Text and photos by Dennis Rito.
Borne out of curiosity on how people develop and nurture relationships via mobile phones, especially here in the Philippines-a country dubbed as the “texting capital of the world”, this project paved its way into existence.
Everytime at sundown on my way home from work, I could see people’s faces brightly illuminated by the mobile phones they were holding in front of them while busy texting. This sight is quite common to us in the Philippines- be it in the sidewalks, public transport like jeepneys, buses and trains, karaoke bars, restaurants, and almost in all places imaginable. Often times, these texters are totally engrossed in what they are doing, oblivious of the world around them. Their faces would lighten up from time to time as if they were in a face-to-face conversation with someone – a thing that instantly caught my interest and fascination. I want to photograph these texters but, as much as possible, I don’t want to disturb them with my presence.
I too, am fascinated with the definition and interpretation of portraits. Portraiture, from a classical point of view, is largely a collaboration between the photographer and the sitter, ideally revealing some connection between the two to create a desired outcome – to capture the sitter’s persona in a single photograph. What portraiture has become today, are all contributions of the many photographers and painters who have explored the limits of two-dimensional portrait. Yet the question remains: are we really capable of capturing a subject’s persona in a single image? With ‘Unlimitxt’ series, I explore this idea by attempting to capture a glimpse into my subject’s psyche as they shut themselves for a second to “reconnect” with their intended recipients.
Just like my previous projects, I researched on mobile phone use and mobile phone users’ texting behavior. In the study “MOBILE ROMANCE: An Exploration of the Development of Romantic Relationships through Texting” (2006) by Randy Jay Solis, the Philippines has 35 million mobile phone users sending an average of 10 messages daily which contributes to daily traffic of 200 million text messages making the Philippines the “texting capital of the world.” The said study served as my springboard to pursue the project as it has societal significance in the context of contemporary Filipino culture.
Early on my project, I wanted to replicate what I saw at sundown – texters unposed and absorbed in their thoughts. But doing it proved to be one of the challenges as I seek an unposed look and with minimal intervention so as not to disturb my subject’s state of mind. Though I work on a documentary approach, I felt the need for some ‘intervention’ in order for me to be able to capture the facial expressions I am looking for. That means, I have to set-up the shot and coach my subjects to think and even compose an sms message intended for their special someone. All portraits in this series are staged, but I am consciously aiming for the unstaged look. I just hope that I have indeed met that objective in this project.
I started this series by hanging out in places I am interested in and began photographing strangers. The initial photographs served as visual sketches which I used to further evaluate what worked and what doesn’t work visually. One of the technical difficulties I encountered was that, I need to expose a single frame for several seconds in order to capture both the mobile phone-lit faces of my subjects and at the same time making sure that I have enough ambient light to expose the background. Metering in dimly-lit places proved to be extremely difficult and my exposure was purely trial and error. At times, I end up frustrated not getting the result I wanted. But after I got accustomed to shooting in dimly-lit places, I learned to see the right amount of light that would expose for a good mobile phone-lit portrait. I shot the entire project using a 50mm f1.8 lens on a Nikon DSLR.
After streamlining my workflow, and found what worked and what doesn’t, I continued looking for subjects – friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and strangers willing to pose for me. But this time, I would ‘select’ my subjects just like characters in a play. I even posted a ‘call for participant’ in my Facebook wall, and got few response except for some of my contacts who had expressed interest in joining my project. It proved that the best way to look for subjects are through friends and by walking around the streets and spending time with local folks in the area.
Towards July of 2009 I got accepted to a portrait photography workshop with German photographer Espen Eichoefer, a member of Oestkreuz Photo Agency which has been organized by Goethe Institut Manila and Silverlens Gallery. Like any workshop, we were required to come up with a portrait project as our output. Practical wise, instead of coming up with a new one, I decided to enter the Unlimitxt series which is why majority of the photographs in this series was included in the workshop output entitled “As it is.”
Coming from a documentary background, my usual approach is to spend time with my subjects and make them aware what my project is about, why am I doing it and where the photographs will be used. I also present some of my earlier photographs I did on the project in order for them to have an idea of the images I want to make. Some refused but what surprised me are the people whom I met for the first time, yet right there and then, had agreed to be photographed!
I must admit that there’s a strange yet wonderful feeling I felt working with this portrait series – especially with strangers. By allowing myself to be open, they too allowed themselves to be open. And how wonderful it is to be trusted and allowed to, even for very short span of time, record that specific moment.
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