Sense and Memory: An Interview with MAPA Books' RJ Fernandez
An interview by the Paris based style icon Mich Dulce.
Sense and Memory
I’ve known London-based photographer RJ Fernandez for more than two decades now. It’s amazing to see someone go from a teen in a yellow gingham high school uniform, to an Ateneo de Manila/Arts University of Bournemouth college student, then become a mother, photographer, photographic printer and now editor and publisher of independently-run Mapa Books that is based between London and Manila.
Their first book is ILI, launched at the prestigious Musee Quai Branly in Paris last February 10. ILI is a beautiful and powerful collection of photographs by Tommy Hafalla that documents the life and rituals of ethnolinguistic groups that occupy the Cordillera region. Hafalla, originally trained as an airplane mechanic, volunteered on medical missions in the Cordillera, where he was introduced to the people, their rituals and their way of life. Slowly he developed a very close relationship with the indigenous, resulting in him being allowed to document many rituals that are not open to the public. ILI provides us with a rare glimpse of these traditions that many do not see, spanning a period of over 30 years from 1981 to 2011. These images are a striking documentation of a surviving pre-colonial culture responding to modernity, and offer a visual treat in telling the story of this community.
I managed to catch up with RJ in Paris during her launch, and she told us more about Mapa Books, publishing, and ILI.
MICH DULCE: I’ve always known you as a photographer. Tell us about your move into publishing. How did that happen, and what made you venture down that path?
RJ FERNANDEZ: For the last six years I was working as a photographic printer in London. We worked with the most amazing photographers, some whose work I admired from back when I was assisting in the ’90s and those whose work I came to know through working with them. I worked on everything — from editorials, advertising ads, to big exhibitions in museums all over Europe. What really interested me was when we worked on a book. You became very intimate with the images, and the oeuvre of a particular artist. At the same time, as we were working with big publishing houses like Aperture, Phaidon, Rizzoli, etc., I saw the rise of the photobook scene. Independent publishers such as Aron Morel, for instance, as well as a lot of self-published artists all came to us. I thought I should do this and work with artists from the Philippines.
Why the name Mapa?
I named it after Alighiero Boetti’s “Mappa” — a series of woven, textile-based maps of the world. He had a retrospective at the Tate Modern and being in this huge room with all the variations of these maps woven by women from Afghanistan and Iran made a real impression on me. A friend pointed out that “mapa” in Tagalog also means “it makes you want to.”
Could you walk us a little bit through an independent publisher’s process?
The easy part for me is the actual book production because that’s my forte. Apart from that, we work to establish distribution networks, manage related exhibitions and events, logistics as well as the business aspect the company.
It’s like any creative process, it differs depending on whom I’m working with and how we’re doing it. I always start with the images. ILI’s narrative came from a lot of conversations with Tommy (Hafalla) — how the edits started were very different to how they finished. My focus is managing the “fine” with the design as well as being present for the fine details on press.
What was the hardest thing or some of the major trials in your journey as a first-time independent publisher?
ILI is a collection of photographs by Tommy Hafalla that document the life and rituals of ethnolinguistic groups that occupy the Cordillera region.
It’s a very steep learning curve, and almost every step I take I encounter something new — even with meticulous planning. One of the most difficult aspects was to start promoting the book when it wasn’t printed yet. Getting people to notice a startup publishing company on our first imprint. Thankfully, the end result of ILI exceeded people’s expectations!
I am learning to be more adaptive, learning which people to trust, and slowly finding a community that supports the work that we do. One of the hardest things was dealing with the stress — especially when you’re a perfectionist. I gave birth at the same time I was working on the book — giving birth was quicker!
What made you decide on the subject of the first release by Mapa Books?
The first photographer that came to mind when I wanted to do a book was Tommy Hafalla. I have known Tommy for some years and always admired his humility, his generosity with his time and knowledge, as well as his continued work documenting the Cordillera. I asked him six years ago (probably seven years now!) if I could do his book. It took me three years to convince him to say yes. When he did I flew back to Manila from London, and went straight from the airport up to Baguio. He gave me all his 35mm negatives. His life’s work — 37 years documenting the people, landscape and ritual life of the Cordillera. It fit into my hand-carried Pelican case. Then I got to work.
How did you start working with Tommy and was the process collaborative? What was it like?
We were both under pretty extreme personal constraints. Tommy was looking after his father and I was pregnant with my first child. Nevertheless, I was determined for this to be amazing, something that would stand with the great photographic books. I can get pretty intense when I work and want to achieve something specific. Production of the images began in London. Contrast life in London to life in Baguio and you get a little idea of what we both had to deal with. I went back several times and consulted with Tommy, filling in the gaps of the images that he had already printed, making sure the negs I chose were correct and printed to his aesthetic, finding other negs that we thought we had lost, going through the details of specific rituals, the accoutrements of material culture, and then the stories behind the images. When we had an idea which images we were going to use, we went through the captions. My last trip to Baguio before we went to press, Tommy and I had a rhythm of work — mid-morning to afternoon, then a break for the evening session. Every day. We didn’t even use a computer so all the captions were handwritten. I know them by heart.
What’s the most special thing about the first book?
Apart from working on the images and the captions, we also produced a set of limited-edition platinum prints. Printing with Tommy in his darkroom was special. Seeing all the images he produced after was even more special — they have this tactile quality. You can really see the hand of the artist, which is very rare in this digital world of photography. I’m also very pleased about the book itself. We printed in Verona (font) with the best black-and-white book printer in the world. Being there on press and seeing Tommy’s work printed alongside the greats such as Koudelka and Salgado really made me proud. His work deserves that.
What’s next for Mapa?
We are taking on climate change in the Philippines through the photographs of Veejay Villafranca. He has been documenting the severe weather patterns that have affected the Philippines since 2009 and its repercussions. We are releasing it towards the later half of the year. There’s also another book I am not at liberty yet to talk about!
We would love to work on more books, not necessarily photographic. We want to elevate the standard of publications from and of the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Books become a part of our history, they are our archive, and more than ever a tool by which we remember the beauty and multiplicity of our culture and the complexity of our traditions. More than ever, they are a way by which we ought to remember our fascinating history. Because it would be a shame to forget.