Shooting Memories, Robert Frank’s Street Photography, and Why I’m Not on Instagram

Finding a Husband

“Welcome to America; we’ll find you a husband,” said my relatives when I set foot in California for the first time. It was spring of 2017. I had just detached myself from the lunacy of writing about the gameplaying of Russia and China in Syria, when I flew from Milan to the United States, with grueling stopovers in Lisbon and New York in the style of low-fare air travel. Outside the San Francisco International Airport, a sleek Mercedes Benz was waiting for me.

Talks went from how lucky I was t­o finally reach the “States” to how I might like the American way of life after my stint abroad. My jetlagged head was full of promising images of interstate road trips and diners. Just like in Hollywood movies. But, since my relatives were juggling jobs, in the next three days they took turns driving me — in Uncle Santi’s Mercedes or my cousin’s Mini Cooper convertible — to five different supermarkets in cash-rich Silicon Valley. I could only be grateful for small mercies before I transferred to my own temporary place in the pricey Bay Area.

And thus began my four-month adventure of collecting memories from the superpower that colonized us.

Travel Mate

To keep me company during my visit to the Golden State, I always had with me not a relative nor a future husband but a trusty DSLR camera.

When British right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannoppoulos shook UC Berkeley with a scheduled evening talk, a professor sent out an email to students of the Graduate School of Journalism. All buildings on campus were on lockdown. We needed to avoid the south side of the campus. If covering the protests, please exercise utmost safety.

I was just preparing to indulge myself in a quiet night with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks I scored from Half Price Books when an uncle’s text also came in: “Be careful! Don’t go out! There’s protest on your campus; I saw on news!” Being the logical person that I am, I wore my reliable knee-high boots, put on a coat, grabbed the camera, and walked to the south side of the campus, the site of fire and fury.

Police were present. Around the Martin Luther King Student Union Building the protesters gathered. What I witnessed in the next hour is proof that the university didn’t earn the moniker “Berserkley” for nothing. In fact, the etymology of “berserk” quite fits Berkeley’s bear mascot and statues: a Norse warrior who fought with frenzy, without wearing proper armor but instead a bearskin.

The bear in me got ready. I took my camera out of its lightweight case. I snapped photos from a corner that I thought was safe. Until a young man with bleeding head walked past me. A couple of masked individuals were after him. A few other anonymous rascals took it upon themselves to burn and destroy school property. I moved to another corner. I decided that those were the times I could maybe have used a husband.

That night, slogans such as Stop Islamophobia and #Resist floated in the air. In the middle of the scene was fire. I took photos — quickly, because someone could grab my camera and throw it into the flames in the name of some ideology or privacy or anarchy.

If serious trouble happens, I told myself, I am going to run.

In the early 1990s, I was an active child, winning a 100-meter dash, getting stitches due to dangerous climbs on walls and trees, kicking balls, and somersaulting on the street in an aspiration to be a gymnast like those in the Barcelona Olympic Games on TV. Somehow, asthma managed to crush every bit of that budding athleticism, so I turned to books and found refuge in the imaginary world of possibilities. But I can still run. I was bumped out of my self-coaching thoughts. Somebody said over a megaphone that Milo was no longer speaking. The crowd cheered. Then someone else announced that the crowd needed to clear out or else the police would disperse everyone. The crowd cheered again, but lingered.

Heeding advice that turmoil can migrate as protests disperse, I left the site. Also, my digital card was full.

Another time, another protest. I took the train to San Francisco for the Women’s March. It rained during the parade. But, the women stayed. I took photos and videos of women. Happy women, furious women, contemplative women, dancing women, singing women, shouting women, women that are biologically men, women with kids, women with men, women with women.

I stood on corners and in the middle of the road, kneeled on the ground, and walked against the current of thousands of people for the sake of capturing fleeting moments.

Then, I found an abandoned trailer on which people were climbing to seek higher ground. Hands helped me climb up. I took more photos of a swelling crowd that had had enough of misogyny, patriarchy, and mediocrity in the White House. A 360-degree photo from that elevated platform could show that the plaza was emitting an energy that could power up the entire state.

