The Philippine Collection at the RJM

(The historical photo archive of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne contains about 100,000 photos. Of these, 3,787 concern the Philippines. With six exceptions, these photos are from the collection of Georg Küppers-Loosen, a Cologne merchant, which after his death was transferred to the museum on 18.5.1911 (Engelhard/Wolf 1991). Küppers-Loosen, who travelled a lot, stayed in the middle of 1906 in Manila in the house of the Secretary of the Interior of the US Colonial Administration of the Philippines, Dean Conant Worcester. Küppers-Loosen was billed a total of 3716 photographs. It is not possible to verify how many actually reached him. At present, 3477 of these photographs, together with the catalogue accompanying them, are in the museum’s inventory. Neither the invoices nor the catalogue provide precise information as to how many photographs came from Worcester’s private collection and how many from the holdings of the Bureau of Science. The photographs were taken over a period of nearly twenty years – between Worcester’s first trip to the Philippines, which began in September 1887 and the day of the last invoice, January 3, 1907.)

This twenty-year period is fraught with violent historical shifts in the Philippines. In 1892, the revolutionary society the Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Supreme and Venerable Association of the Children of the Nation) or Katipunan was founded. By 1898 Filipino revolutionaries declares independence from three centuries of Spanish colonization paving the way for the establishment of the First Philippine Republic. It was short-lived. While initially introducing itself as an ally to the Philippine revolutionary forces in order to fight a common enemy, by December of 1898 the United States of America officially bared itself as the new colonizing power, offering to pay Spain the sum of $20,000,000 to take possession of the Philippine Islands. The Philippine-American war breaks out by 1899. The President of the First Philippine Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo, who shifted to guerrilla warfare to fight the invading American troops beginning gin 1899 was captured by 1901.

Resigned to defeat, Aguinaldo says in an open letter

“Let the stream of blood cease to flow; let there be an end to tears and desolation. The lessons which the war holds out and the significance of which I realized only recently, leads me to the firm conviction that the complete termination of hostilities and a lasting peace are not only desirable but are also absolutely essential for the well-being of the Philippines.

In June last year, I received an invitation to work artistically with this inventory within the context of an exhibition called “Resist! The Art of Resistance.”  The invitation was to become an artist in residence and to present the process of a remote artistic research on the volume during the course of the exhibition.

Lydia Halder, the head of the RJM Photographic Collection at that time, described the photographs as an “impressive example of photographic violence and stereotyping in the context of colonial ethnography” and the project to be “an opportunity to approach the collection asking how to take a stand against colonial representation systems.”

I accepted the invitation and eventually called it “Snare for Birds” taking off from the background of Dean Conant Worcester as a zoologist who first visited the Philippines as a junior member of a scientific expedition in 1887 and the number of images of Snares for birds in the collection of photographs that made it to the RJM collection. In the course of the research, the connection to birds was reinforced by an essay published by Filipino nationalists titled “Aves de Rapiña” that appeared in the newspaper “El Renacimiento” which alluded to Worcester himself. Worcester was enraged and filed charges against the writers, editors and owners of El Renacimiento, causing its closure a few years after.

Earlier into the project, I entertained the idea of metaphorically capturing and exposing the “Aves de Rapiña” in a snare that comes in the form of artistic works using this photography collection. But then I also saw how delicate and difficult it can be when we are using the very same tools and images used to entrap Filipinos and further the process of the US colonization our people.  

Understanding this opportunity of accessing the collection and interrogating this period of our history through the lens of artists, I also saw the necessity of inviting more artists into the project. I shared the funds I received to two other artists, Lizza May David in Berlin and Jaclyn Reyes in New York and we began a regular correspondence and shared a blog where we post our process and the works that we have produced while looking at these photographs.

It was only in September of this year that I had the opportunity to see the photographs physically. Joined by Lizza May David, who took a train from Berlin, we had roughly 2 hours to see

(In the museum, the photographs were mounted on cardboard, inventoried and then added with subtitles. Extracts from the original catalogue were applied to the back of the cardboard. These handwritten text passages are referred to in the following as ‘accompanying text’. Some of the accompanying texts were later revised by typewritten text that was glued to the back of the cardboard in a standardized form. Many of the photographs have been trimmed, albeit insignificantly, so that they are no longer available in their original size. The almost entirely typewritten subtitle was partly pasted onto the photo itself.)  

After the visit and my return to the Philippines, Caroline Bräuer, the current head of the historical photographic collection of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum invited me once more to write new text, a more updated reflection about the photographs. The sentiment that I now have has changed significantly from the time when I first started. It has grown less optimistic and rightfully, far more mindful. Was it the books that I have read, the connections to the present that I may be wildly imagining, or  the recent physical encounter with the photographs in their storage space that added this dimension?


Snare for Birds Post Script

These are photos of us immobilized, trapped, imprisoned, threatened, violated, collected, enslaved, killed, and reordered…No beautiful fabrics, elaborate tattoos, rare writings, ornaments, tools, weapons and an older way of life that has been preserved in these photographs can ever compensate for the worlds that they abetted in destroying. The Philippine anthropological photographs sold by Dean Conant Worcester to Mr. Georg Kuppers Loosen in 1906, now in the RJM’s Photographic Collection, are a grotesque record of the colonial subjugation of our people during the turn of the century.

Is there redemption in these photographs? Would I be lying when I say I agree that these photographs — used as instruments to quell and diminish — be turned into tools for self-empowerment?

When these photographs are surfaced, when they are made accessible, do they risk reinforcing stereotypes, the ideology of colonialism that we have long been seeking to overcome? Is it possible for artistic interventions to embody counter images or counter positions?

If we understand that these photographs were borne of violence and are embedded with violence, why not let them continue slumbering undisturbed in their boxes and their wooden crates, locked behind and beneath the steel gates of a storage garrison?

To hide or to reveal, to awake or to let slumber, to intervene or not to intervene? What to make of these photographs and the thousands of questions that they carry? The choice should never be yours alone. It should have always been ours.