Ports of entry (and some exits, too)
The coffee table book has, through the years, become a genre unto itself, a category of literature that gives equal if not more weight to the visual aspect, thus in the National Book Awards handed out annually by the Manila Critics Circle in conjunction with National Book Development Board, though there’s no best coffee table book, there are however best art book and best design. Inside the Lion’s Den, a glimpse inside Philippine trade gates and their keepers (Europa 2011) by photographer Jes Aznar and writer Iris Gonzales, may strictly speaking fall under the category journalism/photojournalism as it takes the reader deep in the belly of the Bureau of Customs, with a penetrating eye of realism as well as romance.
As in any coffee table book of consequence, design is key, and in this wise Inside the Lion’s Den rarely disappoints with its at times breathtaking photographs of various ports of entry around the country, from the ultramodern Manila International Container Terminal in the capital, to the old Chinese pier in Tawi-Tawi, to the different economic zones and locator ports that dot a conflicted archipelago. Such indeed that the photographs deserve a foreword of their own, written by no less than fellow photographer and Oarhouse head honcho Ben Razon, titled Romancing the Goods, which curiously we missed the first time going through the book, but it’s there, like an overlooked but crucial detail, using as epigraph the definition of the word “arrastre”: the operation of receiving, conveying, and loading or unloading merchandise on piers or wharves. (Merriam-Webster.com)
To wit, the cover, described in a liner note as “a bird’s eye view of Port Area,” is striking enough, but more than a bird’s vision Aznar’s wide angle camera can in fact convey an all encompassing breadth, and we’re not exaggerating. It’s a revealing picture of an area where hundreds of newspaper workers and stevedores report to work every day, but it’s hard trying to locate Railroad Street or ICTSI in this sprawling neo-impressionist take. Credit too must go to photo editor Sonny Yabao, project co-editor with Michael Marasigan, and you wonder from which high and mighty building was it taken.
As in other coffee table books, the text is usually functional and informative, perhaps even an occasional distraction to the photographs, but Gonzales, business reporter for the Port Area-based Philippine STAR, is in familiar ground, and she puts her keen journalism sense to good use. The narrative may be far from riveting, but the barebones reportage teases by verging on expose, only to pull back from the brink because, ahem, didn’t the BOC bankroll the project, or at least was major underwriter?
Former commissioner Angelito Alvarez wrote the foreword, and the book becomes sort of a legacy of his abbreviated stint in the bureau aptly described as a lion’s den (just as Malacañang is called a snake pit), though there’s nothing Biblical or Bedan about it. Again, to his credit, the pa-pogi is kept to a minimum, the tendency to PR aptly moderated, and what we are given is a sober piece on the reforms he tried to institute after little over a year in office, and the age-old problems of smuggling and corruption, which former according to a note in the book could have been introduced by the Chinese even before they discovered Scarborough Shoal.
In the latter part there are brief profiles of past commissioners and the mark they left on the bureau, including such upright and incorruptible men like Wigberto Tañada and Ramon Farolan, who had to lead an agency not exactly known for its wholesomeness. Common perception is that Customs personnel are next only to MMDA traffic aides and LTO fixers as among the persons to avoid, and the less you deal with them the better. While the book doesn’t overhaul that view, here finally the bureau is given a human face in the mug of a lowly factotum or hardnosed stevedore eking out a living or holding office in a parked container van.
Then again you have to return to the photos, where start and end this den of iniquity that can be so sublime and true: in the Port of Iligan, a jackfruit is unloaded from a rundown jeep with a sign on the estribo that reads, “Bismbillah”; boys down south at mid-dive from a pier; unloading tons of wheat in Subic; banana packers in Davao; putting together pieces of a ship in Cebu; hot cars and heavy equipment for auction under a sheltering sky; pier hands and bureaucrats on cigarette break or else the Monday flag ceremony; opening a parcel at the Central post office; the rank and file unwinding through karaoke and sports fests; officials riding a tugboat to inspect a newly docked ship, the image of Christ a post-it to the side of the windshield.
Aznar also regular contributes photos to The New York Times, the latest of which were part of another collaboration with Gonzales on a freewheeling island tour off the beaten track in Mindanao. The humanity presented here is both humbling and awesome. Razon writes: “One may not necessarily spot the faces of heroes or crooks as often played up in the news and of the agency’s perceived reputation as painted by those on the outside. That is the general simplistic assumption. Instead and for the first time in actual pictures, one comes across visual elements and hints that for the most part help suggest the difficulties and odds facing the men and women of a bureau expected to do everything right and efficiently by their work, and within their limited means.”
Aznar and Gonzales may not yet be in the league of storied collaborators Doreen Gamboa Fernandez-Edilberto Alegre and Anita Feleo-David Sheniak, but they could be well on their sweet way. It would not be surprising if one day they get into documentary filmmaking. What a country — not even in your wildest dreams has Port Area looked like this — what a life. (But where were you looking all this time?)