- Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines by Mark Rice
In this superb book, Mark Rice applies his specialization in the history of photography in twentieth century America to a detailed examination and analysis of Dean C. Worcester’s use of photography in early American colonial Philippines. Rice is not the first to examine Worcester’s role [End Page 231] in America’s Asian experiment in turn-of-the-century imperialism. In the late 1990s, the University of Michigan published a substantial biography of Worcester by Rodney Sullivan that also touched on many of the issues that Rice discusses. Many other authors, such as Paul Kramer, have used this controversial exponent of American expansionism in their studies of American racism and imperialism. Karl Hutterer studied Worcester and the development of anthropological research in the Philippines. Of the previous works that focused on Worcester, Benito Vergara’s book Displaying Filipinos is, perhaps, the closest to the present volume. In his study, Vergara explored how Filipinos were portrayed in early colonial photography and the political, cultural and racially charged representations that emerged. In Vergara’s study, Worcester loomed large.
If these, and other scholars, have looked at Worcester, is there anything that makes Rice’s study unique? The answer is an emphatic yes! Although Rice references these studies in his own work and also uses the extensive Worcester papers housed at the University of Michigan plus other major archival holdings, his study goes deeper into Worcester’s photographic activity making a detailed assessment of his entire body of work of over 20,000 photographs, which is stunning even by present standards. Rice shows conclusively how this important American colonial official consciously used his extensive photographic collection that he assembled while he was the colonial regime’s Secretary of the Interior as a political propaganda weapon. Rice further contextualizes his analysis by discussing other studies that have examined similar uses of photography by other colonizers in different parts of the world and in the development of the field of anthropology. In this study, Rice builds [End Page 232] on the works of others, but also takes our present knowledge to new analytic levels.
Worcester’s connection with the Philippines began in the late nineteenth century when he first visited as a University of Michigan undergraduate student in zoology. By the time of the Spanish-American War, his Philippine expertise and the articles he wrote for prominent publications plus his book, The Philippine Islands and Their People, caught the attention of a McKinley administration desperate for people familiar with America’s new colonial possession. He was soon appointed as a commissioner in the new civilian government and with his control of much of the country’s internal affairs he began his interest in and use of photography to promote his American imperial vision. At the center of this vision was the representation of the country as comprised of numerous “tribes” of semi-naked savage headhunters who required an extended American tutelage before there could be any thought of allowing independence.
Worcester used his thousands of photographs made while on his numerous field trips to tribal non-Christian areas in annual government reports and a series of articles for popular magazines, especially the National Geographic, that devoted whole issues to his displays. He also sold photographs to various archives in the United States and Europe and eventually used carefully selected slides for an American traveling lecture show and even a special Congressional hearing. At no time did Worcester ever present the true picture of the marginality of the peoples who were frequently posed in demeaning ways in his photos or in a number of false “before and after” series intended to demonstrate the beneficent role of American rule. All the [End Page 233] while his “primitive” people only constituted a very tiny percentage of the total population and his unwavering focus on them consciously misrepresented the country and its people.
After a decade, the American domestic political climate was starting to change, which brought Woodrow...