Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A half-naked man crawls aimlessly across the streets of Manila during the EDSA Revolution. Young boys and girls in hijabs studiously read their Korans in the Bay Area after 9/11. Against a bleak grey sky, a military truck drives along a road in ruins in Marawi City. Roofs have turned into skeletons, vegetation grows amid the concrete wreckage — but the tall spire of a mosque, crowned with a crescent moon, remains.
These are the images that first greet you in the photography exhibit, “Not Visual Noise” — evoking the tense silence in the aftermaths of tyrants, terror, and war.
Curated by the artist, educator, and cultural organizer Angel Velasco Shaw, the ambitious show at the Ateneo Art Gallery gathers over 30 artists working in the Philippines and around the world. The exhibit attempts to present the broad, diverse scope of Philippine photography from the late 20th century until today, bringing together works that have rarely been exhibited in one space.
In the Philippines, where Shaw says the art community and the general public still question the reality of photography as an art practice, the show is a pivotal step forward — not only in making the medium more visible in one of the country’s mainstream art institutions, but in promoting the coexistence of different forms and expressions that range within the medium.
But apart from expanding our notions of and defying boundaries between photography and art, the show is a timely call to audiences to pause and ask themselves: what images contribute to visual noise? What, on the other hand, provokes our silence? In our media-saturated world, what is the role of the artist engaging with the medium of photography?
“The world wide web, social media and new media technologies guaranteed that our world would be inundated with visual noise. The greatest challenge as the curator was always knowing that I would be on the cusp of creating visual noise,” says Shaw.
Shaw, however, believes that it is in the eyes of the beholder to determine whether or not an image contributes to visual noise. And thus, while she does the work of critically conversing these works together in hopes of countering the perpetual production of visual noise, she is well aware that her viewpoint should not be the only one. Ultimately, the viewer must embrace these tensions and contradictions that come with seeing.
“My sense of ‘visual noise’ may not be the same as another’s perception,” she adds. “Similarly, photography is thought to be a medium that captures ‘truth.’ Yet, my truth may not be the same as someone else’s truth.”
Rethinking truth and the documentary practice
In contemplating truth, Shaw raises another point to consider: what it means to document, and to question and expand our conceptions of a documentary practice. She believes that all the artists in the show are engaged in a documentary practice, even if the artists themselves may not view their own works in that way. It is here, in seeing photography as documentary, where the exhibit seems to root from a personal place for Shaw.
She reveals that her relationship with photography began as early as 13, when she first borrowed a camera from her brother, whom she would previously watch, mesmerized, as he engaged with the printing process as a child. Growing up in a suburb outside New York City, one day she decided to take the train to the city and stumbled upon a nuclear disarmament protest rally. She shot photos of the march, which then sparked her love for documentary photography.
She explains, “I guess you can say this was my call to action, and the beginning of my understanding that art forms like painting and photography could express my personal aesthetic and social concerns in whatever way suited me best.”
These urgent, immediate social realities that some photographers choose to concern themselves with are evocatively displayed in the first room of the exhibit, wherein one hall mirrors photos from the Second World War, and the contemporary war on drugs. In the aftermath of devastation, documenting, to some, can mean capturing the deepest emotional responses — truths that are raw, and painful to face.
It is undeniably difficult to look so closely at faces weeping around the coffin of someone’s 13 year-old son, or at the dazed children on the wall across, freshly processing the nightmare they had just woken up to. One girl stands on top of a staircase leading to a roofless wall: a relic from the structure that once was, before her cool, peaceful mountain city was carpet-bombed.
No longer contained in books or screens for me to flip, swipe, and ignore, the images of grieving humans are now eye-level; some are life-size. In the stillness of the museum, they demand the viewer’s gaze — our silence — in a way that unsettles. And so, despite an initial resistance, we partake in what Shaw implores us viewers: to look and to “inhale the totality of each work and its details.”
Set up on a panel at the center of the next room is a series by Carlo Gabuco, where one side reveals portraits of Marcos cult members, and the other shows portraits of martial law victims. Next to each photo are QR codes, which viewers are invited to scan to listen to their stories — to enter into their radically contrasting truths, wherein neither is any less real.
“Hindi naghihilom, hindi nagsasara ang sugat,” says Joey Faustino, whose socially engaged brother had disappeared just before he was set to graduate college at 21. Four decades later, Faustino sits on a couch for his portrait, wearing a shirt that reads, “I don’t need therapy.” But in a letter to his departed brother, he begs for answers. “Talk to me even from beyond, however muted and muffled. Take me where they left you, can you do that?”
