30 Oct #Aldub first. Fang-Od Next. Again, it is just a dress!

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JUAN SAYS: So it is not just the Aldub Nation up in arms over a silly dress. Even the “cultured” set are dead set to obsess over the dress worn by Fang-Od in a cover photo released by GRID Magazine. While we all laughed at what the Aldub Nation for making a big issue out of a dress and clearly missing the point, the “cultured” set are on it too. Damit lang yan! What is important is that Fang-Od’s work of art is celebrated by many even in the “modern age” we live in. Sadly, even the “cultured” people missed the point.
 
Here is the statement of cover photographer Francisco Guerrero.
 
Notes on the Fang-Od photograph
 
Earlier this week GRID Magazine released their 10th issue with a portrait of Fang-Od on the cover. As part of the team behind that magazine, and as the photographer responsible for taking that image, I am incredibly flattered that we have had such a great response. Hundreds of shares, thousands of likes and many insightful comments. It is revealing that of all our covers, it is this images of a beautiful 93 year old woman from Kalinga that has had the strongest connection to our readers. It is a positive sign that so many people already know of her and the traditional tattooing practice she continues to this day.
 
There have been some very heated debates about proper pronunciation and spelling of her name as well as the specificities of the clothes and ornaments she is wearing. It seems as if our readers and certain experts have agreed that she is wearing a mix of Cordillera artefacts and not just Kalinga.
 
I would like to briefly address some of these concerns and lines of argument, and here I simply speak as a photographer and not an expert on Kalinga or indigenous culture.
 
We were in Buskalan with the CNN Philippines crew of What I See, filming for an upcoming episode of the show that specifically deals with tattoo culture in the Philippines. We had already spent a day talking to and photographing Fang-od when I finally requested that if we could take her portrait on an off-white background that we had brought up with us. Fang-Od and Grace both agreed and they went to change. It is only normal that, given the chance, anyone of us would like to wear something special if we are going to sit for a portrait, and that is exactly what they did. My only request was that she wear something that would show her full arms so that I could see the tattoos and if we could avoid shirts with brands (we can’t broadcast corporate logos on a news network). At no point did I request she wear or not wear any specific item of clothing that she did not freely choose herself. And so what you see in the photograph are clothes and artefacts that she and Grace freely chose to wear, this is how they wanted to be photographed.
 
What has been very interesting to read in the threads and comments is that there is a general tendency to imagine Fang-od, and by extension other indigenous groups, as pure representations of their culture. This, and I speak as a photographer, is unfair. The idea that any one person can be the pure embodiment of a culture is more a romantic imagination of the modern world rather than a reflection of reality on the ground.
 
Tribal people are not and should not be frozen in time, like museum pieces for us to gawk at. I like to think that they live in History and are not representations of history. They are part of the modern world and if we expect them to only be photographed in traditional dress doing traditional things then it is more our modern fantasy rather than their day to day reality that we are representing.
 
Again, I speak here as a photographer and not an academic expert of any sort. I have had the privilege of photographing several tribal peoples around the country and it is my personal choice never to ask them to change or pose in a “traditional” way. I have photographed Igorots in Nike shirts, Ifugauos in Columbia jackets and I see nothing wrong with that. Would the photographs get more likes and shares if they were in traditional clothes? Maybe, but that has never been my intention.
 
However if once I have asked permission to photograph a tribal member and they themselves choose to wear their traditional clothes, then that is also fine by me. The difference is that they choose, not me.
 
Fang-od is a living representation of Kaling culture, whatever she is wearing or not. She represents a people who have been historically marginalised and generally ignored by mainstream society for one reason or another. The reason she is changing the way we travel is because we now seek her out for her skills as a tattoo artist. And we seek her out on her terms, we have to travel to her home, get a tattoo that she designs, our interaction is on her terms. Not ours.
 
My most emphatic thank you to everyone who has showed so much interest in this image and I welcome all your comments and questions.

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