There’s no getting around it. Despite its popularity, photography remains an undervalued form of communication in the Philippines. Majority of photographers get paid very little, and in the local art world, photography continues to play second fiddle to paintings when it comes to price points.
Which is why for Jason Quibilan and company, the photographers behind the collective called Strange Fruit, it is important to find an audience outside of the social media realm. The kind of audience they encountered February last year at their booth at Art Fair Philippines. People lingered in front of each photograph, asked questions about the works. “What’s interesting with Art Fair was, finally, a large Filipino audience was confronted with the photograph as print,” says Quibilan, “not the image as a jpeg on your phone or laptop but as a piece of art.” The reaction was encouraging and the sales didn’t hurt either.
Hence, when the opportunity to join the fair this year came up, the Strange Fruit crew grabbed the opportunity. While this year’s Art Fair is happening almost exclusively online, the exposure to the Art Fair crowd is longer—10 days as opposed to just over a long weekend in previous years. It is also a way of continuing what the group has started: exposing photography-based art vis a vis paintings, in this way helping improve the former's cachet in the local visual world.
This year, Quibilan, Veejay Villafranca, Francisco “Paco” Guerrero, Raena Abella and E.S.L. Chen all revisit past works and find that the present has completely given their pictures new meaning. Based on the selections they've turned in, all five seemed also to have answered the call of the water, undoubtedly an effect of being away from the ocean for so long. Meanwhile, Jes Aznar, who regularly shoots for the New York Times, found time to put down his documentary photographer hat to snap some personal work while on assignment, producing some pretty powerful images of game fowls mid-battle, finding grace in the violence of conflict.
Strange Fruit aims to continue pursuing its “contemporary vision” while showing a wide spectrum of photography-based art tackling the Philippine experience. Here’s a peek at this year’s harvest.
“My work for this year is about the strangeness of the sea,” says Abella whose works display her longtime fascination for the ocean. This attachment got even stronger this year, what with the restrictions to go near natural bodies of water. Hence, she wanted the viewer to share her longing, blowing up her images—a still life of an octopus, pictures of waves, of sea foam—so that one feels completely drenched in ocean life, or overwhelmed by an octopus’ embrace.
Rarely do we see images from Jes Aznar that don’t readily tell us about the injustices happening in our world. In his pictures for Strange Fruit, he strips himself temporarily of the journalist mantle and indulges his photographer’s eye, allowing it to be amazed almost exclusively by form and color and movement. We say ‘almost’ because even as the fighting cocks in his pictures are detached from their wider environment, we recognize the conflict the creatures are in while we marvel in their beauty and grace.
For Edric Chen, the past year provided an opportunity to reflect on pictures past. “It took a lockdown for me to realize there was a deeper meaning for this kind of work,” he says, talking about his series of pictures depicting sea water swashing as it reaches the Baler shore, or the picture of a flower that completely caught him in awe (he says he wanted to effect some sort of movement in the above photo by touching the flower’s tendrils and shooting with a slow shutter). Edric’s images often represent a visual memory of a moment. They’re sometimes melancholic, but often they’re expressions of a pure kind of appreciation for what the universe conspired to put together for his eyes to see and capture.
Francisco “Paco” Guerrero
The two years before lockdown saw Paco Guerrero hardly stopping to review the pictures he snaps in between assignments. A pandemic afforded him all the time in the world to revisit those images caught on impulse, gave him the chance to discover meaning in them, and re-experience moments. Like that time in the Siargao waters that ended up in a diptych featured in this edition of Art Fair. “You know those moments when you just get an urge to shoot something,” he recalls of that time. Of course, he also has a photo where the picture-taking is more intentional: an end-of -day portrait of a group of farmers in Penyaranda, Nueva Ecija, shot in the style of romanticized images of small town America.
Recent access to an X-ray machine offered Jason Quibilan literally a new way to see things, which served his choice of a very popular Filipino subject well: the dried fish. In his new photographs, the humble “daing” transmogrifies, its hidden fragility and intricacy finally exposed even as it creates a graphic visual effect.
In his pictures for Strange Fruit, Villafranca continues his exploration of faith and what we hold sacred. Or in his words, “how Filipinos cling to ritual or a personal endeavor to alleviate pain or process a personal experience.” This is certainly clear in two of his pictures for this year’s Art Fair: 1) the interior of a chapel in Bulacan’s Sitio Mariana, its lower half submerged in two-year old murky water, the upper half an altar obviously still attended to by the faithful. 2) the bones of an Edsa billboard just before a storm, with words that say “Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.” We live in a world filled with poetry. Villafranca's extraordinary eye offers us evidence.