Interview

Photographing Indigenous Landscapes with Jacob Maentz

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This August 16 to 20, join Jacob Maentz and his team at the Homelands exhibition and book launch in Manila for talks honoring the Indigenous peoples of the archipelago.

Photography by
Jacob Maentz
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“A story about the land is the story of its people.”

In 2011, Jacob Maentz started a personal project to learn about and photograph different indigenous and historically marginalized people throughout the Philippines. What started out as a project to feed his curiosity became a venture into photography and a deep dive into Filipino culture that spans more than ten years.

Homelands is the comprehensive culmination of his work with Indigenous communities for the past decade. Aside from his photographs of the landscapes, enfolded in the book are stories that these communities have chosen to share with Maentz, which have shaped his own journey of unlearning, inviting him to “deeply reimagine the intimate, intricate, and inextricable relationships between place and people.”

We sat down with Jacob to learn more about how the project came into fruition:

GRID: So, what inspired this project? 

Jacob Maentz: So during my Peace Corps work, we would spend months out, monitoring the coastlines of Busuanga and Coron, and it was there that I met Tagbanua communities. That was sort of my first interaction with indigenous people here in the country. And then in 2010-ish, I had a good friend who's an ornithologist, so she was doing some work in the Sierra Madre, her guides were from the Agta community there. And for some reason, her photos touched me because I had never seen some of these places in the time that I've been here already. It seemed like a different world. So, I reached out to her, asked if I could actually visit the community where the Agta people were from, and it was my first immersion into an indigenous community for a couple of weeks.

GRID: And how was that for you?

Jacob: It was transformative, I guess that's where sort of the idea for the project came about. Not many people know of these semi-nomadic groups that are living there and the connection they have with the forest, so I sort of just wanted to start a long-form narrative blog. I started posting photos with words about the trip and talking about some of the issues and it grew from there. Then, I said well, I need to start visiting other places in the country after this.

GRID: How does your background in the Peace Corps affect your work as a photographer?

Jacob: At first, [my photography work] was all maybe for selfish reasons because [this environment] was so different and I wanted to share it with others. As the project evolved, I learned more about the issues that were happening, I was able to spend more time and communicate with the different communities, my understanding grew, and so throughout the course, I just really wanted to be in the communities to learn about the important things that are happening and be curious — the photos were still a big reason why I was there but it wasn't the main emphasis anymore. It was more about the learning, and trying to understand and comprehend everything. 

And I think that's where most things start anyways. Even with me and my writing, and with other photographers too. It really starts with a curiosity about something.

It really starts with a curiosity about something.

I'm an outsider, so the main thing that I can do is to work in solidarity with the communities to try to use my position as an outsider to help not spread the word, but to help others hear [the Indigenous People’s] voices. It can be sort of cliche but that was the reason. Because of my position as an outsider, I wanted to do them justice. So when the book was starting to be produced, it was primarily going to be a photobook with maybe a couple of essays. But we realized that in order to do this the right way, we needed to actually dig and dive deeper and talk about all of these important issues and topics and concerns of the communities because this really is like a space for them, and a space for the IPs to be heard.

GRID: How has being an outsider influenced your practice?

Jacob: I definitely have my own biases and it's hard to remove that. I think that from the very beginning I understood that I wanted this to be about the connection between people and place. So my imagery always sort of tried to tell that in some way. So while there's going to be biases, when you spend more time in the communities, you understand them more, but of course you're not going to understand everything, you do your best to be honest. From the very beginning, I am an outsider but I needed to own that and be up front about it, and you don't say this is how it is, you say this is how I saw things.

GRID: I also noticed in your synopsis, the choice of words are very deliberate, in particular the way you expressed how "these communities chose to tell you" stories. What are some of the stories that they shared with you?

Jacob: For instance in Mindoro, they would share about the struggles they were facing growing their crops upland. So, every weekend they would bring their crops down to the river, and there's a photo of them floating all their bananas down. So, it's hard work. During the week, they're getting [loans] from the lowlander buyer, so then by the time that they sell their products on the weekend, they don't get anything in return and they're sold at a much lower price than they're actually sold at. So there's lots of things that are shared with me: frustrations, concerns, problems with politics and related to health, there's just so many examples.

It's a lot to process sometimes. But what I learned is that IPs really are the environmental frontliners so if we want to save our one home, our planet, then we really need to listen to our indigenous people, and give them a voice in the conversation we're having with the world on how to move forward. Through generations and generations, they've seen how things are on the ground and they really are the most knowledgeable about how the land is.

GRID: It can be insensitive sometimes to bring out your camera, but how do you navigate these sensitive moments?

Jacob: It's all trust. It's trust and spending time with the community. At first it's not easy and you don't really want to bring out your camera. But you just really have to spend time and let people be comfortable with you, and sort of as the project evolved, people started hearing about it. So, communities actually started inviting me in. And some communities didn't want me to come in, and I have to respect that. 

GRID: What can people look forward to learning or uncovering with your book?

Jacob: I think the book is special in a way because it's a photobook but it also contains essays that allow readers to dive deeper. We wanted the whole book, from the cover actually, to be an experience. When you open the book, there's text [that’s], a bit hidden and you have to shine it under a light in order to see it. That's on purpose. The whole narrative starts there because indigenous people's voices are a bit hidden and not really heard, if you take the time to look and listen, there really is a wealth of knowledge that's to be given out. But also it's showing that the communities are one with these scapes and their homelands. You have to take a little more effort to see it, and it represents the journey we took to produce the book.

You have to take a little more effort to see it, and it represents the journey we took to produce the book.

GRID: What do you aim to achieve with Homelands? Is it to raise awareness for the issues or more of an invitation to carry on what you’ve done?

Jacob: We want this to be a starting point for a conversation.The idea of the book is you flip through a series of landscapes, and every so often the [pages containing the] landscapes open up and the community images are inside the landscapes, and that's sort of the concept for the photographs: it brings you on a visual journey exploring the landscapes and the communities enfolded within and that's sort of where we hope people will have their experience and interpretation of things. 

--

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Homelands will be available on its website, homelands.ph. From August 16 to 20, join Jacob Maentz at the Homelands exhibition and book launch at The Astbury in Manila for captivating talks honoring Indigenous peoples of the archipelago.

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