Mark Rice, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines
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(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014). 232 pages. 25 black-and-white photographs, one table. Hardcover, softcover, and eBook versions.
ISBN 978-0-472-07218-7 (4th, 2017)
Copublished edition with Ateneo de Manila University Press, Manila, 2015. ISBN 978-971-550-710-3.
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Mark Rice, professor and chair of American studies at St. John Fisher College, in Rochester, New York, rightly thanks his institution for the support needed to investigate — across a number of US institutions, the vast American colonial Philippine archive of more than twenty thousand negatives, prints, lantern slides, and some film, all produced, assembled, and sold in large chunks of prints between 1887 and 1915 by the zoologist turned anthropologist, writer, photographer, and US Insular Government official Dean Conant Worcester (1866–1924), D.Sc. (hon.), FRGS. Dr. Rice’s interest in the Philippines evolved from his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s. This lucidly written and well-referenced case study has been published by Worcester’s alma mater, the University of Michigan.
Dean C. Worcester, as he styled himself, donated his collection of Philippine books and manuscripts to the university in 1914 and the university acquired the Worcester-estate photo collection in 1960. For photo historians, the book’s meager allowance of only twenty-five illustrations is disappointing, but multiple references to specific images in Michigan’s holdings of some five thousand Worcester items, many now digitized, reveal the scale and character of Worcester’s project.
The author notes that Michigan’s press allowed him to write “my book the way I wanted to”: that is, a detailed exposition of Worcester’s single-minded enterprise and organizational skills in making a photographic archive devoted largely to an ostensibly informative and anthropological catalogue of the many upland “Non-Christian” tribal peoples in the interior islands and the southern Muslim Filipino homelands around Mindanao. From 1894 to 1914, Worcester presented his view of the Philippines to American and international audiences through his own illustrated books and articles, among them the unprecedented allocation of whole issues of National Geographic magazine in 1912 and 1913. Numerous publications and authors made use of Worcester-archive images, credited and uncredited, over the following decades, many noted or cited by the author.
Worcester sought to make the camera “tell the truth” in support of continuance of the US Insular Government in the Philippines. The international predominance of Worcester’s images of ethnic minorities in contrast to the lowlands and urban and Catholic-educated Filipinos aspiring to nationhood served his nation and his own economic advancement and social standing.
Vermont born to modest New England parents, several of whose forebears were missionaries, Worcester was not wealthy and his enterprise in making his way was evident at age twenty-one, when he raised funds to join his professor J. B. Steere’s zoological expedition to the Philippines, in 1887–88, and then sponsorship for a longer expedition of his own with fellow graduate Dr. Frank S. Bourns, in 1890–93. He was appointed to teaching positions at Michigan University in 1893, and in 1895 earned a promotion to assistant professor of zoology and curator of the museum.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the colonial experience was a new one for the United States, and much curiosity existed following the turn-of-the-century acquisition of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. There was a rush to publish books and articles about “Our New Possessions,” and Worcester’s first book, The Philippine Islands and Their People, in 1898, based on letters home during his trips to the archipelago, became an instant success.
Worcester was well placed to take on a public role as an authority not just on natural history but also on the ethnography of the various races and the administrative legacy of the former Spanish colony. Consultations with successive Republican presidents led to Worcester’s appointment to the First and Second Philippine Commissions in 1897–99 and elevation in 1901 as secretary of the interior in the civilian US Insular Government, based in Manila. He became responsible for a significant part of the more remote areas of the archipelago, remaining in office until the political wind changed under the new Democrat president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913.
The role of the Worcester archive in the history of anthropology and to an extent the broader political context of American imperialism has been the subject of other publications. Dr. Rice’s account references key works, such as Exemplar of Americanism: The Philippine Career of Dean C. Worcester, a biography by the Australian historian Rodney J. Sullivan (Michigan University Press, 1991). What Rice delves into is exactly how Worcester acquired and honed photographic skills, first for scientific and personal recording but always with a view to a public voice through publication. Rice also confronts the issue that although the vast archive is inseparable from Worcester, the latter made use of other photographers, among them his associate Frank Bourns and Charles Martin, who was the official government photographer from1902 to 1913. As secretary of the interior and with specific responsibilities for the “Non-Christian” peoples in northern Luzon and other mountain and remote regions, as well as the Muslim provinces, he undertook annual tours, often accompanied by Martin. It was through this mobility that the thousands of images were made. Martin also collaborated on Worcester’s film projects from 1911 to 1913.
