In the late 1980s, photographer Pierre de Vallombreuse discovered the valley of Palawan in the southwest Philippines. Since then, he has frequently visited these hunter-gatherers, today living between autarky, globalization, conservation of rites and culture, danger, and loss of bearings. The Musée de l’Homme is exhibiting his new work after fifteen years of absence from his friends.
Right away, Pierre de Vallombreuse seems like an entertaining guy, like someone who has the long story, the delicious anecdotes, never stuck up, with lots of measure and consideration. For close to thirty years, he has qualified as a “friend of the Palawans.” He is not one of them, nor will he ever be one of them, but he is accepted into a society which is more or less closed. With him, the Palawans no longer wear a mask. Since 1987, he has visited them about twenty times. For three and a half years, beginning in 1990, he lived with them side by side, his camera slung over his shoulder.
The Palawans occupy the southwest valley of the Philippines, located on the eponymous island. Their territory spans 160,000 hectares. This ethnic group counts around 35,000 to 60,000 people occupying extremely hilly, often muddy plains. The Valley today has been permeated by modernity. There are many access roads, widening since the 1990s.
Fifteen years ago, Pierre Vallombreuse left his friends concerned about their culture. He admitted to being “pessimistic about their chances” of preserving their heritage. One could say that the valley was being eroded from all sides. A missionary pastor took charge a gentleman! of bringing Christianity and building a church on their land. Some would renounce their divinity. A school was built after the church. The photographer talks about “disintegrated integration” to describe these little attacks, here and there, emerging tourism (though timely), religious desire, growing cultural exchange.
Fifteen years later, the situation is better than expected! Sure, the Palawans listen to Filipino pop-techno music in the middle of the forest. Sure, sometimes they dress in Western clothing. But they always cherish their land, cultivate the rice fields, gather, and fish. They have not lost any of their humor (a part of their constitution), they use school, reading, and writing to defend their traditions. They make fun of foreigners with ribaldry. The numerous exchanges did not change the balance of power. And the converts have returned to their divinity. It seems, despite its appearance, the teachings are the same.
Today, the dangers are taking a different form. An open-ended guerrilla war between the government and the rebel forces are sinking into the Valley. The Palawans are paid and then recruited. The plantation operating companies are springing up equally quickly. It is possible that 50% of Palawans will work for big businesses in the near future. By introducing the salaried worker, the way the society (founded on hunting, fishing, and gathering) gets paid would change social relations.
His eye is that of someone curious. He feeds on their habits, glorifies their land, strides across their steps, marks their changes. It is necessary to hear him talk about his thirty-year experience, his love for these people, his ongoing friendship with some of them. His concern, as well. His photographs remain sincere accounts, far off from travel journals or scientific studies. The photos restore the balance of these people. Friendship guides his lens.
Arthur Dayras is an author specializing in photography who lives and works in Paris.
Pierre de Vallombreuse, Le Peuple de la Vallée
From January 18 through July 2, 2018
Musée de l’homme – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
17 Places du Trocadéro,