“Manila, Fishing Boats”, by Albert E. Kane. Taken 1932/1937 in Manila, Philippines.
The Philippines has the unique distinction of being one of the few archipelagic nations in the world and as such, the environment and its spatial position has played a distinct role in the development of the nation over its history. This image, taken by Albert E. Kane, features a set of fishing boats docked in Manila. These boats serve as a representation of the influence the environment, by way of the ocean, has on the many facets of the nation that exists today, and captures a transformational moment in Philippine history. Boats exist not only as maritime vessels in this story of the Philippines, but as conduits of discourse, sculptures of culture, and shapers of government, and the period in the early twentieth century was a peak of this activity. In this paper, I will unravel the many layers of this seemingly busy yet simple image and demonstrate how it represents the profound and lasting impact boats, the ocean, and the environment have played in shaping both the Filipino cultural identity as well as its political structures.
Taken at face value, the photographer’s composition consists of around ten small fishing boats with sails drooped, parked in a dock surrounded by buildings. While there are no obvious people present in the image, the picture still elicits a sense of hustle and bustle in the shipyard, with disheveled ropes, sails ready to hoist, and overall clutter and chaos typical of an area under constant motion. The buildings in the background, which are the edge of the capital Manila, serve as a reminder of the proximity between the environment and human settlement. This physical, spatial distribution in the image is a very intentional juxtaposition, symbolic of the similar proximity between the environment, culture, and politics. Boats are the transport vesicles linking between these, and Kane aptly chose to highlight them as the focal point of the image as such. Additionally, fishing boats prove to be a perfect subject, given the nature of fishing itself. Fishing is both an agrarian, traditional means of finding food, as well as a commercialized industry; these boats represent these themes and the change and transformation the nation underwent.
If the fishing boats are intended to be representative of Philippine culture and tradition, then the buildings in the background and the commerce fishing boats represent must allude to the conflicting ideas of Filipino identity at this moment in history. Boats facilitated the influx of American influence and colonial rule into this nation, which took hold of some while others vehemently rejected it in fear of losing their national identity. These contrasting ideas of Filipinization and Americanization divided parts of the country, led to nationalistic movements such as the construction of schools and archives, and launched numerous artistic movements (Mojares). Kane captures this conflict in the image by imaging the boats, representing Filipinization, lined up right against buildings, which represent the influx of infrastructure development and cultural change driven by this Americanization. While the reality of the division was more complex than symbolic representation in the image, this search for a cultural identity in the presence of exogenous influence is one of the major prevailing themes of this period in Philippine history, explaining Kane’s motivation for taking a photo of the seemingly mundane boats.
In addition to facilitating cultural diffusion, boats, and the photographed fishing boats, facilitated commerce and political change. The geographical position, and thus the oceanic environment, drove this change via the introduction of American colonial rule and the nation’s interaction with the said environment and its bountiful resources. In the image, Kane uses the boats to primarily represent the importance of sea commerce and fishing to the Filipino economy and lifestyle. This commerce drove international exchange, and led to an increased presence of Americans, who imposed their influence on the nation, and enjoyed its ample resources. As such, Americans introduced their version of democracy and grew their foothold (Morley). This desire for commerce and resources, as exemplified by Kane’s fishing boats, quickly grew into political influence, something which Kane’s image covertly expresses. The image is intentionally inconsequential and devoid of emotion, tempting the viewer to seek deeper meaning for themselves. In seeking this deeper meaning, the viewer grasps how quickly their understanding can change, much like the way the commercial and political interests quickly changed Philippine society. Additionally, while obscured, the seas in the image appear to be choppy and the skies are overcast. This tumultuous condition is symbolic on two fronts; first of the many turmoils the American influence introduced, and secondly, the relationship between the nation and the environment itself. Philippine environmental politics are confrontational in nature, choosing to take an active role in environmental protection and regulation, represented in the image accordingly (Hirsch).
The often-cited adage argues that pictures convey a thousand words, yet in this case, a thousand words falls far short of doing justice to Kane’s image. Fishing boats, inconspicuously docked under a gray sky, highlight critical features of Philippine culture and politics, the 20th century transformation they underwent, and the environmental and oceanic factors which drove them. These boats are undoubtedly central to Philippine society, and in hindsight perhaps Kane captured even more than he initially intended to with this remarkably profound and elegant photograph.
Hirsch, P. (2016). The Environment in Southeast Asia’s Past, Present, Future. Routledge Handbook of the Environment of Southeast Asia, 3–13.
Mojares, R. B. (2006). The Formation of Filipino Nationality Under U.S. Colonial Rule. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society (Vol. 34, Issue 1).
Morley, I. (2011). America and the Philippines. US, Asia, and the World 1620-1914, 16(2), 34–38.