The photographer as hero: A review of the NYT documentary



I AM against the war on drugs and the way it is being implemented at this point. Where the lists of drug suspects remain questionable, even as inclusion in these lists is used as justification for many of the dead on our streets. Where the excuse of “nanlaban,” is used as a way for the police to justify killing a drug suspect, a justification that’s been built on the President’s pronouncements.

Where there is a lack of transparency about the drug war as a whole, and how while we are expected to get angry at media for that 7,000 number, we are not allowed to get angry at police officials and government for refusing to provide us with credible numbers at any given point in time.

Where we are forgetting that even those summary executions are the responsibility of government and the police, and that no claims to peace, order and public safety may be made given those killings.

The need for critique
I also stand against the failure to discuss the war on drugs in all its complexity, given the different layers of rhetoric and policy that have made it what it is, given the lack of transparency, given the number of dead. And given the fact that this is putting a spotlight on a country that would otherwise not make international news.

It is in this light that the New York Times’ documentary “When A President Says, ‘I’ll Kill You’” (directed by Andrew Glazer) should be critiqued, not for where it stands on the killings, but how it speaks of these killings.

It should be critiqued as text, as a set of decisions made about how to discuss a drug war that is, according to the Chief of Police, “the face of the Duterte administration” (press conference, March 27). It should be analyzed for the kind of narrative it uses to capture its international audience.

The NYT’s documentary decides to use as anchor and frame the experience of photographer Raffy Lerma – he of that famous pieta photo that became the image of the war on drugs last year. It follows Lerma covering the killings through the streets of Manila, which is to say taking photos of dead bodies on sidewalks, families in grief, police officers taking control of the situation. Lerma is not the only photographer on this beat, but he is the only one who speaks.

His movements and statements are interspersed with those from the President about killing drug suspects, one statement from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and a short interview with a purported hit man, who says the President’s statements make him feel that he would go scot-free if he’s ever caught.

There was much here to work on and from, but this documentary decided to do otherwise.

The photographer as hero
The decision to have Lerma as both narrator and subject of the documentary comes with its own baggage, the heaviest of which is the fact that he is framed as hero: he “chose” to be on the night shift even when this is usually for rookies, because the drug war is an important story.

Two minutes into this documentary, one realizes its title is misleading. This is not about the war on drugs and the killings on our streets; it’s about a photographer who is covering this turn of events. This is not about the killings happening because we have a President who says “I’ll kill you”; it’s about one person covering the killings, given a President who employs this rhetoric.

Here, the drug war is nothing but context, the killings are mere backdrop. And ultimately, Lerma, the photographer, is hero.

At night, he takes photos of the dead. By day, he follows up on victims’ families, listens to their stories. He takes photos as they cry, he takes photos of a wall that says the dead had campaigned for Duterte, and under his breath he says “Damn,” at the irony of it.

He talks about the task of taking photos to “not only inform, but try to move people.” He talks about his famous pieta image: “Well you thought something would happen, something would change … <pregnant pause> but it didn’t.”

The next shot is of Lerma having drinks with other photographers: “The first two months were really tough, you get emotional, you feel exhausted, but after that we found our ways of debriefing ourselves, just talk about it, with your friends, and those also covering the drug war.”

There’s this bit of Lerma saying to his friends: “Wala na nga akong ma-smile na tunay eh.” Which, in case the documentary hadn’t established it yet, was about the hero being human, unable to give a genuine smile, given the months he has spent covering the dead.

Risky romanticism
The biggest risk this documentary took was to have Lerma as its central character. Ultimately this was a decision to not talk about the war on drugs and the dead on our streets, in favor of talking about someone through whose eyes and photographs these events were unfolding. It was a heavy-duty filter of one person’s voice and experience, dictating the kind of narrative that would be told about the drug war.

That Lerma himself spoke of the personal here, with his anxieties shining through, with long-drawn shots of him looking to nothingness while taking a drag of his cigarette, is yet another decision that needs to be critiqued. Because certainly he could have chosen, could’ve negotiated instead, to talk about the war on drugs and the killings on the streets on the level of numbers – or the lack thereof. Certainly, it would’ve been worthwhile to try and level-up the discussion, given the experience of covering the dead and speaking to their families.

Instead Lerma ended up talking about himself.

If this is what the New York Times documentary’s audience wanted to see, if this is what the producers of the documentary thought was worth talking about, then it is important to talk about why, and towards what end.


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  1. Near where I work there’s this solvent sniffing mother with a child suckling her breast, begging at each passing car. I resist the temptation to take her picture and title it the “Narco-Madonna and Child” just so I can send it to the NYT, too exploitative, more graphic even than that Narco-Pieta pictorial.

    Still I wonder why your hero of the lens is so mono-subjective, dead addicts and their sobbing loved ones that’s your whole story? That’s a documentary? He failed miserably then. If I had his job and the stomach for it I would picture all of it…starting with the solvent sniffing child prostitutes, the narco-boss burning money at the casino or cockpit, the “scary sicarios” narco-hitmen by his side, the school girl in the trauma ward gang rapped by addicts or by his own meth head dad. I would show the good, the bad and the ugly, cops and criminals both with their mountains of drugs, money and weapons. Then truthfully say…”thjs is the narco war in my country.”

    They say that “life imitates art,” well sometimes – and you can quote me…”art imitates garbage, then life mistaking it for art, imitates that” that’s how I see NYT reportage on the RP war on drugs, what else can I call it but narco-journalism garbage.

  2. Amnata Pundit on

    Its funny that you said the war on drugs is complex, but you easily simplified it in your first paragraph by saying that the list is questionable, and nanlaban is just an excuse that the President provided for the police to use. To use for what? For EJK, what else? That is as simplistic as the yellows can get, you know, that side of the political equation to which you say you don’t belong but whose beliefs you share with a passion. The reason why we have to wage a war on drugs is not complicated, it is why we have differences in opinion that is. The casualties of this drug menace, of which the war on drugs is the necessary outcome, should include all those whose lives were also pushed off the track, not because they were addicts but because their loved ones were, or were victims of drug-addled criminals. But to the yellows the only thing that matters are the human rights “victims”, THE WELFARE OF THE LARGER SOCIETY BE DAMNED. With the heat of the political warfare we are now experiencing- and by the way this is the war that is truly complex- we are now virtually in a civil war. Take note that Duterte according to no less than the yellow pollsters has more than 80% public support. That is how many people have become disgusted with the unparalleled hypocrisy and vileness of the yellows. If the yellows are able to bring their twisted narrative to the point where they can topple another contra-yellow president (with a lot of help from the American-led west, as usual), there will be blood that will be a lot more than what has been spilled so far, and believe me, the color of that blood will be yellow.

  3. Straight journalism where the focus is on the facts is no longer in vogue. Now, we have partisan journalism and fake news to showcase a point of view that is either for or against someone a journalist wants to vilify. NYT does the same to Trump and yet their darling Obama, despite his boboos, was portrayed in a more positive light. That’s the way it is now.