A police officer then asked me and the others to please get down, and I did, out of fear of arrest. Like what happened to Robert Frank.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank is the Zurich-born U.S. citizen known for his street photography. His famous “Trolley” photo fetched $663,750 in 2013. Like Frank’s other works, this six-figure auctioned photo is a slice of everyday life in the U.S. in the 1950s: just a New Orleans tram with passengers looking out. This one is special and haunting though because the black-and-white photo shows white people seated in front, blacks at the back.

Frank’s brand of photography is “shot from the hip, out of a moving car, sitting in a bar, hiding in park,” says a catalogue. He once followed the English rock band The Rolling Stones during their 1972 tour in the U.S., photographing their daily band life of boredom, drugs, and group sex.

Taking pictures, however, has brought Frank to prison twice, to his annoyance and humiliation.

In 1955, police officers in Arkansas arrested him while he was traveling in an old Ford. A Lieutenant Brown wrote: “I noticed that he was shabbily dressed, needed a shave and a haircut, also a bath.” He continued in the police report: “The suspicious man has a foreign accent and his car is full of suitcases and cameras.” He must have been discharged for the lack of proof of espionage or Communist association. (“Are you a Commie?” they interrogated him). In fact, he was traveling from coast to coast under a Guggenheim Fellowship that gave birth to The Americans.

The photobook The Americans is Robert Frank’s seminal work. It has 83 black-and-whites selected from a whopping 27,000 photos. In present times, this volume can only come from a first-time tourist to Europe. One afflicted with a sort of Stendhal Syndrome, snapping thousands of photos over weeks of travel and choosing a hundred to upload on Facebook. But this was the 1950s, and Robert Frank was not a tourist. He’s a Jew who lived through World War II. He worked with more than 700 rolls of film and thousands of negatives — technologies that were last relevant decades ago.

Frank has a soft spot for his subjects, their social class, and their fears, difficulties, and obsessions. “I know that life can be hard,” he said in an interview. But his interviews also reveal a grumpy Robert Frank. His travel mate Jack Kerouac, who wrote captions for his photos, once called him “the angry bear.” Frank doesn’t conceal his aversion for works that are “too coffee table” or vogue or moralizing or structured with a beginning and an end. He also believes that certain things are not to be photographed. “Some guy is killing a woman in front of you and you’re taking a fucking picture of it,” says a character in one of his films. (He later moved to films.)

He also made it clear: “As a photographer, you have to be out on the street.”

It’s a Free Country!

When I saw the professor’s name for my photo essay class in Berkeley, I smiled. If Harry Potter had Professor Rolanda Hooch for Quidditch and Professor Septima Vector for Arithmancy, I saw no reason why I could not have Professor Ken Light for photography.

Ken Light said that, for our individual projects, we needed to shoot, edit (only small digital enhancements!), print, and sequence photos to tell a story. The choice of theme was ours.

One afternoon, in the ephemeral splendor of the golden hour, the photographer professor took us to a pop-up exhibition of Robert Frank’s art from 1947 to the present. Our small class walked all together like diligent schoolchildren to the other side of the campus. We took in Frank’s view of America. The photos were printed in a sequence of four to five photos on three-meter paper banners. They were displayed on the walls or hung from the ceiling. No frames. Naked. Raw. Frank.

As if to completely eschew the pretentious practices in the modern art industry, Robert Frank’s souvenir catalogues didn’t come in glossy, book-bound A4 pages but on disposable broadsheets, with priceless photos, personal letters, police reports, and revealing interviews in newspaper layout. I was disappointed at first because I wanted to take home something hardbound that I could put on my shelf and browse every now and then, and not a fragile bunch of papers that an unknowing housemate might accidentally throw away. But I guess the organizers had to be honest, too. It’s art from the street, dedicated to people on the street.

