Phil Borges


double eXposure

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."

Phil Borges


  • Field Notes, 2001

  • 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

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