Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “The cover and text colors are based on the blue-greenish tone of the actual tattoos,” says photographer Jake Verzosa in an interview about his book, “The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga,” consisting of portraits of the women of Kalinga showing off their tattooed upper bodies. These women, which includes Fang-Od, have continued the tradition of wearing these lace-like patterns or batok on their skin as symbols of beauty, wealth, and stature.
The project took about three years of sporadic trips to the mountains of Kalinga to complete, and was an exercise in “revisiting some old memories of home and exploring them further,” as the photographer, who grew up in Tuguegarao, would often see tattooed people visit their town in his childhood.
The book, which was first published in 2014, was one of the eight handpicked by publisher Gerhard Steidl for the Steidl Book Award Asia. Winning the award meant getting to design and print their books alongside Steidl himself, who was once regarded by The New Yorker as “the printer the world’s best photographers trust most” for not only his craftsmanship, but particularly for his attention to detail. This is evident in the way Verzosa describes how each detail was meticulously chosen to enhance the reader’s experience, such as in the cover’s color.
For example, in the first edition of the book (which Verzosa had self-published), the first part contained text and illustrations describing the history of tattooing in Kalinga, and the names and meanings behind each symbol. The Steidl version, which is a bigger, heavier book, has the intro in a separate booklet, and comprises only of the portraits, save for the first few pages containing a foreword and a poem.
“I separated the texts in a booklet so readers could have the experience of viewing the photographs devoid of text and also refer to the index of tattoo designs on one hand while viewing the portraits,” says Verzosa. “Apart from the visual, the texture and smell were also taken into account. These subtle refinements make reading the book a totally different experience.”
With the help of Natividad Sugguiyao, the provincial director of the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in Kalinga, whom he considers his co-author and collaborator, Verzosa planned his trips to Kalinga in between shoots in Manila. Due to the mountainous terrain and lack of electricity in most areas, Verzosa chose a simple set up — something mechanical and portable. He would bring along an old medium format camera, a few rolls of black and white film, a white curtain, and lots of tape.
“My goal was focused solely on creating an objective record of the tattoos and the people wearing them,” says Verzosa. A translator or Sugguiyao herself would help explain this to the women. Some of them had never encountered a camera until then.
When he had decided the project was complete, Verzosa had no initial plans of turning the photographs into a book. In 2014, he printed the whole set of portraits during his residency at Museé Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône in France. Upon returning to Manila, he brought the set to Silverlens Galleries for safekeeping. As they were preparing to go to the international photography fair, Paris Photo, they decided to bring the portraits to the fair as a book.
In 2016, Verzosa exhibited his book at the Steidl Book Award Asia, where it was chosen among seven others. The eight chosen photographers would then go on to Steidl in Göttingen, Germany to work hand in hand with the publisher. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would be standing next to Gerhard Steidl and making my book!” says Verzosa.
“What I like about collaborating with [Gerhard Steidl] is that he makes you realize your vision for the book. Unlike other publishers, the design, sequencing and content is left to us. This just shows how much he trusts the artists.”
“His expertise on papers, end papers, inks, paper and ink combinations, and all the other small details takes the book as an object to the next level. There are even paper stocks exclusively made for him,” he says. “Having all these options at your disposal just opens up a lot of ideas and possibilities in book making. In the end, we both want the best possible book for the work, and Gerhard enables photographers and artists to achieve that.”
“Witnessing the whole process of book making for me added another dimension on how to tell your stories,” Verzosa adds.
At the beginning of the book, there is a poem from a traditional Kalinga chant. According to Verzosa, it describes how women perceived their tattoos during that time — a symbol of beauty and pride — something that he and Sugguiyao hoped could be brought back.
“At the time I took portraits, most locals say they don't want it. They see it as archaic, barbaric and a stigma,” says Verzosa. “Today, there is a renewed interest in the tradition. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing is another story.”
"The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga" is available online through Steidl Books.