Seeing Empire: My Summer with Haverford’s Photographs of the American Occupation of the Philippines

This summer, I have been researching and designing an exhibit based on photographs of Philippine landsapes and peoples  in Special Collections from the American occupation of the Philippines. Due to the generous funding of the library and the Humanities Center, I knew from the beginning that I would have a generous travel budget to conduct original archival research, most likely at the University of Michigan where many of the papers of one of the photographers, Dean Conant Worcester, were held. I recently returned from a challenging and exhilarting nine-day sojourn in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I visited the Bentley Historical Library and the University of Michigan’s Special Collections, and Chicago, where I visited the renowned Newberry Library. I took over 1,100 photographs of documents and photographs through my library-issued IPad, and I can’t wait to utilize some of these archival gems in my exhibition essay and the exhibit.

The most exciting part of my research has certainly been the last month, when several crucial ambiguities about our archive have been resolved and I have carried out original research. On a trip to UPenn to see slides made by Charles Martin, the government photographer for the American colonial government, the archivists offered me letters between Martin and the Penn Museum head. I instantly recognized Martin’s handwriting as the same as the captions inscribed on the back of our photographs. Previously, I had not given deep thought to Martin, trusting other scholars and Worcester, who asserted that he merely acted under Worcester’s direction. But by researching the life and long imperial career of Martin, I have discovered a new narrative for these photographs, one based in the violent linkages between his career as a soldier in the Philippine-American War, and his later career with the National Geographic, which informed many middle-class Americans’ ideas of indigenous peoples. Ancestryinstitute.com has been the primary vehicle for my research, as I found Martin’s discharge information and passports. At the archives in Michigan, I found several letters Martin wrote to Worcester, and so am able to better reconstruct their relationship and the actual agency Martin exerted in making the photographs.

I have also discovered more information about several of the nameless individuals depicted in our pictures. The story of Pit-a-pit (later christened Hillary Clapp) is well-known. This young “Bontoc Igorot” boy was taken to a mission school in the Philippines, gained the expertise needed to become a doctor in Canada,  and became a doctor and politician in the Philippines. Another is Guined, an “Ifugao” chief who Worcester wrote about in an appendix he sold. A third is Madalem, whom Worcester calls a “rascal” and identifies him as a member of the “Bontoc Igorot” tribe, while Martin says he is a “Kalinga.”  While little about the life of Madalem can be gleaned from the archive, the many spellings of his name, as he is alternatively called Madallom or Madalom by Worcester, points up the untranslatability of a life into a photograph or an index, the ineffability of the individuality that Worcester sought to flatten and appropriate in his colonialist arguments. My quotes around these “tribal” designations also points up how the colonial regime sought to reduce the complexity of the groups in the Northern Luzon into distinct “tribes,” an idea inspired by the American colonial conquest of Native Americans.  Individuals in the same “tribes,” however, may not even have spoken the same language, and Martin and Worcester’s conflicting ideas over who belongs to what tribes points up the artifice of the classificatory system.

I’ve attempted to share a slice of the immense complexity of these photographs, the inexhaustbile ways they can be read. One of my goals of the exhibit is to encourage people to confront the politics of knowledge, and think about what it means for us to exhibit these photos of individuals long since dead who we have never seen and will never meet.  I’m now at work on an essay pulling together all of the thoughts I’ve gathered over this summer of research and discovery, and can’t wait to show all of Haverford what I’ve been working on in the fall when the exhibit goes up in Magill Library.

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One Response to Seeing Empire: My Summer with Haverford’s Photographs of the American Occupation of the Philippines

  1. Sarah Sharp says:

    Hi Aaron!
    Sr. Jimenez passed materials on to me about your exhibit…this is quite spectacular work, very impressive in all respects. It’s so wonderful to see you convey such excitement about your research experiences. I am wondering if I can come to see the exhibit and visit with you when you have time before it closes on Feb. 1st. Also, since the exhibit covers a period of US history that we’re moving into after winter break, could you come to school and talk with the APUS history classes too?
    I hope that you and your family are well.

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