Rick Rocamora’s Dark Memories: Burying texts under photos, and vice versa

For a photography exhibition, the ones shot by Rick Rocamora for Dark Memories: Incarceration, Disappearance, and Death During Martial Law are actually not the main vehicle for the stories, but words.

Dark Memories is part of the two-part show at Ateneo Art Gallery to continue to remember the country’s dark past that happened 50 years ago, a tragedy in renaissance with the appointment of the dictator’s son as the newest President of the Philippines. Rocamora’s photographs share the same space as Edgar Doctor’s illustrations collated for Alaala ng Martial Law.

This will mainly focus on the curatorial choices for Dark Memories, though it would be amiss not to touch upon Alaala ng Martial Law especially since the room’s centerpiece – literally positioned at the center of the room – is Doctor’s polymer on wood sculpture called The Presidential Chair (1991). Looking more like an electric chair for execution than a respectable furniture for contemplation, it is a fitting work to ground the horrors surrounding the room expressed through plentiful anecdotes and aggressive sketches.

To provide a clear demarcation between the two exhibits, Rocamora’s works are displayed on white walls while Doctor’s are in gray. The duo-tone sectioning has been also made apparent with the upright slab printed with the exhibition titles, a part instantly visible upon entering the gallery.

Directing the attention now to Rocamora’s involvement, the documentary photographer offered to relive the history through the medium he is acquainted with. He presented photographs of his subjects, accompanying them with paragraphs of their Martial Law accounts and experiences. Each also has a QR code leading to a document containing their whole recollection, leaving no room for misinterpretation.

As someone who’s interested in photography, I’ve been meaning to visit this exhibit as I was curious about how the images are used as a tool for storytelling. Prior to my eventual attendance, we briefly bristled upon it in our class while we were discussing Thierry de Duve’s Art in the Face of Radical Evil, a rumination about a photography event that is similarly about an atrocious historical tragedy in Cambodia. Some points of discussion were as follows: As a vessel of art and communication, how can one leverage photographs to design narratives as spaces of reflection in an exhibition? Is there a sensitive and skillful way to incorporate the notion of aesthetics, provided the context of what is being shown?

While I appreciate and recognize the intention of Dark Memories – that is, to “make real the traumas experienced first hand by the victims of martial law and the distress caused to families” – I also perceive its idle potential as a photography exhibition. Beyond the proximity of the image and its corresponding text, at least from the ones I’ve read, I did not discern any disguised layers of meaning through expressions or gestures of the photographed subjects that could relate to their story. Adding to my tangent, there is perpetuality in Rocamora’s snapshots; perpetuality in the sense of attempting to digest all the stories, which – even in a small room – appears possible to do, not for a few hours but in a day, even more.

As a means to remember, I believe that a photo exhibition – presumptively visited once at a limited time – possesses different presentational characteristics compared to, let’s say, a photo book that can be read and picked up at your own pace. As a documentarian, could Rocamora have explored an audio-visual production for some of his subjects? As a means to highlight the darkness, could the photographs have worked with a black wall background instead? Could they have benefited from a darker atmosphere instead of being in a well-lit gallery space? (Though currently understandably so, as Rocamora’s choice of display requires a lot of reading.)

Perhaps, ultimately, the photographer’s curatorial choice is to deliver the history as straightforwardly as possible, keeping the photos just at the surface, only to call attention to where the actual depth is: the texts.

This was written for Issues and Perspectives in Curatorial Studies in the Philippines (Art Stud 281) course in UP Diliman, 1st Semester AY 22-23.