Phil Borges: Building Bridges
By Connor Leighton
Mar 1, 2004
Mahayana, the chief form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, is sometimes
referred to as the Great Vehicle, teaching selfless compassion and altruism.
For Phil Borges, an advocate of indigenous people, photography has become
a powerful vehicle for expression, embracing issues that go much deeper
than the images themselves.
He fell in love with photography as a dental student in '60s San Francisco.
To help get himself through school, he took on a curious work-study program
for a sociologist: photograph the colorful inhabitants of the Haight-Ashbury
district and interview them about community needles and their use of drugs.
So almost right from the beginning, photography took on a meaning larger
than itself for Borges.
His series of portraits offer us, the "developed" world, a unique
perspective on a life very different from our own. "What I'm trying
to accomplish is to capture these people as individuals; I want to remove
them from the abstraction of the group they happen to be a part of,"
Borges says. "We know about the aborigines, we know about the groups,
but I want to take them out of this abstraction. This isn't just a Mursi
warrior, this isn't just a Samburu woman - this is Helena of Dani Tribe,
she is 29 years old, this is her daily routine, her younger sister died
from a snakebite...
"When I do my shows, I actually have the portraits blown up to almost
life-size, and so you're looking directly into their eyes with a story
of a real person. I'm trying to make them people we in the developed world
can identify with. I want to show a certain dignity. Even though they
might not have as much materially speaking, they have many values that
we don't have. This all removes them from just being an abstraction of
the group, which creates understanding around the lives they live and
the issues they face.
"I'll typically go to a village, stay for a couple of weeks, and
get to slowly know the people. I find the easiest way is to start working
with the kids. I love doing portraits of kids, it’s what I’m
most drawn to. They’re very open and they love the whole process.
I’ll have a group of kids that are so interested in what I’m
doing that I feel like Tom Sawyer. They’re following me around everywhere,
they want to hold the lights, the Polaroids, open and close my bag, hand
me my camera - all of a sudden I have about 15 assistants. When I do portraits
of all of them, they will take them home. Then their parents will want
one, and they’ll invite me into their little huts. So I enter the
community through the kids, and I get to know the parents and grandparents.
Before long, I’m a part of their community, and I’ve done
it with this little magic show of photography. Sometimes the places are
so remote that they haven’t had the opportunity to see themselves,
and there’s been times where they didn’t believe the picture
was really them.
"I’ll be in a village for a period of time
and I’ll hear about a certain person that has a certain story, or
I’ll see a person that looks very intriguing in terms of a subject
for a portrait. And I’ll just approach them and start talking to
them in English, just so they can read my body language and break through
the barriers that way. They can read that you're friendly and pretty soon
it becomes a big joke that you can’t understand the words. You can
understand each other, but not the words, and you both begin laughing
about it. I'll then find my interpreter and let the person know what I'm
interested in doing.
"I think the hardest thing for photographers
is to set their sights on a direction, a specific focus for their work.
It's easy to fall in love with the process and the mechanics of photography,
and with making beautiful images, but there's so many people making these
images that you have to do something more in order to separate yourself.
Being conscious of what you want to accomplish is one of the main things
a photographer needs to do. As a photographer, you're a visual communicator;
know what you want to say with your images."
Georgia Straight, 2005
Lucie Awards, 2003
OC Metro, 2003
New Horizons for Learning,
The South Asian, 2001
National Post, 2000
Common Ground, 2000
The Telegraph, London,
About Phil Borges
Tenzin Gyatso, age 59
Born to a peasant family, Gyatso was discovered to be the reincarnation
of the Buddha of Compassion at the age of two. At four, he was installed
as the fourteenth Dalai Lama