Jacob Maentz is an American freelance travel and documentary photographer currently based in Cebu City. His passion lies in creating images that communicate a strong sense of place and cultural awareness in unique, challenging situations. His photographs often reflect his background in conservation and explore issues related to the human condition and natural world. Jacob’s primary focus for the past two years has been creating comprehensive photo documentaries for the Katutubong Filipino Project.
Ang Langyaw sits down with Jacob Maentz in Cebu City and interviewed him for his first solo exhibit, The Forgotten Ten, opening this 10 January 2014.
What is the Katutubong Filipino project?
It started about two years ago, on a trip with my wife, Nahoma, to northern Palanan, Isabela province and we basically went there to explore and take photos of the Agta people. We actually went the hardest route from Aurora province which took 16 hours of banca boat. We’re not doing that again but we’ve been back the second time and we just fly in. I was looking at some photos of a friend of ours who does research in the area and our guides were Agta.
That two weeks was such an amazing trip, an amazing experience. We realized that most people are not aware of the immense diversity of indigenous cultures throughout the whole country. What could we do to help? Because a lot of what we see, like the Badjao in Cebu, may be the only thing people will know about indigenous cultures, that they beg on the streets. But behind that, they really have a rich culture and you don’t ever get to see that and explore the other different indigenous tribes. Photography could be a very powerful medium to educate people.
The original idea was to bring that awareness but it has changed a bit as the two years has progressed. Now we really want to really inspire the indigenous people themselves. Perhaps empower them to be the ones to make the change themselves. Indigenous people around the world are one of the most marginalized. Change is forced on them by taking their lands, for lack of education, for lack of medicine, so change is gonna happen to these cultures and change should come from within them and how they want that change.
We hope photographs can change some peoples mindset, inspire people. Me and my wife decided to put this project together. We brainstormed. We put out a Kickstarter project which ran for two months. It wa a full time project job trying to get support for it and we were able to raise $11,000 and its enough for a year and a half of doing the documentaries. We covered the major areas: Mindanao, Palawan, Mindoro, Cordilleras, the Agtas (in Isabela). There’s so much more to do but this is just a start.
What is The Forgotten Ten
The Forgotten Ten is just a name for this exhibit. Basically it refers to, well, there’s no accurate number but studies put out as 10-20% of the Philippine population is considered indigenous. We were going with the low number. This 10% of the population has been forgotten by the rest.
Asia Society approached me when we did the Kickstarter campaign. They reached out and said: “Let’s try and do something in the future.” We kept in touch during the whole duration of the project. When trying to decide on what’s the best way to use these pictures, we decided on the exhibit. It was supposed to be last August but pushed it to this January.
How many images are in the exhibit and how many tribes are included?
A hundred and three images. The majority of the photos represent the Mangyans, of which we covered three sub tribes, 18 tribes in the Cordilleras. For Palawan we had the Calamian Tagbanua and Tao’t Bato. Of course, the Agta of Palanan. Then we have Badjao and lumad groups from Mindanao.
The exhibit is a mix of photos, so there are portraits, everyday life images and rituals. There are beautiful photos, but there are also documentary type images that tell more stories. The exhibit will also have an ‘issue board’ which will focus more on the problems that these groups face.
Were there specific challenges when doing the project like access, acceptance by the group… we’re they grateful, suspicious?
Each group is really different but overall, and generally speaking, the people were very welcoming. They were more inquisitive on why we were taking the pictures and they want to know what the reason was. Some didn’t care at all but were happy that some visitors come to their area. We always got permission from every tribe we visited. From the tribal chair, or the community leaders or the whole community. They hold a big meeting and we tell them what we’re doing there.
Most groups are really receptive to what we were doing but there are a few who did not understand what they are getting but we try to explain that there’s no direct, tangible thing but hoping that through the pictures, there will something happen down the road, in terms of awareness, it will somehow come back to them.
Was security ever a problem?
No. There were times when we ran into groups in the mountains but I was with a guide and never thought much about it but there were times that they were a little bit sketchy.
However in Bukidnon, there were tribal wars going on out there and we actually had to change our plans. The way they do it there, whenever there’s conflict between tribes, they put a “memorandum” that says that they will kill the next people who pass this path no matter if they are women, children and men…or us. This is how they do a revenge to something that was done to their community. It’s a verbal thing and everybody knows and it’s serious. After we came out of the mountains and into a different community, we were told that a mother and child was actually killed.
How do you find documenting these indigenous groups?
It’s great. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the Philippines to have these many diverse indigenous groups. When you think of indigenous people, you think of the Amazon, you think of tribes in Indonesia, Africa. In terms of that and visually speaking, because I am a photographer, and I am always looking for something visually interesting, it can sometimes be a challenge here.
