AGAM: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change was launched in June 2014 in Quezon City, and subsequently re-launched in Washington DC, Manhattan, Berlin, and Denver. The other week, it won the National Book Award for English Anthology. Agam is likely the world’s first literary anthology on the issue.
To reframe the vista of calamity. This was the attempt, this was the goal — to produce through a book a lateral approach to the most serious crisis the present generation has ever faced, without the crutch of jargon and stripped of victim and disaster clichés.
The aim was earnest, and at the time of first utterance it sounded a bit unhinged.
It is easy now to deliver a description of the publication. A compelling book composed of 26 images, 24 narratives in verse and prose, in eight languages written by a range of minds representing the fields of journalism and fiction, climate science and veterinary medicine, theater, and the erotic arts. But at no point from the moment the decision was made to put together the book, from the time letters and randomly chosen portraits were first sent out inviting writers to contribute new work, up until the first dummy sheets had come in, was it clear what the final outcome would look like.
Cohesion was Godzilla, and chaos was King Kong — the idea behind the book was grand, but how to deal with a million moving mental parts?
The confrontation between climate change and communities across the Philippine archipelago will redefine the way we imagine nation, community, and citizenship. It is important to meet the challenge early, while employing new optics.
When the idea of Agam gained bones and veins in 2012, a central driving element was to generate conversations across mediums — imagery from narratives, and narratives from images — in order to draw from its encounter with the reader the instrument of voice.
“The force of a photograph,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1977, in her seminal book On Photography, “is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.” Photography, Sontag wrote, implied “discontinuity, disarticulated forms and compensatory unity.”
Sontag’s maddening provocation pointed to a new grammar of thinking proffered by the visual code of photographic imagery. Photography had the ability to alter and enlarge “our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” capturing in particular, peculiarly, what the Victorian photography pioneer William H. Fox Talbot described as “the injuries of time.”
Photography compels us to see and yet it makes us look askance.
“The lens removes reality from reality better than a surgeon,” observed William H. Gass in his review of Sontag’s book. It “allows us to witness killing with impunity, nakedness without shame, weddings without weeping, miracles without astonishment, poverty without pain, death without anxiety.”
It is gratifying, compelling, yet problematic — a decisive argument, and inconclusive.
Wading through the intersection of memory and atrocity, the German photographer Richard Peter returned to Dresden seven months after Allied forces firebombed the city in February 1945. Peter photographed the trauma of war and four years later produced Dresden: Eine Kamera Klagtan (Dresden: A Camera Accuses).
Among his images, one shows a massive statue of a woman hovering above, hulking over, the rubble of the shattered city. Is she avenger or angel? The figure gazes from the town hall robed and slightly stooped, her left hand sweeping down as if presenting the skeletal remains of the city center surrounded by shredded neighborhoods — an entire town in a gurney, a colossal fracture.
Dec. 10, 2012: The Atlantic publishes photographs showing the smashed ruins of New Bataan Town in Compostela Valley, southern Philippines. Typhoon Bopha, with 260 kilometer-per-hour winds, has just passed through Mindanao, leaving behind coastal villages flattened by ferocious gusts and floodwaters.
Among the images is a shot taken by Erik de Castro of a barefoot woman navigating dangerous debris, a white bag of relief goods in hand. She cuts a tiny fragile figure walking gingerly across a massive field choked with boulders and violently uprooted trees resembling the anti-tank metal crosses used to slow the advance of Allied troops in Normandy. Other photos show the vestige of entire communities that in the span of a few hours lived the life of matchsticks in a storm.
The pictures are unnerving in their magnitude, lending proportions that create in awe a paralyzing effect — a kind of spectatorship of the cowed and powerless.
Although the choice to use images demonstrating the raw impact of extreme weather events presented itself to the project in 2012, when it was covering its first inches, the Agam team sidestepped the narrative of causality to pursue ambiguity instead.
It was an attempt to move away from the easy response — the glib ten things you can do to save the planet — in order to inject a sense of interrogation in the reader, to embrace uncertainty.
To overcome the enormity of the climate crisis, it was necessary to approach it obliquely, to reduce its size and enter the disputed territory of inaction where the act of accusation weighs less than our own evasions.
The portraits in Agam were taken by photojournalist Jose Enrique Soriano using a Hasselblad medium format camera and Fuji NPH400 color film. His work, as the book’s introduction notes, “is the glue that helps fasten the diverse pieces together,” meshing text written in Tagalog, Waray, Ilocano, Maguindanao, Bikol, Cebuano, Sinama Laminusa and English.
Agam writers were sent randomly selected portraits. Among other instructions, contributors were asked to use the images as a prompt and to avoid words such as climate change, adaptation and mainstreaming.
The result was Agam.
In explaining his craft, Soriano said he simply “went out, met and talked to people, and took their portraits. Unlike the news, there was no story to tailor the images. No captions to impose on the audience. No judgement on the lives of the people in the pictures.”
“Seeing writers react to the images with their words, words that were invoked in one way or another by photographs, is a complete joy,” Soriano said. “When I just took pictures, people started making beautiful stories.”
Renato Redentor Constantino is the executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, which published Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change.
By Renato Redentor Constantino.