Photographer Regine David wanted to show another side of the Philippines while shooting a menswear editorial featuring queer Filipino models, but the racially driven response from the editor was disheartening.
Most preconceived notions of the Philippines end up being one of two things, people either think of the island nation in Southeast Asia as a tropical paradise lined with picturesque beaches, or a drug war zone ruled by president Rodrigo Duterte, where impoverished drug addicts are murdered without due process. When photographer Regine David agreed to shoot a menswear fashion editor with stylist Bhisan Rai, she simply wanted to show another side of the Philippines featuring queer, brown-skinned male models. “What I want to do is kind of diversify how the Philippines is being seen elsewhere,” said David.
It’s just two weeks after the Philippine general election, and David is vocally disappointed at the results. “People have who have been jailed, were being reelected,” she said before explaining that the majority of voting power is held by the underprivileged and misinformed. “They only know the people they see on TV. Sometimes people will vote because they think, He’s good looking. So he gets the vote. It’s really disheartening, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop fighting. None of the people that I voted for won.”
When David initially planned the editorial, the photos from which can be seen in this story, she street cast Bruce Venida and Lance Navasca, models from the XX XX community, a creative collective that threw the popular Elephant parties, because their look was a fresh breath of air from the monotonous style seen in Manila. “A lot of them are photographers, stylists, jewelry designers—interesting folk who just want to have fun and party.” Together, they selected a location that was a departure from the beaches and the drugs—Maloma, Zambales—a sleepy town about 4.5 hours from Manila that is also David’s mother’s hometown.
But after the team submitted the photographs to the Hong Kong-based magazine that greenlighted the shoot, she was met with silence for about a month until the magazine finally gave feedback about the editorial. The stylist was given feedback that didn’t quite make sense: They were not high fashion models. They are too skinny. This is too progressive. They’re too international. They don’t fit the look of high fashion. They don’t look like they wear Dior or Louis Vuitton. Then the photographer speculated on the real reason behind the rejected editorial. “It was because there were too third world and brown,” she realized. “So that really broke me down. I felt really bad because not so much that they didn’t publish it, it was the fact that they were targeting skin tone as a basis for that they don’t deserve to be wearing this or they don’t deserve to be showcased.” David looked back at the photographs, wondering if there could be other reasons behind the rejection. “It would have been one thing if the photographs were terrible, or maybe be were stricter with being specific for the models,” she asserts. “But they never said that in the beginning.”
Growing up in Quezon City, which is in the Metro Manila area, David, who has a medium skin tone and always loved to tan, wasn’t aware of the blatant racism that surrounded her until she moved to Hong Kong to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she was exposed to a more diverse population. In the Philippines, people are often placed in one of three categories based on their skin tone, derived from the period when Spain ruled the Philippines from 1565 to 1898: Chinita, which is someone of Chinese descent; Mestiza, which is someone with fair skin who may have European ancestry; Morena, which is a designation for someone with darker skin. “Morena was always dedicated to the least pretty,” said David. “I never noticed it until much later on.” The photographer outlined the unspoken class system in the Philippines, where people fall into one of five categories—A is the wealthiest consumers, B is middle class, C is blue collar, and D and E are the lower class and impoverished consumers (two-thirds of the country lives below the poverty line). The voting power in the Philippines is held by the D class, which constitutes 78 percent of the vote. A and B, and C by contrast only account for six percent of votes. “For B and A, the skin tone doesn’t matter as much. If you’re C, D, E, you are offered better opportunities if you’re whiter. Skin whitening beauty products marketed to the C, D, and E market are a common occurrence on store shelves. The photographer recalled a recent ad campaign for one such product: “They were saying it’s unfair if your skin is dark, so use our products, so it won’t be unfair anymore. A lot of people got mad.”
Homosexuality in the Philippines is celebrated and frowned upon at the same time. While there are openly gay celebrities in the Philippines, most associate being homosexual with dressing feminine and acting flamboyant, which isn’t always the case. Most of the country practices Catholicism, which typically looks down homosexuality. But in more cosmopolitan areas like Metro Manila, people are more open-minded and accepting. “Most of my friends are gay, or lesbian, or non binary, so there is that acceptance,” said David, who identifies as queer. “Outside of that, it’s still a fight.”
That attitudes in the modeling industry aren’t that different; For local work, local models of various skin tones are used, but most of the models in the Philippines are from Eastern Europe or South America and look like the stereotypical idea of beauty. “A lot of them are masculine men, or very sexy women,” she said. “There isn’t really a space for diversity.” The Philippines still has a long way to go, but David keeps pushing to give queer models of Filipino origin visibility through her work.
“We were a fully brown team,” said David. “We were all Filipino, one Nepalese, and it felt like we weren’t allowed to be in the same place. In other cities, this would have been celebrated. And yet we’re being shut down in 2019.”