Portraits of diplomacy

Spotlight on the modern Filipino diplomat

LUNA PICS Shaira Luna, assisted by her manager Jan Villanueva, photographs Asec. Raul Hernandez

Among the Philippines’ major strengths are its creatives. Quite the cliché, some might say, and while we have yet to fully attain the international recognition our artists deserve, it doesn’t make the statement any less true. It’s a joy to see when government sees the huge potential in working together with the talent we have here and a thrill to see it happen. Recently, fashion and advertising photographer Shaira Luna partnered with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy (OPCD) to create portraits of Filipino diplomats, a project that seems so simple but in an institution that greatly deals with the country’s image abroad, visuals do matter.

Diplomats were asked to drop by during a free window in their day to get their portraits taken. Shaira, known for her talent in making subjects feel at ease and bringing out a more relaxed side to them, finished each subject in roughly five minutes. Diplomats often work behind the scenes, avoiding the limelight yet Shaira was able to get them comfortable, talking to them in a friendly manner and securing the shot she wanted even from the most camera-shy.

“In social media especially, it’s very easy to just make assumptions or judge people based on their titles, but I think behind the names are really hardworking people who have dedicated so many years of their lives to what they do,” Shaira said during her break from shooting.

“As I learned a while ago, a lot of these officials have to be away from home for a very long time and it’s just nice to put faces to the names and really feel like they’re just like everyone else.”

Veering away from the usual portraits featuring a stiff, overly serious diplomat, Shaira elicited smiles, even some lighthearted laughs from her subjects. “I think even with the light, candid photos I want to show that these are people who know that they have responsibility and know that they’re there to do their job,” she said. “There’s still definitely an air of authority. But I think also by showing these emotions, it shows more of the public service they are here to do.”

Diplomacy has changed immensely through the years and the public’s perception of it has yet to reflect these changes. “Diplomats have always been caricatured as snobbish bureaucrats in black suits who spend most of their time at cocktail receptions and parties, but also as high officials engaged in international negotiations and high level visits by heads of states,” remarks Neal Imperial, assistant secretary for Asia Pacific affairs. “The new diplomat wears many more hats than before. And there are a growing number of women diplomats too.”

Among such women is Tess Lazaro, undersecretary at the policy office, who adds that diplomats nowadays should be more accessible. “I think a modern diplomat should be more people-oriented,” she says. “We should be very practical minded, following protocol, but yet still very much gravitating toward the practicality.” The job, after all, as she puts it, “is rooted in public service.”

‘What we want to achieve, I guess, is to have a uniformly positive impression of the Philippines, the Filipino people, the Philippine government, Philippine policies around the world.’

Jennifer Dingal, deputy assistant secretary for protocol, agrees, saying that the Filipino community, especially those overseas, should see diplomats as partners in promoting the country. Protocol plays a huge part in this, according to her. “Image is everything, because that’s the first thing people see,” she says. “Before we start talking and before we have all these talking points, they should get a very good impression of what they’ll get later on.”

SHUTTERBUG Photographer Shaira Luna

Antonio Morales, undersecretary who handles the DFA’s administration, highlights the importance of addressing all audiences. “There are two publics here: the public in the Philippines and the public abroad. We want them to see the DFA as it is—a premier agency. An agency they can relate to,” he says. “We have many Filipinos abroad. We have many interests with other countries, and our diplomats are there to protect and promote their interests. So we’re not very remote to them.”

Ed Meñez, OPCD’s assistant secretary, noted the paradox on how foreigners tend to see Filipinos—hardwoking, loyal, friendly, and hospitable, generally a positive image that doesn’t translate to how they make assumptions about our government.

“If you ask the same question about the Philippine government, then the reactions are more varied. So what we want to achieve, I guess, is to have a uniformly positive impression of the Philippines, the Filipino people, the Philippine government, Philippine policies around the world,” he says, noting that it’s the public diplomacy among different governments.  “If we focus on all the positive aspects of Philippine creativity, even excellence in fields such as sports, the performing arts, or cuisine and build upon that then slowly, the so called nation brand will either conch consciously or derivatively improve the public perception of the Philippines as a whole.”

They say being in government is a thankless job. It’s hard to explain how things are done to the public that’s often inclined to see things negatively right away. But seeing diplomats through the lens of someone as emotionally intelligent as Shaira, maybe there’s hope down the line.