“Manila is a shit hole….and you’re going to love it !”
Well, it got my attention. Brian Sergio is a name that is going to be big, of this I am confident. This young Filipino has both a vision and a voice. The first is crystal clear the second is VERY loud.
Like many artists he has already been working for some years and although there have been self published zines available, his first book to be unleashed on us here in the west comes from the equally fearless German independent publisher Die Nacht. One glance at Pak! – a beautifully designed open spine soft cover, complete with a powerful printed vertical slip sleeve which hints provocatively at what is to come – and it is a foregone conclusion that Sergio’s no holds barred style of photography is bound to polarize people.
Unsurprising really. Such is the case with many artists who dare to work outside of societies sometimes seemingly inflexible constraints. However, artistically speaking, the bigger the risk, the greater the reward. For Sergio however you soon realise that for him there is no risk here whatsoever, This is just a photographer taking pictures of his friends, and that is what elevates this powerful body of work way beyond the purely sensational. In some ways not dissimilar to the late Ren Hang, although in Hang’s world it was a largely unthreatening technicolor assembly of flawlessly beautiful young people. Yes he was able to unsettle and disturb from time to time, but the contortions and staging were more likely to raise a wry smile and a small gasp of admiration rather than induce a wince. On the other hand, however it is presented, both bodies of work defiantly give its would be oppressors the middle finger.
This is the Philippines as you have never seen it. No shiny wide eyed faces smiling up at the camera lens promising a holiday paradise here. Instead dark grainy black and white portraits of friends lovers and those just passing through. This attempt to show an alternative lifestyle is also one of Sergio’s biggest obstacles. In a country of fierce conservatism and Catholic dogma, he is determined to let his audience know, that just as around the globe the desires, emotions and fetishes that are alive well and in the west, are also alive and kicking at home…. in his world at least. Whilst this revelation may not be palatable to many people, it is a reality. We can either turn out the light, shut the door and pretend it isn’t happening, or allow talent like Sergio’s the platform that it is entitled to. Opening Pandora’s box is a risky thing to do, but censorship and the suppression of free speech are dark roads to travel. We may sit in judgement, tutting and wagging our fingers, but we do so from the privileged position where we no longer have to fight for such rights
These challenging portraits owe more than a passing nod to the works of Anders Petersen, Miron Zownir, Jacob Au Sobol and the like. The jaded European decadence of Petersen, the squalid carnival of Zowir’s downtrodden, disaffected and discarded, and warmth and wonderful unsentimental intimacy of Sobol. These comparisons are not meant to detract from Sergio’s work, but simply to act as a reference. This young man is a juggernaut of a talent, and instinctively shoots images of quality, empathy and maturity way beyond his years.
Having defined his aesthetic then comes the assault course that is the subject matter. His parade of models could all be characters from an unwritten indie movie. Tom Waits would produce the soundtrack, and Welsh, or Murakami (Ryu not Haruki) the script. The images are bold confrontational, one or two even shocking, but all of them have a honesty about them that confirms that these willing subjects are completely on board with Sergio as he rages against the establishment.
There is also acknowledgement to the great Japanese photographer Noboyushi Araki, not just with his images of Kinbaku (the Japanese art of rope tying, or bondage) which is a subject that obviously fascinates Sergio, but also the strategic placement of a plastic Godzilla. This young man constantly moving forward, by referencing the past.
Is the work about shock ? To a degree, but I really don’t believe that this is his main objective. Is it about causing a stir within his own country ? I don’t really think that that is the case either. This just seems to be about a talent that has been stifled and thwarted at every opportunity, finally getting the opportunity to have itself heard, and take on the world. To show that for better or worse wherever and whoever we are, we all have more in common that we realise. Pak! the book may raise a few eyebrows, but with regard to Sergio the artist, and his vision, there is so much more to come. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of it, and it pulsates with energy, honesty and a celebration of life in whatever form it may take.
“Pak! – Pak is an onomatopoeia which imitates the sound of impact”. So states the tag line given to the book. I have it on good authority that in the Philippines Pak! also has a second meaning, which I will allow you to work out for yourselves. Suffice it to say that even with the title, Sergio is prepared to make waves.
Get ready, there’s a new kid in town.
Pak! by Brian Sergio can be purchased here.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.