Life in the Fast Lane


A Photography Experience

By 3:46 PM , , ,

Last Good Friday, I braved the crowds of Evangelista St. (and the surrounding streets within Baranggay Bangkal in Makati) to witness my first-ever Penitensya.

I had a couple of reasons for going there. First, the idea of actually witnessing such an event for the first time intrigued me. Second, I wanted to see just how extreme people can get in order to atone for their sins. Third, I wanted to bring my camera gear and document the event as it transpired.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term Penitensya, here’s the definition, as lifted from a Manila Times Article by Perry Gil Mallari, dated April 8th of last year:

Penitensya or public penance is a deeply entrenched tradition among Filipino Catholics. Conquistadores Christianized the Philippines 400 years ago at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when Catholic authorities practiced torture, subjugation and self-denial as standard procedure. The appropriate term for this practice in Roman Catholicism is “mortification of the flesh.”

Individuals who engage in these rituals aim to atone for a particular sin, have their prayers granted or achieve a higher spiritual experience or vision.

Filipinos exercise their penitensya vows in different ways. The most well known are self-flagellation, the carrying of a heavy wooden cross under the sweltering sun or in some cases being actually crucified.

It was such an experience for me. I couldn’t help but feel a range of different emotions. There was a part of me that wanted to really get down on the ground and shoot from unlikely angles, but there was the fear that I’d get hurt (especially since I was a girl) or that my camera would be splattered with blood. There was a part of me that marveled at the dedication of these penitents. There was also, of course, a part of me that felt pity for them, knowing that Someone already sacrificed for their sakes.

Anyway, this photo shows the start of the procession. Hooded men start whipping themselves on the arms and back slowly at first.

Some passionate, if you could call it that, men decide, midway, that they want to experience even more pain. Such men ask nearby volunteers to place nicks on their arms and backs using regular blades. It’s scary how they use ordinary household blades which they reuse with every penitent who wants to undergo that process.

An example of one not-quite-horrific-but-nonetheless-bloody photo. I don't wanna gross you out too much.

Penitents have a long route to follow. They usually comb every street of a baranggay (a district) under the heat of the sun — and always, they walk barefoot.

Someone is assigned to portray "Jesus" and he carries a wooden cross for the duration of the procession.

A few brave souls decide to give themselves more pain. They lie down on the ground and raise their two index fingers. This gives volunteers the signal to beat their backs. When the men lower their fingers, the "beaters" stop.

One day, these smiling little girls could be the mothers, sisters, or wives of penitents. Women usually lead the procession by singing, praying, or reading from booklets. Some wait at the end of the procession to close the whole ritual with prayers and songs. Some also serve food to the penitents after the rites.

This cultural and religious phenomenon has been a part of their being since birth, and soon enough, they’ll come to seek fulfillment by participating in it.

And after three hours of walking on extremely hot cemented roads, whipping their bloodied backs and arms, and enduring parched throats, the penitents kneel before a makeshift altar and pay their respects, as their way of atoning for their sins.

At the end of the ritual, I couldn't help but sigh a relieved sigh. It was over and their "suffering" could finally come to an end. But most of all, I felt relief knowing that I would never have to go through all that self-torture.

"This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."
-1 John 4:10

Equipment used: My back-up body (Canon EOS 10D) with my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II, Sigma 70-300mm F/4-5.6 APO DG Macro lenses.

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  1. It's nice to see that you are capturing something that is out of your comfort zone. I believe that people need to become a little uncomfortable now and then to see what's out there.

    I am Roman Catholic, and I have heard of this probably through Discovery channel or National Geographic or one of those informative television shows. I don't think I ever remember seeing the penitence ritual done in Indonesia. (Or if there is or anything of a similar form, I have yet to hear of it. I find it interesting, from a cultural perspective, this type of thing happens somewhere every Lenten season.) Even through moving pictures and photographs, I am awed at how much dedication these people have to atone for their sins. Touched, too, as a person who has never done this but share the faith as a Catholic.

    I believe that no one can ever duplicate the suffering of Christ, and I also believe that He is probably the one who could survive what He went through. But from the way I see it (and this is a personal reaction and just something I thought of), these people seem to also search for some way to feel (like, physically) the gravity of human sin. Their own and/or of others. Even if it's a far cry in magnitude from the authentic sacrifice.

    A beautiful and moving essay, Tina. I'm glad that you chose to capture this and share it with us.

  2. I've known of this and recently talked about it with some friends in the Philippines. However, I've not seen any real pictures of it till now. By that I mean I've seen a few done for documentaries or such but they lack a certain spontaneity yours have captured.

    I'm certainly as far from a religious man as can be but I do feel some understanding for what these people want to achieve. It's a cultural, ritual, and purgative travail that few would wish to undertake and those who do can take pride in. I hope they get out of it what they hoped for.

    You certainly were brave to have done something that was both hard and uncomfortable. Thanks much.


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