Rice considers Worcester and Martin to be competent photographers but not gifted, so the ability to attribute many of the images to one or the other is often difficult — or perhaps irrelevant to the archive as a whole. Lacking true showmanship, Worcester’s efforts with making ethnographic films around 1912, exist only in fragments and were unsuccessful. Film was simply another aid, just as still photography had been in the 1880s.
The actual ways in which Worcester separated official property from his personal archive of negatives and prints is less clear, but there is no allegation of gross exploitation against Worcester or Martin; for example, funds from print sales in 1905–06 of photographs in the government archive were returned to the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes library.
The author demonstrates in detail the ways in which the public image of the Philippines was shaped by Worcester’s photographic campaigns and the considerable role Worcester played in the development of National Geographic as a picture magazine for a broad public and its reputation as the magazine featuring bare-breasted brown women. Rice’s unique familiarity with the images allows for closer scrutiny of some of Worcester’s favorite images, such as a self-portrait of his over-six-foot-tall, portly self in a colonial white suit with a virtually naked Negrito man half his size. Worcester happily pandered to the popular international reading public’s fascination with headhunters, which led him to an instance of fakery in a trio of portraits used on a number of occasions supposedly showing the evolution of a headhunter under American benevolent tutelage from a wild man to a uniformed constable — an image often republished even in recent scholarship. As Rice discovered, the man was a tribal leader who traveled to Spain and a second man may be the subject of the third “civilized” image. Although blatant fakery is rare within the archive, the attempt to obscure the variety and sophistication of the majority of Filipinos undermines Worcester’s claims to scientific impartiality.
Dean C. Worcester is not a character one would warm to, and the author is reserved on how much actual government or broader political influence Worcester had. Rice’s focus is on the archive and its position in the memory bank of the now rather forgotten era of America’s colonial past. He concludes with a respectful acknowledgment that the archive was created and survives and in a sense is poised to outgrow its maker.
Worcester wrote hundreds of thousands of words and disseminated thousands of images that to his contemporary and also modern Filipino eyes made their nation look bad. The fantasy’ that Worcester conjured to create an international image of Filipinos as mostly tribes of childlike peasants or former headhunters. Despite his views of the benefits of continued US administration, Worcester’s cloaking of the majority population and denial of Filipino nationhood was a deliberate case of making the camera lie as Rice exposes in full with his study. Worcester was a man not ahead of his time in attitudes about the validity of non-Western cultures and the desirability of applying modern capitalism to their lands.
Today the value of Rice’s book and the archive it documents is attested to by the 2016 Biennial Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award of the Book Development Association of the Philippines for social science awarded to the Ateneo de Manila University Press’s 2015 edition of Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. Previous recipients include the Dutch historian Otto van den Muijzenberg, for The Philippines Through European Lenses: Late 19th Century Photographs from the Meerkamp van Embden Collection (2010), and the Manila photo historian Jonathan Best’s A Philippine Album: American Era Photographs, 1900–1930 (2000). It thus joins an illustrious set of resources on Philippine photography.
The archive should not be dismissed with its maker. The majority of the images are authentic, and show life as it was for a significant number of Filipinos. A comparison could be made with present-day Australian Aboriginal people’s active use and reclamation of archives of early photographs. They look beyond their often racist or ignorant or even well-intentioned makers to see and explore precious documents of their ancestors’ way of life. The Golden Book award speaks of the value of Dr. Rice’s opening up of the archive’s politics, structure, and process to a contemporary international and Filipino audience.
The insights of this study indicate that the Worcester archive will have a significant and central place in future histories of photography in the Philippines — just not quite as its maker envisioned it.
Gael Newton is a curator, consultant and valuer for Asia-Pacific photography specializing in Southeast Asian 19th - mid 20th century photo history. She retired as Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Australia in late 2014.