The southern-most province in the Philippines, Tawi-Tawi, is made up of roughly 300 islands and is rarely in the news for any positive reasons. Philippines-based photographer Jacob Maentz and his production team from Extra Mile Productions took it upon themselves to display the beautiful culture and generosity of the Tausug and Sama-Bajau, the two dominant ethnolinguistic groups that inhabit the islands. Jacob’s trip to Tawi-Tawi is part of a four-year personal project, Project Katutubong Pilipino, in which he documents the indigenous groups of the Philippines.
Preproduction for the shoot was challenging because visitors to the area have to arrange their trips through the local government or tourism office. Fortunately, The Tourism Office of Tawi-Tawi and Congresswoman Ruby Sahali hosted Jacob and his team as they traveled the area.
Tawi-Tawi is a place you cannot just fly into without making prior arrangements. In my case, I was with a video production team who was also filming my journey there to help promote Project Katutubong Pilipino. Our team of five arranged most of the travel details. This allowed me to focus my time and energy on shooting as much as I could during our 5-day visit.
Jacob and his team were provided with an armed escort due to the high threat of international traveler kidnapping and violence linked to terrorism. Despite the constant reminder of the lingering danger, Jacob captured the softer and more vibrant side of the sea-oriented people.
The natives here have learned to live off of what the islands and the ocean provide them. Eighty percent of Tawi-Tawians earn a living from farming seaweed. Women pound rice and turmeric into a skin cream called burak, a natural sunblock made by the Sama-Bajau that is also beneficial for the skin. One of the highlights of the trip for Jason was his interaction with a group of women who showed them how to make and apply the sunblock.
There are rare times on a trip when your excitement is heightened because there is something so new or different that you feel inspired. Seeing this group of old women with burak on their faces was one of these unique moments for me. I spent a good hour with the group laughing, interacting and taking some portraits.
Jacob was also lucky enough to spend time with a couple that was getting ready for their wedding. Arranged marriages with young brides are customary for the Sama-Bajau, and the henna tattoos helped provide one of the most striking images from the trip.
Reactions to Jacob’s images from Tawi-Tawi have been really positive. He will be continuing the project over the next year with plans to put a book together. The book will contain Jacob’s images from the project along with well written text so it can act as an academic resource and an engaging photo book.
To view more of Jacob’s work, check out jacobimages.com.