Woven threads

Picturing tribal women in Mindanao
Gallery 4A, Sydney, and Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne

Woven Threads is a series of photographs commissioned by Community Aid Abroad to document work the organization has sponsored over several years with women of the T'boli and Manobo tribes on the island of Mindanao, the Philippines. In commissioning Anne Zahalka, the organisation professed a desire to break with stereotypical representations of the 'developing' world.[1] Given that these representations are wont (in the discourse of development aid) to construct third world populations as subjects of lack, who require completion by the philanthropic intervention of the West (for which the viewer stands in) whose agency alone can save them from the ravages of global markets, natural disasters and other assorted calamities, this exploration of new ways of articulating the relationship between the providers and recipients of development aid can only be welcome.

Zahalka succeeds, although not unqualifiedly, in returning a degree of agency and subjectivity to the tribal women she depicts in this series of formally posed portraits. Approximately half of her subjects, imaged standing against figureless landscapes transformed by logging and agriculture return the viewer's gaze frankly. The rest look off-camera in a self-possessed and contemplative mood. The photographer's exclusive use of the long and medium-long shot creates a sense of distance that refuses viewers the privilege of an intimate social relationship with the women, putting us rather in the position of strangers passing in a shared social space, from time to time subject to the noncommittal gaze of the locals.

Zahalka presents three versions of six original images, each series being manipulated by computer: one sepiatoned, one colour-enhanced and reproduced at postcard size, and one relatively naturalistic. A number of the smaller images and the sepia images have postcard-like labels (for example, "Tribal Woman", "PHILIPPINES"), while the images in the naturalistic series have short texts superimposed upon them, giving details of the women's biographies and their achievements under development programs. Here Zahalka's repetition of the image and signposting of its manipulability serve to foreground the way in which the 'cultural' is constructed in the process of photography. Most effective, in my eyes, is her critique of postcard photography, a genre which ossifies and commodities cultural difference (more often than not the difference of 'subaltern' ethnic groups), turning it into a hollowed-out sign of colourful and unique national identity.

But perhaps the most engaging aspect of the images—and the most problematic—is their stylistic referencing of the ethnographic portrait, a genre associated with an anthropology that was part of (but not entirely captured by) the project of colonial governance and expansion. While I do not dispute the need to reappraise and reinterpret the site of the ethnographic portrait,[2] Zahalka seems to me to play a dangerous game when she uses its visual grammar as a strategy of addressing the problem of representing the tribal women of Mindanao. The risk is, of course, that her own images will fail to break free of the objectifying gaze encoded into the colonial ethnographic image, thus re-presenting the native as the passive "gazed at". This danger seemed on the opening night to materialise in a confusion amongst viewers as to whether or not the images had a critical intention at all. Most problematic here was the naturalistic series, which seemed to reproduce rather than challenge the authority of anthropological discourse (or in this case of development aid discourse), to anchor and determine the meaning of the ethnographic image.

Finally, considering Zahalka's past interest in picturing subjects in the domestic environments they have meticulously constructed as extensions and expressions of their identities,[3] I was rather disappointed not to see any examination of practices of dwelling and consumption in her treatment of the tribal women. Here they appear as the denizens of a somewhat pristine traditional environment almost entirely free of the trappings of modernity. What has of late been of interest to anthropologists, however, is charting the ways in which “traditional" groups engage with the objects of modernity, producing unexpected and transgressive logics of consumption and use in the process of negotiating between their local sites and the global dimensions of culture and economy. Such a focus on an already-established, lived connection between the world of the women and the consumers of their images may have allowed the photographer to avoid some of the difficulties Woven Threads evidences.

notes: 

[1] Alison Cleary, "Introduction", Woven Threads: Picturing Tribal Women in Mindanao. Exhibition catalogue, 1998, pp. 1-2.

[2] Diane Losche, "Revisiting the Site: Colonialism and the Ethnographic Portrait", ibid., pp. 3-8.

[3] For instance in the Open House series, 1995.