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Colonial photos document the power of “the Philippine native”

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By Desiree Caluza,VERA Files

BAGUIO CITY — For decades, some of the American's legacy photographs have earned the ire of indigenous peoples, anti-imperialism scholars and social scientists, and caused debate for its unabashed projection of Filipinos as uncivilized, barbaric and pagans, who needed outside intervention to liberate them from their pitiable state.

Dean C. Worcester, an American zoologist who worked as an interior secretary during the American colonial period in the Philippines, would become infamous among Igorots in the later years for his controversial photos of natives, such as the ones featuring Igorots who literally had tails.

But whether the tails were true or not, or were just added by Worcester (as other scholars had assumed), the photos left a bad taste in the mouth for so many decades.

However, it was during the time of Worcester that an American teacher and photographer saw the natives in a different light. This happened at the picturesque settlement of the Ibalois in Baguio.

In 2009, local publisher Jack Carino discovered postcards and photos of Chester Farnsworth, an American teacher stationed in Calapan, Mindoro from 1912 to 1915. Farnsworth took a vacation in Baguio in the summer of 1913.

Carino said Farnsworth's pictures and postcards may contribute more to the annals of  local history. They featured Igorots as natives, this time, who empowered themselves while co-existing with the Americans.

Carino said a friend from the United States, who collects colonial photographs, bumped into postcards and photos of Farnsworth in an online auction. However, the works were downloadable, and around 70 photographs and postcards had been converted into digital copies, which were later published in The Baguio Centennial Yearbook.

Carino, an Ibaloi, said: "What struck me the most was Farnsworth's unique photos which were coupled with nuances and anecdotes which he wrote at the back; his stories of the place and the natives were very colorful. We could sense that he enjoyed his limited stay in Baguio because he was discovering things. His pictures had no agenda like featuring the natives as savages unlike other colonial photographs; how he described them was really innocent and yet very matter of factly. "

He cited a particular photo wherein two Igorot men and women in their native attire were digging at a construction site of a road extension. He said Farnsworth's narrative which he wrote on the photo described the lean bodies of the Igorot men and his amazement toward women who participated in the laborious task.

"Let the women do the work! This is on the new railroad extension up to Baguio from San Fernando. The man on the right shows what fine figures some of these people have," Farnsworth wrote.

Historian Raymond Rovillos said the emergence of Farnsworth's photographs would help advance new scholastic studies on how the natives were able to have a voice in ushering development in their native place even though they were under the dynamics of the colonial power.

Rovillos said: "The emergence of these photos and even widely publishing them are very commendable because like in this case, there is an attempt to recover the Ibaloi history because all throughout, it was always the American colonizers who were projected in the history whenever we speak of development, and we ask 'how about the natives? Although it was only a picture of a native laborer, at least, his visual presence was historical."

Farnsworth was also impressed by the groovy Igorot dances and the feast on dog meat and rice, but described the music as "fine, but very weird and primitive":

"I attended the annual Canao (village feast)---a big entertainment---at the Country Club near here last night. Saw some dandy Igorrote war dances, and big feast on dog meat and rice. The music was fine, very weird and primitive. They used pans, brass plates, rings, sticks, etc. They keep perfect time…"

He added: "This morning down at Mrs. Kelly's school, I watched the girls weave cloth, etc. They are quite skillful. That school appears to be way down in the valley from here, and yet it is on a mountain when you get down there. This shows how deep the real valley is."

Rovillos, also the chancellor of the University of the Philippines Baguio, said it was also about time that Filipino indigenous people move on from thinking of being "victims of racism and oppression" of the early American colonial government to being agents of empowerment by discovering and publicizing more historical documents that projected the natives' power and their contribution to the history of development.

Erlyn Ruth Alcantara, independent scholar and photo archivist, said Farnsworth's photographs could also be interpreted as an honest to goodness documentation of how American educators and missionaries became part of the development of early Filipino communities with no agenda of projecting the Filipinos entirely needing the intervention of the Americans.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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