CARLO Gabuco is a Manila-based Filipino photographer specializing in street photography. He was responsible for taking the pictures that were included in the latest Human Rights Watch report on police killings. His images of slaughter and suffering—of defiled corpses, of bereaved families, of men stricken with fear—are undoubtedly nightmarish and profoundly disturbing. Looking at them induces shock, maybe even sickening nausea and revulsion, for most people at least. But if you looked at them the way the President’s spokespeople have done, and some members of the local news media, with cynicism and skepticism, these photos amount to sensationalism, and seem little more than products of clever camera trickery (lens filters, dramatic lighting, striking angles). For one dismissive pundit, they are the work of some ambitious guy wanting to win the Pulitzer Prize. In effect, Duterte apologists are claiming that the camera is lying.
Since the killings started in June last year, local and foreign photojournalists have importantly been documenting the carnage of President Duterte’s ruthless anti-drug campaign. They have been going out independently, or have accompanied reporters, police, human rights activists and investigators on what has been called the “night shift”. From late evening to dawn, these photographers respond to calls of a discovery of a corpse, and go on police operations and stings.
Sometimes they are among the first at the crime scene. They capture the bloody horror of finding a freshly slain body, a corpse bound in plastic packing tape, the anguished cries of the victim’s friends and relatives, and the terrified gaze of bystanders and eyewitnesses.
Daniel Berehulak was the photographer for the New York Times who shot the pictures for the photo essay that was published by the Times last December. His 57 portraits of murder victims and their grieving kin, all pictured in grim contexts—dark, rain-soaked, filthy streets, wakes and funerals held in slums, the ragged rooms of ramshackle homes—are appalling images of extreme violence and death. For the veteran war photographer, the 35 days he spent in Manila was an unparalleled and darkly visceral experience: “I have worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone…what I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness.”
James Fenton’s two-part essay “Murderous Manila: on the night shift,” published in the New York Review of Books last month, was just as condemnatory. The essay included a couple of illustrative images. These pictures showed the expressions of shock and horror on the faces of bystanders and the dreadful sorrow of mourners. Fenton observed how the “crazy and seemingly haphazard extra-judicial killings… have a message for everyone: nobody is safe.” The terror the photographs depict, and the increasing pervasiveness of such images, are surely operating in a similar way. They are broadcasting the message that nobody is safe.
Raffy Lerma was the photographer who caught what is perhaps one of the most emotive images yet published on the killings. His picture of a young woman sitting in the road, cradling the lifeless body of a young man murdered by gunmen who rode on a motorbike, caused uproar when it was published on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer in July last year. Immediate comparisons to the Pieta imbued the image with sorrowful dignity, and invited us to view the scene with pity and compassion.
Duterte’s war was just warming up at the time, however, and our newly elected President was having none of the namby-pamby empathy the Inquirer sought to evoke. In a public speech, Duterte picked up on the fuss the picture had provoked, and mocked it. To the laughter and applause of his listening audience, he roundly dismissed the photo as “melodramatic”. Now, several months later, Duterte’s cabal continues to echo the scorn. The President’s spokesman Ernesto Abella has rubbished the findings of the 125-page Human Rights Watch report as being without basis. “The observation that the Philippines is in the midst of a ‘human rights calamity’ is thoughtless and irresponsible,” he says. In this absurd, upside-down thinking, to denounce the war and the atrocious killings is to “pander to the interests of the criminals”.
Duterte’s anti-drug war is in one sense being underwritten by the photographs of extrajudicial killings. In our image-junkie culture, they feed the fear and terror that the war foments. Doubtless, some photographs, as well as the fact that we are seeing more and more of them, can come across as wrong – clichéd, melodramatic, and numbing in their commonness. “Living with the photographed images of suffering,” writes the late cultural critic Susan Sontag, “does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them…Images anaesthetize.” It is also doubtless that many photographers may come to possess a hardened, blasé, and callous eye.
But when a photographic frame or scene fixes a moment of truth, not only does it create public awareness, it discloses reality. This is why, in this era of alternative realities, untruths and lies, in this climate of impunity, fear, and despair, and with almost 8,000 poor Filipinos murdered, photographers such as Carlo Gabuco, Raffy Lerma, and Daniel Berehulak, deserve our respect.