Beauty on the mountains: Breaking stereotypes of Indigenous Women through Photographs

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I will be highlighting stories of women I’ve met from different communities & cultures in the Philippines. Women are more than how they look in photos. Photographs have the power to create and proliferate stereotypes of women.

Meet Lea, Shirley, Angelyn, Bemalyn and Ada from the Iraya Mangyan community of Magnot, Abra de Ilog, Occidental Mindoro. Read my photo essay about “Beauty on the mountains: Breaking stereotypes of Indigenous Women in Photographs”

Lea, Shirley, Angelyn, Bemalyn and Ada crossed the river and headed towards the field. Half of my body was submerged in the river as I kept my hands steady amidst the current. I held the camera up to my face, the girls struck a pose and I shouted back how beautiful they all were.

Women have been placed on a pedestal. There are so many photos of women in magazines that portray perfection and flawlessness. Specific aesthetics of women from magazines and television became the standard. Beauty became an endless pursuit for a specific look.

Photographs are never neutral. They are mediated images between a subject/collaborator and the viewer through the photographer. Within photos lie symbols and meanings. They are curated within the viewpoint of the photographer. Hence, photographs bear underlying assumptions and biases of the photographer.

Beauty preference is socially constructed. Visual aesthetics is socially constructed. With the advent of technology, there became more photographers and content creators. With cheaper flights and easy mobility to far places, people can travel and take photos of indigenous women they encounter. Ecotourism in different indigenous communities became a monetary advantage. Women pose for tourists with their “native” or “customary” clothes. Hence, the creation of what constitute aesthetically as an “indigenous”.

A conversation with a friend underscores this issue. She noted that the photos she has seen of indigenous people have certain aesthetics. Photos of old indigenous women look grungy, oversharpened and have high contrast. It appeal to our senses and portray old indigenous women with wrinkled skin. The production and curation of these aesthetics, proliferates certain stereotype. Indigenous women have been exoticized through their looks. The more people take the same photos, the more this stereotype propagate.

As a filmmaker, photographer, and visual anthropologist, I normally deal with and work around aesthetics and cultures. At worst, I have observed how photographs and videos were used to proliferate a certain beauty stereotype. To often, the photos I have seen of indigenous women were exoticized. A beauty portayed as vulnerable, savage, uneducated, helpless, ignorant, unhygienic and ironically – uncultured.

Photos of indigenous women were visually staged to look a certain type. Aesthetically depicting the life on the mountains with no hint of development and progress. Photographers who have entered indigenous people communities, have always framed indigenous women akin to the mainstream stereotype they have seen. This glamorizes the “indigenousness” of these people.

I do believe that photography and film techniques we use impacts the look of the subject. One photograph do not give justice to the plethora of life stories of these subjects. I love how W. Eugene Smith explains this, “Humanity is worth more than a picture of humanity that serves no purpose other than exploitation.” A photo can never represent and explain the entirety of the culture of an indigenous people group. It cannot exhaust the important details of a person’s life. The best job a photo can do is to be a window to the culture and life of its subject. So let us use photos as just mere photos.

This photo I’ve taken of Lea, Shirley, Angelyn, Bemalyn and Ada can never replicate their life story. It can never represent the journey of the Iraya Mangyan women in Magnot. I’ve met this girls more than 6 years ago when I shot my documentary film “Sa Rikaw”. The reality is, their community’s struggle towards language and culture conservation can never be represented fully by the photos and film that I’ve made. That is the beauty of photography and filmmaking, at first we drawn to these people through these frames we create and we hunger for more of their story.

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