I Shot the Punisher: Duterte in the Eyes of Photographer Rene Lumawag

Davao photojournalist Rene Lumawag claims he has captured the essence of Rodrigo Duterte

by Rogue, photo by RENE LUMAWAG

Our new president is a deeply polarizing figure and, more recently, a cause for unease among the media. Davao photojournalist Rene Lumawag, however, claims he has captured the essence of Rodrigo Duterte. Through Davao-based writer Jay Rosas, Lumawag talks to Rogue about the friend he calls Rody.



Duterte as Davao mayor sometime in 2003, with Ronald dela Rosa (in camo), Intel Chief in those days, and Police Senior Superintendent Isidro Lapeña (third from left). Dela Rosa has just been appointed incoming PNP chief as of this writing, and Lapeña head of PDEA (Phillipine Drug Enforcement Agency).


The first photograph I took of Rody Duterte was a studio shot that was used for campaign material. It was 1988 and he was running for mayor. I don’t know if I’d be allowed to say so, but my favorite photograph that I’ve taken of him was an outdoor photo of the family with Mt. Apo in the background. It was along the diversion road where Dencio’s restaurant is now. We walked out early to catch the fine morning weather, and a fine view of the mountain. Baste, his youngest son by his first wife Elizabeth, was very young then.

Another favorite is the photograph of him being a respetoso son, taking the hand of his mother, Soledad “Soling” Roa Duterte, to his forehead as a gesture of respect. Long before we met Rody, Nanay Soling was a client in the radio station where I worked. She had socio-civic programs in the city, such as the Boystown orphanage. She was a member of Yellow Friday, leading the Davao women in the anti-Marcos movement during the years before People Power. She was supposed to have a position in the government instead of Rody, who was a very reluctant politician. It took his friends two months to convince him to be vice mayor, a post-EDSA revolt appointment. Rody was very low profile.

Before, Davao was conflict-ridden. You had a lot of issues to face. The work was rigorous for a journalist. I recall the hostage-taking in DaPeCol (Davao Penal Colony, now Davao Prison and Penal Farm) in 1989 when a prison gang escaped the penal colony and took 15 members of a Protestant group captive. Rody offered himself to the jail breakers in exchange of two hostages. Colonel Abaya, the regional commander, asked him if what he was doing was right—but Rody had balls. What Felipe Pugoy, one of the hostage-takers, wanted was for then-president Cory Aquino to send a helicopter to bring him to Malacañang so they could discuss the issues hounding the penal colony. Duterte said that it wasn’t possible, and that instead they could go to the city hall to talk it out. I was with Duterte that time during the negotiations. I talked to the other hostage leader, Mohammad Nazir Samparani, one of the jail breakers who was Tausug, because I can also speak Tausug. I told him that they could count on the mayor’s word.

I believe my pictures of Rody show his authentic self. He reminds me of the cliché, “strong like an oak but, at times, pliant like a willow.” And that’s what makes him a perfect politician, a perfect leader. The sympathy he shows is raw. But when he gets angry, he doesn’t hide it. That was what I was trying to depict in the photographs, these extremes, although I am not certain if it was a success on my part. I have gone through the Davao mayors: Lopez, Santos, Respicio—but this one is different.



The mayor in Barangay Marahan with his mother Soledad Roa-Duterte.


Rody genuinely wants to face the people. He talks to everyone as much as possible, even if it means extending his work hours. He reprimands also, offers help. In his office, the support staff is there. You see him as a father who attends to all the children, and everyone is accounted for. I think in my pictures you can tell easily he is a well-rounded personality. During his younger, motor-riding days as member of the Any Sunday Riders Club, I was able to accompany one of their tours. You can really say he’s just one among you.

He is also a wide reader. Once there was a written speech handed to him—although he prefers to do away with prepared speeches—he said, “Where’s the grammar in this?” His English might be “binisaya” in pronunciation and enunciation, but actually he can do it bereft of the local twang. He just doesn’t like to do it that way because, as he said, “I’m Bisaya.” From there alone, you can see his sincerity. In his statements, he will leave room for you to think, ask further. But the guy is really unpredictable. I can’t say I know what he’s going to say next. And do not put words in his mouth. But you know, he knows when you have a problem, when he looks at you. But you expect that of friends.

I remember it was his first term as mayor. I was the only remaining media man after the press conference. We got to talking, and I asked, “If you were president of this country, what do you think is the solution to our problems?” This is what he said: “If you have a basket of apples, pour out the contents first, empty the basket and pick out the best ones.” That was his analogy. I think that is what he is doing now.

I have faith in him. He knows what’s best, for his people and for his country. When we notice something unusual, it is because we are used to the traditional way things are run. But just relax. The guy is unpredictable but he knows what to do. I’ve heard a lot of promises from politicians, presidential aspirants dating back to Quirino, back when I was still in my short pants, but things are still the same.



Lumawag began as an artist before he shifted to photography.


If I had been physically fit and young, I’d consider working for him, but I can’t imagine the stress. Maybe I can do a portrait of him in Malacañang Palace. That would probably end my story of him. I plan to make a photo book, all my photographs of him from the start. That’s the only thing missing. Luckily, someone recently found that photograph I took of the family by Mt. Apo. I would love to include it in the book.

Interview translated from the Bisaya by Jay Rosas. An exhibition of Lumawag’s photographs on the incoming president is ongoing up to the 6th of July at the Abreeza Mall in Davao City.