By Robin Grant
Photographers Without Borders graphic designer Daniel Ignacio immigrated to Canada from the Philippines 10 years ago. In December, after graduating from university, he returned to his childhood home, a rural village in the Moncada district of the northern Philippines. But his goal was not just to travel—he wanted to revisit his Filipino roots and use photography to do it. "You're kind of filling this gap in your own cultural identity," he explained. "I don't want to be so far removed from my own culture. (The trip) was a way for me to reconnect with my people."
Ignacio said he discovered documentary photography during his undergraduate degree in communications. It became his passion—not only because he enjoys taking pictures, but because it has the potential to act as a tool to dispel the stigma against people with dark skin in the Philippines. "This kind of stigma against dark skin is real. In the media and the language, in so many aspects of the culture, there's this stigma, and it has never really been addressed," he said. "So personally, one of my aims is to address that and raise awareness and educate people that being dark skinned is something to be proud of. And we should abolish or dispel this stigma."
In particular, Ignacio referred to the Indigenous People of the Philippines—the Aetas—who live in the scattered and isolated mountains on the island, Luzon. He explained that they are discriminated against in Filipino culture because of their dark skin, a legacy remaining from colonialism. But for Ignacio, having the opportunity to photograph an Aeta tribe was a trip highlight. "It's an experience that is also unforgettable because culturally, they're the original inhabitants of the Philippines," he said. "So I felt like I was meeting royals or celebrities, because I think they are one of the people who are significant in the cultural history of the Philippines." What made the visit even more unique, Ignacio said, was that he could communicate with them in their tribal language. "Being able to speak the language they speak is a huge factor in terms of engaging with them in a really deep sense," he added.
But despite the positive experience, Ignacio said the signs of stigma were all around. In a conversation with an elder named Virginia, he learned how ashamed she was of her curly hair and dark skin. "She told me that she didn't like her hair because it was curly and it looks dirty. And it just broke my heart because it was not true," he recalled. "So I accessed the Internet and showed her pictures of models who had the same characteristic, and she just smiled at me. It was one of the purest smiles I've ever seen. I wanted to take away that sense of shaming because she has curly hair."
He added: "(Virginia) uses this term 'pugut,' which means dark skinned. She keeps telling me: 'We're dark skinned; we're dark skinned,' in a way to emphasis their different appearance. And so I think it says a lot about how they feel so isolated and different from the average Filipino, which is lighter skin (...) I think that sense of internalized racism is real."
Overall, Ignacio says his trip was an emotional whirlwind that photography helped him deal with. But it also allowed him to preserve the memories of his past and culture. "It's a place that is brimming with nostalgia for me, so that sense of homesickness and missing the place as a whole. I'd say it was a bit emotional for me because I had these mixed feelings," he said. "I was excited; I was feeling adventurous. And at the same time, there was this feeling of homesickness and nostalgia. I was just feeling everything. And in order to materialize that and cope with the feelings dancing around inside my head, it was through photography. Through photography I get to keep those memories with me."
Ignacio added that PWB played a key role in inspiring him to follow his passion and undertake this project. "I'm just grateful that I am part of Photographers Without Borders because it inspired me to pursue this project."
To see more of Daniel Ignacio's work, click here.