A lot of groups just wear regular Western tshirts and pants which we not only want to show, we want to show how these real indigenous people live today but also show the other side of them, the more culturally interesting, visually… but it’s there. You just have to dig deeper, spend more time, find those pocket of things. It’s not in-your-face that some places just offer.
Any memorable moments during one of your trips?
Hmmm… there’s a lot! There were positive moments, negative. I think one of the most memorable was one like how hard it was to do this. We were hiking for two days from Sagada to this community in Abra. And that whole day, it was such a hard hike and I was with a porter and a guide. There was beautiful scenery the whole time and we ran into people hiking along the trail twice during the day and really quite.
It was already 6-7 o’clock that night and we were still hiking. It was dark and we were still hiking on this hill. My legs were already like jello and I was about done for the day and all of a sudden we came to the hunter’s camp. We met this guy who cooked for us. And that food was just so amazing! Just after that long day of hiking, the food, laying down on the hammock, the scenery…
How do you photograph these tribes? preparations?
I do a lot of research before I go like rituals that may happen when I go, or customs that are specific to that area or things like daily life. I have an idea of things to photograph and when you get there, you search for those things but you don’t always find them. Then you just wait for things to come along. And during the whole thing, I’m always thinking of how to piece the story together and fill in the gaps as I go along. But sometimes, the story just comes.
Were you able to witness rituals?
I was able to witness a few rituals during my trips and one was in Mindoro, Mangyan. They were casting away a spell put on a whole community. Basically, this community moved into a sitio from the mountains to another tribe’s sitio. They were told that if they move in, the curse will be cast on the tribe. That they’ll have infertile ground, no crops would grow and their people will get sick more often.
This community was living with this curse for many years. When we went there, they were transferring the curse to these three different colored pigs to be sacrificed and everyone was there.
What’s your typical gear when doing the documentary?
I try to be as low key as possible. I already stand out as a white guy and going to these rural areas. I don’t want to be an attraction. I’m very low key, I don’t bring in two camera bodies. Just one camera, three lenses with me, a flash, lots of batteries and memory cards.
I have three batteries that I bring. Usually, I get a day of shooting per battery and I need three days of shooting before I need to charge. Typically within three days, I can get to a generator somewhere like from the barangay captain or walk back into town where I can charge for a few hours. Three batteries is enough.
There was this village in Rizal, Palawan which was a six hour hike into the valley. We stayed for three days and there was really nothing. No electricity, no generators. I didn’t check my images at night. Conserving as much as I can. I bring a laptop too but if we will hike into a remote place, I leave it back somewhere in town just to reduce weight. I do bring lots of CF cards.
What is your advice for a photographer who would want to do this kind of documentary work?
1) You should be generally interested in it. You have to want doing it. If your desire is not there and just want to go and capture nice images, its going to show through in your pictures. You’re interest in the people themselves and their lives makes you take better pictures.
I’m generally interested in different cultures and different things that people do and I think that helps soften the relationship between the photographer and the subject instead of you trying to just get a picture. You’re there and you’re experiencing what they’re doing. You’re excited and seeing what they’re doing. The genuine interest just has to be there. A constant desire to learning things.
2) You need to have that sense of exploration and willing to live outside of your comfort zone because we eat a lot of canned tuna, lot of different food and have to be willing to do that. Live without electricity, sleep on a hammock, on hard ground. You have to have that sense of wonder, sense of adventure.
What’s your future plans for The Katutubong Pinoy and The Forgotten Ten?
The exhibit’s going to go around 2014. It will go to different universities: DLSU, Ateneo de Manila and FEU who is one of the sponsors. There are no plans yet for the Visayas and Mindanao but I’m hoping that it will come to that. I do want to bring it to Cebu.
After the exhibit, the main thing is to get funding. Once we get that, we continue to go to new areas. We have five areas already picked out and I would really like to continue this for the next three years and get more depth.
Last question, what’s your greatest realization doing this project?
That’s a good question. Seeing the extremes here in the country in terms of awareness and discrimination. In the Cordilleras, the indigenous groups there are very proud of their culture, business in the area are owned and run by them and politicians are from their local tribes. At the other end, some of the groups are really marginalized like the Agtas and lumad groups. There’s a huge extreme there which I really didn’t know about before undertaking this project.
All of these groups that we visit, they want a good life, a good life with their families, just like everyone. And they also want to hold on to their culture, for the most part. But there is the younger generation who wants to fit in to modern life and not be discriminated on.
The typical Filipino doesn’t really realize how rich their culture is and how that culture makes them Filipino. At some point we will look back at our history as a people and see what we were and embrace that. A lot has been lost. I think Filipinos would want to do that in the future but that might be too late. For me, we want to produce awareness and let people know their rich history and culture.
Check the following links:
Jacob Maentz: http://www.jacobimages.com/
Katutuong Filipino Project: http://www.katutuboproject.org/
Prints are available for interested buyers and a catalog will be available at the exhibit.
All images from the photographer.