was indeed blood involved. Just felt obliged to warn you all.

The act of self-flagellation is strange enough in itself for the majority of us, but the most absurd part of what I experienced was actually the atmosphere in town and in the Barangay (village) from which most of the penitents came. When I think of these sacred, religious rituals, I imagine a fairly solemn mood. I don’t think of laughter, drinking of alcohol, smoking. I certainly don’t think of kids running and playing all around. But, that’s exactly what took place during Good Friday in Infanta.

The older penitents were quite reserved and it did seem like the experience was very personal for them, but the younger folks, well, they casually flogged themselves, cut their backs with blades, exchanged stories, drank rum (it’s part of the tradition) and puffed away at countless cigarettes. Oh, and I should mention another key detail. These “festivities” have become a bit of a tourist attraction. In turn, when something becomes a tourist attraction in the Philippines, whatever place we’re talking about takes on a theme-park-like resemblance. For those from Australia, think “Easter Show”, but with lots of blood. :)

And so, the tourists come in hordes and in general they don’t really give a shit about what’s taking place, they just want the souvenir photo, to crack a joke, to have a laugh. The funny/odd thing is, most of the penitents didn’t actually give a shit about the tourists. I thought they'd be disturbed, but in fact, a lot of them (not all) must have felt like stars for the day.  Mums, dads, children and groups of giggling girls, all wanted to have a picture with the bloodied, masked penitents of Infanta.

The self flagellation started around 2 am, the penitents made their way from the village to the town church, flogging themselves along the way. After a prayer, the flogging continued along the town’s main street. Some men lingered on and hung around the town centre, which according to our friend Louie, who approaches this thing in a more sacred manner is basically showing off. The men are supposed to go to church, pray and then come back to their homes and continue the self-flagellation there.

Eventually everyone did make their way back and continued flogging themselves outside of their homes. The tourists followed, in their cars. By 7 am there was a traffic jam along the village road, where usually you might not see a car for hours. Large SUVs would stop in the middle of that road, the windows would roll down and a hand with a camera would come out to snap the “freak-show”. It got pretty insane. Initially appalled by the whole thing, I decided to pass on making strong judgements and simply observed.

The most crazy “event” however was still to come. It came in the form of circumcision of a few pre-pubescent boys. Thankfully it wasn’t done along the road (though I don’t exclude the possibility of this happening one day). It did however draw a bit of a crowd of mostly local boys and a couple of tourists (probably form Manila).

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see or shoot the thing, but my curiosity and desire to tell a more complete story got the better of me. The few shots below were made despite the fact that I was cringing and tensing my entire body at the sight of the boys faces and the sound of the wooden stick against the knife. I didn’t look much in the “area” where the “action” was taking place. You can also see from the images below that this isn’t exactly done in a sterile environment.

Ok, so what can I say about all that I saw? Despite my cynical, perhaps even appalled tone I don’t mean to be too critical. While these rituals might seem barbaric, the folks performing them are far from barbarians. In fact they’re some of the nicest folks one’s likely to encounter, adding another layer of absurdity to the whole thing. The tourists are as annoying as flies on shit, but for most part they’re nice folks too, just oblivious to the world outside of theirs.

I try to take away something from every one of such strange encounters whenever I have them. It was a little challenging in this case, but in the end, I realized that the folks in the “self-flagellation” village, the penitents and the circumcised kids are much like a lot of other rural Filipinos. They cling to their beliefs with a passion, but at the same time they love to have fun. They laugh at danger, difficulty and pain. They’re tough as nails, but simultaneously they’re gentle and warm as can be. Oh, and of course like all Filipinos they are incredibly accepting and tolerant, almost beyond belief. There’s definitely something worth admiring in these qualities.

The Philippines are full of contradictions and paradoxes, I already learned that in the first week of being here. It’s impossible to apply “western” reasoning to what happens in this nation. Good Friday in Infanta was just the latest and perhaps most poignant reminder of this.

P.S. - A big thanks to Jacob Maentz. I mentioned that he shot this stuff before and he was the one who brought it to my attention. We actually hung out for a couple of days. You'll probably be able to soon see his own coverage of the day HERE.