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by Marlena Donohue

"Lobsang 67, Tensin 13,
Bodhnath, Nepal”,
photograph, 1998.





"Mama 10,
Dimeda, Ethiopia”,
photograph, 1998.





"Lina 9, Tana
Toraja, Indonesia”,
photograph, 1998.

(Tasende Gallery, West Hollywood) Seattle-based Phil Borges has been working as a professional photographer for eleven years. His portraits of Tibetans and other indigenous people from around the world are the subject of two books published by Rizzoli. His works have appeared in solo shows internationally.

Borges made his mark recording what has become the cause celebre of brutally suspended human rights: The serious plight of Tibet. Today, Tibet has been so commercialized, so over-publicized, so Hollywood-ized that any association with it risks the danger of seeming like opportunism and bandwagoning.

To this one must add that Borges was in Tibet before the Dali Lama was fashioned into a pop hero. Half an hour with the artist confirms that this is a genuine humanitarian who understands and represents forgotten places with uncanny clarity and respect.

Images from his second book, Enduring Spirit, which includes some Tibetan portraits, were selected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the form of an exhibition that is traveling globally through 1999. The Enduring Spirit suite includes wide-eyed, elegant, unforgettable faces from Indo-nesia, Peru, Africa, and our own Southwest.

Borges knows his subject matter comes with baggage. Beyond the banalization of Tibet, critical analysis in art has viewed the appropriation by European artists of “indigenous” subjects with caution. We’ve reevaluated with less awe Picasso’s strip mining of tribal art. A recent museum show in San Francisco finally addressed the Netherlandish King Leopold’s rape of Congolese culture during the late 19th-century and its subsequent repackaging, whether in the form of Cubism or “naive art.” It is evident that the novelty of the native sells.

Borges states, “This is what I believe in, so this is what I shoot. . . .” He is a product of the ‘70s in the best sense. After college he traveled to exotic places, experimenting with alternative lifestyles when young people were doing those things. As an adult in the more jaded ‘80s, he gave up a lucrative career in dentistry to master photography (he has).

The works on exhibit pose indienous faces centrally, in three-quarter busts, cropped often at the shoulder, staring out at us directly. They are augmented with hand-applied, subtle pigments that heighten relationships between figure and ground. This helps lock your eye into a dialogue with the subject, though such tactics will come off as heavy-handed and saccariney to the photojournal purist. However, gorgeous photos like, for example, Kalime, Algo are simply a coincidental combination of a mother and child capture on film after much patient waiting. The emotional connection Borges strikes together with the technical virtuosity make the image sing. These people are not patronized by Borges, either by appearing quaint or aggrandized; they remain dignified and real.

As exposure to cultural diversity is becoming a social norm, Borges makes the courageous decision to travel where most of us do not. In the improbable locales that he seeks out Borges observes, leaving judgement at the door in order to capture the universal qualities of humanity.

In the end--after sifting out the political connection to the human rights movement, the coincidental interest of Hollywood, and post-modern suspicions--there remains the high quality of most of this work. It’s not just Borges’ respect for his subjects; it’s that--plus painstaking precision, uncompromising quality control, and a habit of linear thinking--which balances the artist’s intense empathy against clean, clear craft.