Sunday, May 13, 2012


by E. San Juan, Jr.

Is it the case that of all human inventions, the photograph is the most enigmatic and menacing one?

We are informed by the French critic Roland Barthes, in his seminal 1961 essay, "The Photographic Message," that the photograph is a message without a code. All signs produce meaning derived from their position in a system of differences, following Saussure. And ultimately the signifieds of signifiers (words, visual motifs, musical notes) become intelligible within a code of social conventions and cultural beliefs. All art depends on the system of connotations---style, period rhetoric, traditional symbols, stereotypes--for their sounds/shapes to signify. But the photograph is unique because it is self-sufficient in its "analogical plenitude." Does this mean it is a perfect copy of the "real" and needs no code to unlock it?

Almost everyone values photographs as veritable copies of what is real, what appears. Otherwise, we won't hire photographers to our weddings, birthday celebrations, feasts, etc. Look, it's really Nanay and Tatay! Even our local movie stars turn on the laptop cameras to record and broadcast their bedroom antics for their fans, and for the millions of YOUTUBE addicts in McLuhan's globalized village. The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is regularly praised as someone who captured with "perfect transparency the character of what he saw. His Americans look intensely American. His Chinese look impeccably Chinese." Astounding, or trivial? How did Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg (writing for The New York Times, 6 August 2004) arrive at this judgment?

The photograph copies some object out there, to be sure. It is not an emanation of our psyche. Barthes explains that the photograph is a message without a code because it is the perfect analogon of reality. In the semiotics of Charles S. Peirce, the photograph functions as an icon that resembles what the film registers; but it also acts as an index which points to something outside the minds of viewers. This double function is the key to its expressive efficacy. For Barthes, what the image denotes acquires primacy. Nonetheless, because the denoted reality (when the photograph is used in the mass media of communication) acquires a repertoire of connotations that give it historical and social meanings, the photograph becomes transparent. Later on, in Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes the post-structuralist denounces the parasitic exploitation of images by consumerist bourgeois society: first, by transforming the photograph into autonomous art which in turn is exchanged as commodities in the market; and second, by banalizing it in advertising, pornography, celebrity fetishism, official propaganda, etc. What is to be done? Barthes can only suggest that either we subject the spectacle provided by the camera to "the civilized code of perfect illusions," domesticating it within the academic realm of photography as art; or "to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality."

The latter is perhaps the more worthwhile choice we should try to make when examining the photographs I took of these dancers from the villages surrounding Loboc River in Bohol this March 2012. It is a snapshot of a mass gathering of seemingly anonymous folks, one group made up of villagers who all know each other, the other of tourists gripped by alienation, anomie, commodification. We are on board one of these commercial boats. At certain point along the way, platforms were built for the local villagers to stage dances. Such performances are paid by the tourist companies operating the boats. The labor of the villagers are exhibited as part of the livelihood programs of the barangay or local government. What kind of livelihood is shown here? What is the spectacle and who are the spectators?

We gaze then at these ordinary natives who have been organized to perform to tourists riding the boats going up and down the river, either remunerated by the businesses operating the cruises or earning from the gifts and donations of the spectators. It is supposed to be a barangay project. Are these Filipinos impeccably Filipinos?--to echo Mr. Klinkenborg. Perhaps I have just provided something of a code to the messages one can extract from these images. Or at least a hint or cue as to how the camera intervened to register what purports to be "real," what claims to be the appearances. One can of course prefer to look at the falls at the end of the river, or other sideline attractions.

Apropos of Walter Benjamin’s insight that contrary to the popular doxa, photography can reveal the “optical unconscious,” the reality behind appearances, Rosalind Krauss theorizes that the specular “unconscious” can be constructed by the artist in the visual field. It can be actualized in the photograph as “a projection of the way that human vision can be thought to be less than a master of all it surveys.” That is, the photo can be in conflict with—what?

So then the challenge is how to read or interpret these photographs so that we can derive some value from looking at them. Either we civilize these images into safe, exotic appearances of charming natives, or stir up the explosive ingredients discoverable in the gestures, smiles and seductive faces of our performers. Notice, however, that there is another messenger to which the spectators turn their gazes, perhaps the materials for a Molotov cocktail for the Establishment censors, the gatekeepers of our everyday psyches. Perhaps we need to turn at ourselves and reflect on how we are complicit in these spectacles, producing and reproducing the hierarchies of power and the inequalities of symbolic capital in our everyday lives. After all, we are Filipinos subjected to the gaze of the imperial camera everyday. De te fabula. --##