Surviving migration and work
The next room invites to enter more intimate portraits of families, similarly trying to get by. On the center of one wall, amid portraits of strangers taken on the streets of California, a mother and her baby sleep in a cozy, fetal position, cocooned in a pale pink blanket. They are the wife and child of photographer Geloy Concepcion, who, since migrating to the US from Manila, has been documenting tender glimpses of his budding young family, making a home in this new land. In a letter to his mother back home, he is proud to show her the small ways he’s grown. “Marunong na pala ako magluto ng ulam, maglaba ng mga damit at magpalit ng lampin ng mga bata,” he writes.
On another wall near Concepcion’s photos, a woman sits on a bed in her home, cramped with Santo Niños, electric fans, bananas, and a Balikbayan box. She laughs as three young boys lounge around her, watching a basketball game playing on T.V.
Next to this photo, the same woman sits in a confined, concrete space. She is wearing a welding mask, which is pulled back to reveal her vacant gaze. She is at work — which means, according to an excerpt of an interview with her, she woke up early and likely did not eat breakfast that day. In this country, your work — what’s meant to help you and your family survive — can also rob you of the basic needs that keep you alive.
Unmasking our friends and ancestors
In the last room, there is a display of nudes taken by Wig Tysmans. Far from voyeuristic, the portraits appear both playful and powerful, as the subjects staring right back at you are artists themselves: Santiago Bose, Lee Aguinaldo, Mannix Santos, among others. Moved by the rare vulnerability and freedom contained in each photo, there is a profound connection forged between humans who create the space to be naked, in a way that neither objectifies nor exploits.
Near the nudes is another set of striking portraits by Emmanuel Tolentino Santos — this time, they are clipped on an installation resembling a barbed-wire fence. Young, haunted faces gaze at the perpetually grey landscapes of concentration camps in Poland. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, they inherit the trauma of being seen and treated as less than human, of being forcibly stripped — of one’s clothes, one’s name, one’s dignity. Some faces are pictured looking down to the ground, where the brutality must never be buried. But one man, at the center of the series, looks up. From up close, he appears to be reading an inscription above him. Yet from afar, he looks as if he’s searching for someone beyond.
There is also an assemblage of sepia pictures, looking as if they were plucked right out of dusty photo albums, untouched for years. At first glance, it seems to only be what it is: a series of old family photos finally resurrected. But then it reveals way too many different faces to belong to one family, posing for the same milestones: birthday parties, class pictures, graduations, weddings — until one realizes that more than a family, it is a community. These photos were all taken by the same man: Cristituto Navarroza, Sr., the grandfather of photographer Wawi Navarroza.
“Looking back over the past 20 years with this medium, I remember I had a silent companion all along,” writes Navarroza, who reveals that her lolo was a photographer in a small town in Leyte. For the show, she pays tribute to this treasured lineage, saying that gathering his old wooden wide format cameras and the photos he took, retrieved from her relatives and the townsfolk of Bato, was like learning the man backwards, bit by bit.
Visual pleasure, provocations and contemplations
In its invitation to be still, to wrestle with our discomforts with silence, and to enter into the most delicate truths and concerns of others, the exhibition shows how photography forges a way for us to navigate the overwhelming noise of our broken world without being totally consumed by it — by paying attention to the vision before us, and being unafraid to let it speak to us.
“A viewer’s ability to trust themselves as viewers is precarious especially due to an unconscious ‘fear’ that they may not ‘understand’ what they are seeing. These moments of being able to be present and silent with an artwork can be jarring,” says Shaw.
“However, if such a place of experiencing is possible, then the photograph or artwork is no longer a part of the visual noise which can be readily seen in mainstream advertisements, social media, and entertainment industries but rather, can be experiences of visual pleasure, provocations and contemplations.”
It is precisely in these experiences of quiet contemplations provoked by the most powerful images where we see how brief moments of connection, tenderness, and beauty can exist even amid the loudest, darkest brutalities. How in the midst of war, separation, and pain, images may not heal our wounds — but they can move us to write letters to our brothers, uncover the lives of our grandfathers, welcome strangers into our homes, free us to be more naked and known.
“Not Visual Noise” runs until March 29, 2020 at Areté, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City.