Diasporic Voices in Manila


A review of The Migrant Lenses: Indians, Koreans and the Mediation of Diasporic Voices in Manila, by Jason Vincent A. Cabanes

Dr. Cabanes’ work is a brave academic venture in the realms of photography and diaspora studies. Drawn from interviews of  seventeen (17) South Asians and fifteen (15) Koreans from Manila, participatory observation, and several focus group discussions with local Filipinos and mainstream media people, his research evolves into an interventionist endeavor. His project provides a comprehensive theoretical framework in considering how a collaborative photography exhibition project might facilitate an avenue in fostering diasporic voice. In particular, he explores the voices of the participants in various parameters. These include the mediated voice either by denotative or connotative nature of photography as medium; the practices associated to collaborative photography exhibition project; experiences of diasporic life either as individuals; members of a cultural group; and of a multicultural society. The said variables are substantially discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 with heavy reference on Nick Couldry’s idea of voice, Roger Silverstone’s concept of general articulation as well as Nancy Thumim’s notion of mediation.

Being an interventionist research, he employs diverse but equally significant methodologies ranging from life story interviews to focus group discussions as well as impressionistic media analysis to understand the social context of his Shutter Stories project both in public exhibition and on the dedicated website. In the said project, the author interestingly employs the photo stories of selected participants, four (4) Koreans and five (5) South Asians. Here, he describes how the mediation of multiculturalism plays out well in the context of Manila and consequently shows how this case of mediation is entangled within the broader discourses of the country’s post colonial nationalist project. He further highlights how the locals’ preoccupation with establishing a unifying cultural identity tends to make them elide the issue of their own internal cultural diversity, as well as of the social issues generated by the uphill presence of migrants in the city. Moreover, he underscores how the local discourse of cultural homogeneity results in the continued hesitation of the locals to discuss in public the persistence of their unspoken skin-tone based racial hierarchy not only of themselves, but also of their cultural others such as South Asians. By doing this, the project deliberately permits the emergence of two collective voices, one from the participants and the other from the researcher. In the succeeding chapters, the author looks both at the photographically and socially mediated experiences of the participants.

For the first category of mediated voice, the author suggests that the voices of the nine (9) participants of the Shutter Stories’ project were photographically mediated. He comfortably weaves his narrative about the subject selection and subject representation.  One interesting note, however, is his observations on the usage and the dynamics of interaction as well as negotiation between the modes (indexical, the iconic, and the symbolic) of the photograph used by the participants during the crafting of their photo stories; and the conditions that influenced the interpretation of Manila based Filipinos on their photo stories’ modes.

On the other hand, the socially mediated voices of nine participants are influenced by the diverse working forces prevalent at various levels (self, cultural group, and multicultural society) of the diasporic experience. As articulated by the author, the photo stories exhibited the participants’ ability to be reflexive at the level of self, wherein they expressed their personal agency in dealing with the conditions in which they were embedded. At the level of the cultural group, he notes how the participants’ works reflected the ways that they negotiated the boundaries of their cultural groups. These negotiations are mostly reinforcing at best and to some extent challenging. Finally, at the level of the multicultural society, he delves into how the participants’ works were mediated by how open and willing Manila’s wider society was in engaging in a dialogue regarding the multicultural character of the city. The promise of a multicultural dialogue is best documented by the author as part of his conversation with the participants and their relatives during the opening night of the exhibition. One noteworthy and interesting comment is the happiness of Sonya, a Korean, of her participation in the exhibition. She chuckles: “No joke. I’m really happy to be a part of this project…It gave me a chance to reflect on my beautiful life here (in Manila) and to leave a message to (the local) Filipinos… You know that I love your country, really, and that I hope your country will love other Koreans the way it loved me” (p. 292).

By and far, Cabanes intervention turned out into a productive output that facilitates in mapping out the possibilities and problems that accompany the said project of its aim in seeking ways on how to foster diasporic voices as exemplified by the Shutter Stories’ exhibition. Indeed, I certainly agree to Cabanes’ own assessment of his project’s contribution to include but not limited to the identification of possible future endeavours that might make Manila’s present day locals come to terms with the longstanding multicultural character of the city. For sure, the results of the project are not only interesting to scholars working on diaspora and photography but also to other enthusiasts and academicians in sociology and other similar disciplines. It is, therefore, my hope that Cabanes’ work will be published in the very near future for wider dissemination. In so doing, many scholars will be motivated to be brave enough in exploring new methodologies and venturing into the synergy of multidisciplinary approaches to contribute to the better understanding of this growing diasporic development amidst demanding globalization process.

Joefe B. Santarita
Assistant Professor of South Asian Studies
Asian Center
University of the Philippines

Primary Sources

Key informants (interviews, focus group discussions, participant observations)
Collaborative photography exhibition

Dissertation Information

The University of Leeds, 2013. 357 pp. Primary Advisors: Helen Kennedy and David Hesmondhalgh.

Image: Photograph taken by the Indian participant “Sukhprit” for her photo essay “Maa.”

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