His aim: capture memorable faces

Photographer Phil Borges's work is remarkable for two distinctive qualities: clarity and compassion.

Now, an international travelling exhibit - the "Enduring Spirit" - is not only showcasing his astute compositions, it's also drawing attention to human-rights issues.

Images from Borges's second book, "Enduring Spirit," were recently selected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The exhibition includes wide-eyed, elegant, and unforgettable faces from Tibet, Indonesia, Peru, Africa, and the United States.

The Seattle-based artist made his mark as a photographer recording the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule - a cause he cared about passionately long before Hollywood took notice.

Eleven years ago, he gave up a lucrative career as a dentist to follow his impulse to photograph people as they are.

Borges knows his Tibetan subject matter now comes with baggage. Since the late 1970s, critical analysis in art has viewed the appropriation by Western artists of "indigenous" subjects with caution. It has reevaluated with less awe Picasso's strip-mining of tribal art. A recent museum show in San Francisco finally addressed Belgian King Leopold II's plunder of Congolese culture in the late 19th century and its subsequent repackaging as "cubism" or "naive art."

But Borges, whether his subjects are Buddhist monks or street thugs, treats them with compassion. His frames focus on distance and depth, always looming to balance his intense empathy. Add to that painstaking precision and uncompromising quality control. Borges says of his approach: "This is what I believe in, so this is what I shoot."

He has photographed the highest villages of the Himalayas, as well as street gangs of Samoans in his native Seattle. He leaves judgment at the door and manages to capture that which is human.

The images on exhibit depict indigenous faces centrally, in busts, cropped often at the shoulder, staring out at us directly and augmented with hand-applied, subtle pigments that heighten the relationships between figure and ground.

The format helps to lock the viewer into a dialogue with the subject. Though the tactics can come off as heavy-handed to the purist. But the fact is that a gorgeous photo like "Kalime, Algo," was simply a coincidental combination of a mother and child captured by Borges after much waiting, watching, and feeling his way through. The emotional connection Borges strikes, and the sheer technical virtuosity of the print, make this and images like it sing.

Borges's captions enliven the subjects whose faces love, live, protect, dream, and agonize. The artist neither mythologizes nor aggrandizes his subjects. They are just there - real and dignified. "The main thing in getting images like this is to come without judgment," he says, "to be part of the world you're shooting and let trust grow."

*The 'Enduring Spirit' show has been traveling as two exhibits since December as part of Amnesty International's anniversary celebration. The remaining US exhibitions include the Sangre De Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colo., May 1-Aug. 7; the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, June 10-Aug. 29; the Photographic Image Gallery in Portland, Ore., Oct. 7-30; the Museum De Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Sept. 11-Nov. 21; and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Nov. 1-Dec. 5.

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