One section of the “newspaper” showed how Frank understood America’s sense of freedom:

This country is really a free country. A person can do what he wants. The people here have representatives from every race and nation. Whether you’ve been here for eight days or eight years, you are always treated like an American.

When I was interviewing for stories, I felt this. Sources would treat me as if I were from there. As if I too naturally took pride in the so-called greatness of America. Perhaps many Filipinos or Filipino-Americans share this pride. But, for me, my impression of the U.S. as a place or as a construct is in perpetual confusion. In primary school, we learned the dates and names involved in the American colonization of the Philippines. In college, we learned that this colonization left Spain’s “Pearl of the Orient” fragmented, with no national identity or real independence up to this day. In graduate school, we learned that we could strike back.

But how does one strike back when in the land of former colonial masters? Perhaps by shooting the Americans on the street? Capturing them in their current state of confusion?

Looking at Robert Frank’s photos and videos made me conscious of how I should feel about the American people. There is a sense, for instance, that people here celebrate one’s coming to the U.S. as the end of an epic marathon. People cheer for you. Welcome you at the finish line. Proud of you that you made it. That you escaped the world’s grime. That you are now in a sanctuary and part of the machine that runs the world. People who come to America are people who made it.

Chasing Memories

Frank further writes of his experience of the U.S.: “It is inconceivable, the tempo at which life takes place.” This is exactly what welcomed me. Every morning in Berkeley I grabbed a cup of coffee and a piece of toast or a sandwich or a fruit and dashed to a class or an appointment or a reporting assignment, to meet deadlines and keep up with everything. Cooking rice or preparing a colorful breakfast that involved chopping garlic and onions did not fit in any day in my planner.

In his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, Frank said he wanted to capture ubiquitous everyday things: “a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur … the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers….”

I’m not a professional photographer. I’m no Robert Frank. But, some of these images are what I ended up chasing for my project and for, well, my memories: Santa Cruz at night, a parking lot over a cliff, an Asian supermarket, a highway in the Wine Country, the priest who drives a couple of cars and the homeless man who owns none, the denial of the end of Pax Americana, America at the dawn of the Trump era.

Instagram

In total, the photos I shot in the United States reached more than 5,000 or 6 gigabytes. This excludes smartphone pics. Instead of storing these in the cloud or sharing them on social media, I kept these memories on a hard disk.

I am not on Instagram. This is difficult to explain to most people that I meet on the road. Every time I say “I don’t have an Instagram” I imagine an undercurrent of distrust in the conversation. Truth be told, I did open an “IG” account during the Pre-Cambrian age of my life, when I was transitioning from a five-year teaching career at the Philippines’ national university to a publishing job in Singapore. But, since I was the only one among my friends with an iPhone at that time (“smartphone” had just appeared in Google Ngram), I abandoned the photo-sharing app. Fast forward to 2018, after the exponential rise of smartphones, I discovered that I’m the only one in my circle of friends who is not on Instagram.

If I were active on Instagram though, and had to choose one photo to share, it would be the one with Asilomar State Beach in the background. Near the raging waves of the Pacific Ocean are silhouettes of people who look like they’re ambling or stuck in the sand. They look tiny in the middle of that blue expanse. In the foreground, on the left side, is a pickup truck with two mountain bikes — very California, one might say. Now, here’s my favorite part. In the center is a trashcan with a handwritten note: “REWARD for safe return of LOST KAYAK PADDLE.”

The stubborn faith of whoever posted that sign, on a trash can, at a windy shore, by a beach that looks unforgiving to lost paddles, that is the kind of faith and relentless drive that California has. The California that stamps out anxieties with protest marches. The California that knows how to resist. The California that is exhausted of how the political situation has impinged on private lives, but recently managed to surpass the United Kingdom as the fifth largest economy in the world. That is the kind of stubborn faith that I wish to capture out in the street and maintain in my journeys, amid uncertainties and volatilities around the globe, especially in my own home country.

I just probably need to get a new hard disk.

(All photos are mine. Shot them, except of course the one with me. Happy 2019!)

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