In May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, then-mayor of Davao City, won a landslide victory in the Philippine presidential elections in a campaign centered on the eradication of drugs in the country; a goal which the President maintains must be achieved even if authorities resort to violence.
“Forget the laws on human rights,” he said at his final campaign rally. “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor [of Davao]. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.” Since then, a wave of killings has engulfed the country.
By January 2019, government figures revealed that 5,104 “drug personalities” have been killed in anti-drug operations – mostly from poor families in urban centers across the country. 23,327 homicide cases are still under investigation, including those killed by unidentified gunmen and vigilantes.
In the sixth of the EJN’s series events at the Frontline Club in London, Dorothy Byrne spoke to award-winning Filipino photojournalist Raffy Lerma about his experiences documenting the killings and their aftermath. What follows is an edited summary of their conversation.
“During Duterte’s presidential campaign, he said thousands would be killed. He fulfilled that promise. After almost three years, the government has owned up to 5,000 killings from police operations, although there are still over 20,000 homicides that are under investigation.
“When the killings began, I was a staff photographer at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I asked my boss to put me back on the night shift when most of the killings were happening. I started covering the drug war in July of 2016.
“Some nights that I was on duty, there were no bodies found. But most nights there were at least one, two even five or ten.
“After six months, I was pulled out of the beat even though I didn’t want to stop. I knew it was an important story. I thought that reporting it might eventually end the killings.
“But until now, it has not stopped.
“Every night for almost an entire year, I would do the night shift with a group of photojournalists, reporters and filmmakers. We were an informal group of journalists helping each other report the story. One night, an L.A. Times reporter came to join us in our nightly rounds and dubbed us the “Night Crawlers of Manila” after the Hollywood film. The name stuck.
“Soon after, we were also called many other names by the President’s supporters: EJK journalists (extrajudicial killing), the yellows, the paid media, presstitutes. They even claimed the drug lords pay us.
“At the start, I think the perpetrators wanted us to photograph the dead bodies. They were dumped in public areas and left for us to find, probably to send a message. It was a disturbing task to fulfill , but we felt that we had to do our jobs.
“When you’re taking photographs for a news agency, you don’t always have the opportunity to investigate, to verify if he is indeed a drug pusher or someone who is linked to drugs. Often, you have no choice but to use the police’s description. Until, of course you come back and follow up.
The grey areas of consent
“There are many instances where family members are not around to give consent for photographs. So what we do is go to the wakes or funerals and try to get the narrative of the families correctly.
“But there are journalists who don’t do this and only report the police side of the story. This is why some families turn us down. They often brand media as a whole.
“If the photograph’s caption uses the term “alleged drug pusher” the families will accuse you of generalizing.
“You’ve called our son like this a ‘drug pusher’ without really knowing him”.
“I’m aware of the ethical issues around photographing dead bodies, but this is what’s happening and as journalists, we have to show what’s happening.
“I don’t dwell on the risks of my job. It’s my obligation as a Filipino. I live here. These are my countrymen.
“Thousands of people are getting killed and what’s sadder for me is how many Filipinos don’t see anything wrong with it. There are other solutions to the drug problem. And I hope that when they see these images, they do something about it. I hope in some way my work can help end this dark period.
“There’s a lot of stigma around families whose loved ones were killed in the drug war. I’ve met several children who until now cannot process the trauma from the deaths in their family. Some of them want to be policemen when they grow up. They say they want to take revenge.
“For some families who have accepted they cannot get justice, a story or a photograph of what happened is enough.
Ethics on the frontline
“The newspaper I used to work for has ethical guidelines when it comes to what photographs they can publish. But as the photographer on the field, you’re always confronted. Sometimes when I try to look at my photographs, I ask myself, if I cannot look at the photograph, will anyone else be able to? And I’m already used to seeing the horror of these images.
“What I try to focus on is not the gore or the blood, but the emotions that I hope connects to more people.
Many of my photographs weren’t published in my newspaper. For them, it was too graphic. But for me, some photos should have been published. It’s not meant to shock people. In a country where the majority of the people support what’s happening, these photos should be a wake-up call. That’s one of the reasons why I left the newspaper. These photos should be shown so that society could see it and in some way reflect if they really are for this.
“This violence and impunity in the Philippines has moved from alleged drug users being killed on the streets, to activists, lawyers, and priests being gunned down at work. People are so numb that it’s just normal.
“When I was covering other news stories before, sometimes four or five stories in a day, I would come home and my family would ask me, “what did you cover today?”
“Sometimes I wouldn’t know how to respond because they have just become mere photos to me. But when this story came along, it brought me back to why I wanted to be a photojournalist in the first place. I know the names of these victims. I know their children. Every time I talk about my photos I don’t need a script. I know what happened to them.
“There are journalists in the Philippines who believe that these alleged drug pushers and addicts should be killed without being given due process. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that these victims have the same basic human rights as they do.
“Duterte promised a solution to the drug problem. People were so desperate for change that they supported it. But I think public opinion is changing. They are now questioning Duterte’s methods. And that’s a big step.
Main image: Ethics through the lens: Photographing The Drug War In The Philippines – Raffy Lerma