You know the persistence of online posts—an old photo receives a comment and that image long inactive comes up to the surface again, like some flotsam pushed by errant waves. There is this case of an old photograph dated 1899, which shows five individuals—two men on either side and in the middle, three women. One woman carries a child on her hip; the two men are not wearing trousers, instead one can assume they are using a strip of cloth attached to a waistband, which is covered by a shirt that covers the thighs. One man wears a cone-shaped headgear while the other man carries it with him. On the lower right corner of the photograph were the captions: “Natives of Albay southeast Luzon.
For any student of anthropology or Philippine culture, he would immediately doubt the label. That suspicion, in fact, was what fueled the debate on the post. Some were accepting, saying how authentic the photo was because it showed how the people of Bikol peninsula looked a long time ago. There were others who doubted the label as they posited their own theory—that these persons belonged to another tribe, perhaps from the mountains but certainly not Bikolanos. There were educated guesses indicating the illustrations showing how the Bikolanos looked during the turn of that century and this photo was not one of those. Weren’t we one of the most colonized places in the country? They could not be the indigenous people of the region, the reader articulating his point that the mountain people of Bikol were Aetas, who were always perceived as similar to pygmies, and these people, the men in particular, were tall. Amusing even were those who denied the ethnicity of those persons because we were “not that backward.”
The attention given to that single photograph went from strong to focused to intense: online readers were interested in identities more so if they come in the form of a photograph that cannot be ignored. Or because the proof was ancient—1899.
Caught in the issues brought about by that photograph, I opted to do a bit of online research. I posted these two words: “1899 + Albay natives.” The result came quickly. I wrote about it in this column, Annotations, titled “Memories of Identities, on April 16, 2021. Let me quote my own report: “The photo came from the vast and amazing collection of photographs of John Tewell. In his curating of the photos, he would always warn about how dates and identifications are never conclusive. Indeed science—anthropology, archival research, and cultural studies—is never about certainty but about the discipline of critical questioning.”
Further research disclosed that this photo of “Albay natives” had additional comments that did not appear anymore on the post.
I checked the same photo and below it was the comment, which countered the label of “Albay natives,” referring to them as “Tingguian mountain men.” I went deeper and searched for Fay-Cooper Cole, one of the early experts on this group. His book is available under Project Gutenberg: The Tingguian. Social, Religious and Economic Life of a Philippine Tribe. There was another discovery: Tingguian is an exonym, a name given by an outsider; these people called themselves Itneg and they occupied what is now the present-day Abra.
Why the brouhaha, if you may allow me this truly pedestrian term?
The photo should have been classified as an artifact of culture, one that belonged to a specific point in history. The Tinguians cannot live forever, in a sense, for us lowlanders. They died with the old narratives. If they still live, they have become part of a new population or, more problematically, “race.” Or they are in a book, print, or painting. As an imaginary.
The problematic point about the photo is labeling them as Bikol natives. Even if the document is clearly dated to the 19th century, the critic/regionalist/nationalist resists being in a group whose identity is pre-modern. Those who praise the material for providing a glimpse of the true Bikolano romanticizes identity as always marked by ancientness or brooding in primitivism.
The photo may have surfaced again but it is dead. Nothing about identity can be summoned when readers debate about these people’s origin. No nation as a concept or an active frame for self or family can be incurred in our conflict of opinions or misunderstanding of the images.
Can we ever have a nation by appraising individuals like the Itneg and relating to them? The words of Benedict Anderson, oftentimes bandied around for their attractiveness, can be useful here with this photo when he defined a nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He articulates the idea further: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
The photo, the error in naming notwithstanding, fails to account us either as kin or as being present in the thread of history, which the Itneg obviously is a part of, and which we also assert we are a significant element in. They will not see us and we do not see them anymore, believing that they are long gone, and no imagination shall connect us with each other. Except online, in a debate of phantasms and superiority through histories.