Forming Philippine Identity Behind American Lens: 1904 World’s Fair and Thereafter

Abstract: This paper explores the effect of photography during American colonial rule in the Philippines which led to the massive popularity of the Philippine anthropological exhibition in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Though Filipinos were already brought in to be displayed in the 1899 Greater America Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska, it received a lesser reception as the identity of the Philippines as exotic, savage, and/or primitive were not yet established at that time.

Photography was largely used to create a visual archive to promote a narrative that the Filipinos are racially inferior, thus in need of a colonizer to lead them to civilization. Most notable are the ones from Dean Worcester, a zoologist and public official, who fabricated the “progression” of an Igorot native from being naked and savage to being dressed and educated.

Not only through images, but published studies from anthropologists also contributed to the formation of the nation’s image. One of which is the measurement of the average Filipino height, which did not meet the standards set by the Americans.

The objectification and racialization of Filipino natives has generated curiosity and excitement in the 1904 World’s Fair, which made it as the most popular exhibit within the Anthropology section. Apart from the official photographers, tourists also became amateur ethnographers.

There are studies which suggest that there are some subjects photographed during the 1904 exposition who expressed their agency despite being the colonized or spectated upon. Photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie called this as “photographic sovereignty”.

Ultimately, there is a greater power at play. The photographs are not just images but also a tool with tangible consequences to the independence of the Philippine nation.

When the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was initially publicized, US President William McKinley spoke of world fairs as “timekeepers of progress, [which] record the world’s advancement.” These international exhibitions have allowed participating countries to define (or redefine) their nation by parading their culture and showcasing their development. Philippines has participated in the world fair that McKinley has announced, but not as an exhibitor but the one being exhibited. Six years prior to the fair, America just bought the Philippines from Spain after the Treaty of Paris. The Philippine exhibition is a way for them to show the nation before it was colonized and after America came in, building their image as a great and benevolent colonizer (Rogers 351) helping smaller nations reach civilization and enlightenment.

Within the Anthropology Reservation, a 47-acre area was allotted for the Philippine section where around 1200 Filipinos lived “just as they do at home” (qtd. in Grindstaff 255). The design proposal aimed to create the Philippine village as truthful as possible, with “no humbuggery allowed from the very start, even in the slightest modification of exact conditions” (251). Apart from the area being the largest among the Anthropology exhibits, the developed authenticity also helped in making the Philippine section as the most popular.

Prior to the 1904 World’s Fair, Filipinos were already brought in America as human displays at the Greater America Exposition in 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Since Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 in London, England, human displays are customary in universal exhibitions. However, the buzz of the Philippine village in 1899 is significantly less than the one at 1904 because “exoticism, savagery, and/or primitiveness of Filipinos were not established notions at that time” (Hawkins 359).

Instrumental in creating the image of Filipinos to the international community are photographs, especially the ones from zoologist turned public official Dean Worcester who noted Filipinos’ “utter unfitness for self-government” (qtd. in Grindstaff 250). He also believed that “camera can be made to tell the truth” (qtd. in Manzanilla 546) which is apparent in the Igorot photos he fabricated to show the supposed advancement of a naked savage native to a dressed educated man. Such photos are staged to promote the benefits of American colonialism to the world.

Indeed, photography has been used as a technology of the imperial panopticon (Benitez e-17). Photographs such as the ones produced by Worcester further contributed to the visual colonial archive that created a narrative that the Filipinos are racially inferior. Anthropologists are also at the forefront of pushing the agenda, with their scientific findings serving as an “objective proof”. Example of this is an article published in New York Times where they measured Filipinos from different groups (Visayans, Tagalogs, Ilocanos, etc.) and compared their stature with the “standard set by the Americans in physical development” that “the Philippine race […] most nearly approached” (qtd. in Lasco, “Little Brown Brothers” 386). Even during the Spanish era, height was also used to symbolize the status difference between the colonized and the colonizer, famously depicted in Juan Luna’s España y Filipinas (1886) where a taller Mother Spain is guiding the shorter Filipina lady (Lasco, “De Estatura Regular” 67).

The objectification and racialization of the natives through photography has generated curiosity and excitement in the 1904 World’s Fair, which also bolstered the popularity of the Philippine exhibition. Visitors flocked the event, with final tally of 20 million attendees over the course of seven months. Apart from the official photographers, tourists also became amateur ethnographers who rented around 50,000 Brownie cameras from the Kodak pavilion. Though there are differences in the photographic techniques, Rogers claimed that all photographs taken during the fair can be considered anthropological (356). Some of these photos are published in The Complete Portfolio of Photographs of the World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904 which introduced its subjects as “strange people of the world.” Others are archived in museums, such as the Visayan Girls in Missouri History Museum, St. Louis MO and Pygmy Men Acting Out a Beheading in Library of Congress, Washington DC.

There have also been discussions on the agency of the subject being represented in the photographs. There is already an exploitative dynamic between the spectator and the one being spectated upon, as if watching an animal in a zoo. What more in documenting by taking a photograph of the people in a constructed habitat where they are expected not to live but to perform their day-to-day lives, as if it were real?

There are some studies which suggest that there are some photographs where the subject took back control with what photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie called a “photographic sovereignty”. Swensen argued that in Emme and Mamie Gerhard’s Geronimo, Geronimo (Goyathlay), a Native American, became the aggressor in the photograph by glaring out at the observer beyond the frame (462). This can also be said for the Pygmy Otabenga in Gerhard sisters’ Cannibal (Otabenga in his signature pose) where he employed his agency on how he represented himself, by choosing to show what they expect him to be: a cannibal (Rogers 362).

Though some of the colonized were able to assert agency through photographs, ultimately, there is a greater power at play. The collected images still depict how far the colonies are to the level of advancement of the colonizers. Some photographs, such as the ones by Worcester, “effected very real consequences with distinct political value” (qtd. in Manzanilla 548) that they became instrumental in passing the Jones Act or Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916 which allowed the Americans to stay indefinitely until they have deemed that the country has a stable government. Photography held a great power during the American colonial period in forming the public’s impression on how the Philippines was perceived: a primitive nation in need of enlightenment.

This was written for Art Historiography (Art Stud 196) course in UP Diliman, 2nd Semester AY 20-21.

Works Cited

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