Lifestyle

Why is everyone upset with PUP’s murder-themed photoshoot?

What I see are teens who are at least aware that such atrocities are happening in the Philippines.
IMAGE from the Mr. and Ms. PUP Engineering Facebook page
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Forgive the cynicism, but my first thought upon reading about these university students that had posed like the victims of extra-judicial killings was one of relief: at least these teens knew these atrocities were happening at all.  

Many may feel the photos were tasteless or insensitive, and I welcome their objections too. I take the view that there is no such thing as bad publicity when extra-judicial killings are concerned. There is simply not enough noise, not enough outrage about the 7,000 plus people who have been shot dead in the street like rabid dogs. 

To equate anxiety at being overweight, with the unspeakable injustice of being branded a drug pusher worthy of extermination is admittedly not a fair comparison. But art sometimes requires exaggeration in order to jolt the viewer into a realization.

But let me go a step further and say that I am impressed by the metaphor that the university students’ exhibit represents. The students recreated all the hallmarks of the EJK killings- contorted limbs, pools of blood, corpses bound in packing tape. And the piece de resistance of each gory ensemble was a cardboard sign, upon which each student disclosed to the world his or her biggest insecurity.

This is where the analogy loses its political edge and instead becomes a comment on humanity in general. “Payat ” read one sign on a half-naked victim, who was indeed somewhat slim. “Not smart enough,” was the self-indictment on another. The students had taken down the exhibit from Facebook so I was not able to see the full range of pejoratives, but I can imagine words such as “pangit” or “taba” or other body shaming labels were there as well.  

To equate anxiety at being overweight, with the unspeakable injustice of being branded a drug pusher worthy of extermination is admittedly not a fair comparison. But art sometimes requires exaggeration in order to jolt the viewer into a realization. To me, the message was that these insecurities identified by each “victim” was a label that they felt weighed so heavily on their persona as to cripple or paralyze them at times. To relate, a little open-minded compassion is in order.

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I recall a discussion I had many years ago with a teenager who told me that he was so bothered by his plethora of pimples that he became too self-conscious to speak to anyone when he had a new one blooming on his face. One pimple led to another and before he knew it, he had gotten so used to not speaking to others that he had practically grown mute. He had made himself an island and remained so for a very long time.

I also thought of a friend whose chosen charity is paying for makeovers for her househelp. She has paid for dental work for one with a distracting overbite and sent another to a top dermatologist to find a cure for a raging case of acne. When I asked if these expensive treatments were really necessary, she said she felt she was “saving their lives,” because the shame from the protruding teeth and the pustules had destroyed her helpers’ self-worth and well-being. I, for one, do not want to ever be in their shoes to find out if this could be true. 

The exhibit may not have the gravitas of Schindler’s List but it was far from a mocking satire.

There are two other less appreciated things about the photographs in that exhibit that I want to point out. The fact that they were created by engineering students was surprising as one would probably expect this kind of self-reflection from students of psychology or fine arts. Secondly, the exhibits were apparently part of some kind of pageant at their school. I have no idea what the school pageant was all about, but in this country, the word usually connotes a contest of beauty and popularity. For contestants in a pageant to actually highlight their one big flaw runs counter to the very idea of a beauty contest. Imagine Steve Harvey asking a contestant what her biggest insecurity was and the lady admitting that her breasts aren’t big enough or perhaps that she doesn’t understand the spiel she has memorized for this Q and A. Preposterous! The student-contestants’ stark admissions of their weaknesses on those cardboard signs bring a refreshing kind of irony to those of us who may feel the Miss Universe pageant, or any beauty contest for that matter, is a tad shallow and self-serving. 

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At the end of the day, the last bit of defense I have to offer for the exhibitors was that they should be shielded by our freedom of expression. If the EJKs prove one thing, it is that human rights and the rule of law sit on thin ice these days. The right to speak out about the EJKs, even in a way perceived to be tasteless, is a privilege that our democracy protects. The exhibit may not have the gravitas of Schindler’s List but it was far from a mocking satire. In this most bewildering of political climates, I would much rather see youths featuring EJKs in their dialogues for random reasons rather than keeping mum out of ignorance or fear.

You don't agree with this piece? This section isn't called The Unpopular Opinion for nothing.

The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse.

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