Located three hours from the busy center of Manila, ‘Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar’ is an unusual village made from the past, in the present. It is a collection of 18th century Filipino buildings situated along the Umagol River between the Bataan National Park and the volcano Mount Mariveles. The mountains form a dramatic backdrop to Las Casas and the unusual mix of architectural heritage and entertainment space.
The property combines ancestral homes and other buildings like a hotel and a church, dating back to the 1700s. They were disassembled, transported, and rebuilt on location to create a glimpse of the country’s 18th century architecture. The relocation of hundreds of thousands of square feet of buildings must have been a monumental task and one that is sure to garner praise and criticism alike. However, for a photographer, it creates a unique opportunity to create modern pictures without a historic backdrop.
Historic reconstructions are always tricky. Why? Because they never feel authentic. They tend to sugar coat the past with selective memory. History is complicated and it is much more than the assembly of its individual parts. Most reconstructions feel like a mix between Disneyland and a Wild West Town on a budget. The feeling, the way of life, and the sense of time don’t often travel with the buildings when they are moved.
There are so many elements that need to come together to get the feel of a place that it rarely succeeds. Pieces of modernity slip in and break the illusion leaving only a watered down version of a fairy tale.
The secret to the success of Las Casas is that it is not simply a time capsule. Sure there are historic tours, security guards in period dress, and a range of staged rooms which are obvious reconstructions. But amidst these more standard tourist attractions are spectacular pieces of architecture that are virtually untouched. There are rooms upon rooms where the homes are empty. It appears as if someone just moved out. There are few signs explaining every last detail, which leaves the spaces virtually unmolested. And an empty space, like a good book, allows your imagination to fill in the gaps.
While I was at Las Casas with the Manila Workshop, we used the location to address a common problem many people encounter: how to capture the feeling of a place when nothing dramatic is happening.
A major mistake I observe with beginning photographers is their endless quest to shoot ‘something interesting.’ While there is nothing wrong with looking for unique moments, it tends to create tunnel vision. When a photographer shoots ‘something interesting’ it means that the photograph is in some way dependent on the subject. No subject, no picture.
When you learn to photograph atmosphere rather than a subject, you can capture the feeling of the place instead of just the objects that make it up.
When you can step back and learn to photograph atmosphere, it opens a new way of seeing a scene. In plain English, when you learn to photograph atmosphere rather than a subject, you can capture the feeling of the place instead of just the objects that make it up. We have to remember that when we make a picture, we translate reality into a 2-D format. All five of our senses are at work, plus there is an element of time and personal feeling that we go through in that moment. But what happens when we press the shutter? Where do all of those elements go?
In its best version, a photograph can transport us to a place. It can give us a feeling that is more than pixels on a sensor. But in order to do that, we have to learn how to photograph the space between things. And what you will find may surprise you. People who look at your pictures might get a totally different sense of a place than you had. They may feel like a scene is unnerving when you thought it was exciting. But this ambiguity is the strength of photography because it lets your viewer have their own experience through your pictures. If we fill in all the gaps for them, it gets predictably boring. A picture is infinitely more dynamic if all of the gaps are not filled in completely.
Next time you are out shooting, try it for yourself. See what happens if you forget about the search for ‘something interesting’ and shoot the scene for what it is. See how it translates into your camera and then test out the photo on a friend. If you can open a scene up to more than a one dimension, it will allow your photos to transport the viewer to another world instead of just letting them peek through the window.
If you can open a scene up to more than a one dimension, it will allow your photos to transport the viewer to another world instead of just letting them peek through the window.