On the tropical island of Siargao in the Philippines, someone has nailed a makeshift basketball hoop into a palm tree overlooking the beach. It’s prime real estate for a court–but for the Australian photographer Dave Carswell, the hoop’s locale in the tiny town of General Luna reveals how important the sport is to Filipinos. “This is an example of how basketball is really king,” he says.
The striking image is one of a series of photographs, called Dancing in the Shadows, that depicts 126 ingeniously constructed basketball hoops that dot the urban and rural landscapes of the island nation. The book is a beautiful examination of how the country’s sports culture has left its mark on public space, from the hoops and backboards affixed to palm trees to more transient basketball set-ups on the streets of Manila.
Carswell began photographing hoops while he was living in Manila from 2015 to 2017. “Basketball is omnipresent there,” he says. “The further you travel, the more interesting the basketball construction apparatus becomes.”
The sheer number of hoops reflects the popularity of the sport in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony. But after Americans brought the sport to the islands, it took on a life of its own. “The reason that basketball really took shape there is that it’s something that can be played anywhere,” Carswell says. “It’s not restricted to having a full court. It’s not restricted to having the best equipment. It’s something you can even play as an individual. For that reason, Filipinos developed this passion for it. It’s become such a pivotal part of their culture and identity.”
This passion for the game is evident in the variety of hoops, made using whatever’s available, on all sorts of terrain. But the best example of the game’s infiltration into urban space? Manila’s movable hoops, which are weighed down with bricks and played with until the traffic becomes too intense or the neighbors get upset. Then, the players are up and off to find another place where they can shoot around. Carswell remembers finding hoops he wanted to photograph but decided to come back later because the light conditions weren’t right–but when he’d return, they had vanished.
One image from the book is particularly striking, and was the inspiration for the series’ title Dancing in the Shadows. It depicts two young shirtless boys jumping into the air as the ball is just about to go into a Nike-branded hoop. There’s a long narrow shadow that runs across the concrete of the court, and Carswell says he was struck by how the two boys only played within the confines of the shadow. “When players play in the Philippines, they try to utilize as much shade as possible,” Carswell says, because it’s so hot. “Often that means playing late in the day, but if they do play during the day, they tend to strategize the game so they stay in the shade.”
The title has a deeper metaphorical resonance as well. “One of the other objects of the book was to examine how public space in the Philippines is being taken over by private entities and wealthy families,” Carswell says. “During rapid urbanization of the country, the DIY basketball court still remains in the hands of the Filipino people. The basketball courts go on in the shadow of the nation’s elite and politicians.”
The book Dancing in the Shadows is available for purchase on Carswell’s website.