SONA2017: Raffy Lerma Hasn’t Stopped Covering the War on Drugs

While the declaration of martial law in Mindanao has diminished the noise over extrajudicial killings, Raffy Lerma, who shot the most famous photograph of President Duterte’s war on drugs, insists the fight is far from over. Jerome Gomez paints a portrait of the photojournalist as crusader.

by Jerome Gomez, photo by Tammy David

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Rogue Magazine.


“As a photojournalist we should always be neutral. It’s hard as everyone has opinions on different things. It sometimes depends on one’s upbringing, religious belief or the community where the photographer grew up. After that police raid, I’m not sure if I can still be neutral.”



Portrait by Carlo Gabuco


It was the night of the show’s closing party, but there was no trace of celebration the minute we arrived at the Oarhouse Pub in Malate. Its loyal crowd of elderly literati had disowned it for the evening, and so had the seasoned photojournalists from local and foreign news agencies who are the dive’s frequent hangers-on. Except for the staff and a couple nursing their drinks on one table, there were two women by the foot of the steps sitting on bar stools, one of them with her head on her arm resting on a high table, the other whispering what one would think are words of consolation.
As it turned out, we had just arrived early. And the photographs being feted, after all, were at the bar’s loft—a collection of pictures from the past nine months from 14 photojournalists covering the wrath of the administration’s anti-drugs campaign. The photographs are not framed or shielded by glass, not even hanging onto a nail. Noel Celis’ harrowing bird’s eye view photo of inmates sleeping in an overcrowded open-air basketball court of a city jail. Raffy Lerma’s dramatic picture of hands cuffed from an arrest in Quezon City. Celis’ quote above, from a Time magazine piece where he, among other photojournalists, recounted the stories behind the images that moved him the most, has a prime spot. It is about a tokhang operation the photographer witnessed in a shanty community in Delpan. The quote and the rest of the pictures are attached to the walls, I assume, by tape—perhaps a variation of the kind one might see in one of the photos, wrapped around the head of a victim.
Of the show’s photojournalists, the only one around when we stepped into the exhibit space was Lerma, as sparsely presented as the photographs in our midst: light of skin and light of frame, his eyes like frugal slits, slightly bemoustached, wearing a blue cap, an orange shirt, and jeans that have dealt with age. If you haven’t been following the issue of extrajudicial killings online and on print, you are wont to miss his presence, or wouldn’t have guessed he is quite the big deal.
Of the many photographs taken of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, the most famous one just happens to be Lerma’s: the image of the lifeless body of pedicab driver and suspected drug pusher Michael Siaron cradled in the arms of his weeping partner Jennilyn Olayres. It has come to be known as the Pieta—because it calls to mind the Michaelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus Christ.
It also made the Time feature. “As a news photographer it was my job to document what was happening, but a part of me that heard Olayres’ pleas for help also died a little,” Lerma’s quote went. “It was raw and gut-wrenching, but I could do nothing but press the shutter button.”
Other photojournalists have a version of that image, but it was Lerma’s that made it on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s most influential paper, on a Sunday, with the banner headline that read “Church: Thou shall not kill”—elements that clearly added to the inherent power of the photograph. Some people found it most effective in capturing the utter helplessness of the poor in the time of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Some were of the opinion that it was manipulated, even staged, prompting the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines to issue a press statement defending its integrity. That the new President memorably referenced it in his first State of the Nation Address, calling it mere “drama,” sealed its cache of importance, a defining photograph of its time.


Lerma is quiet and unassuming in person, with a stare and confidence of one that’s seen a lot and with stories to tell—which he does almost earnestly when asked, in an easy manner and tone that sometimes breaks into a creak like a boy finding his man voice. After months of covering the drug war, he talks about the deaths he’s witnessed like it’s become his personal crusade to put a stop to the carnage. He puts his published pictures on Instagram, never mind his publication’s rules of ownership. An artist appropriates one of his pictures and he sees it as just another way to bring the word out on the extrajudicial killings. He agrees to invitations to talk to students in schools. News agencies like The New York Times and the BBC would come out with documentaries framing their stories from his point of view. “I am for the drug war,” Lerma said to BBC, “but not the killings.”
Why would they interview a photographer? a pundit would ask on Facebook. Why not a writer who would presumably be more eloquent? As if we’re out there to impress the international audience. As if eloquence is needed to help tell a narrative that, for Lerma, has always been clear as day: suspected drug pushers are being gunned down in the streets, inside their homes, without being given their right to a day in court. Their stories need to be told, and he, together with his comrades in the graveyard shift, is giving these victims faces, bodies, some semblance of proof they once walked this earth. Or else they turn into mere entries in the police logbook, a number in the growing list of victims of Duterte’s war, a recent count of which has already amounted to 7,000 deaths by early May according to Human Rights Watch.



The rest of the photographers turned up at the bar around 10 p.m, and so began the buzz of conversation and the clinking of beer bottles. They have been called The Nightcrawlers, and they usually gather at Oarhourse every Saturday as a way of unwinding from the week’s horror stories from the streets. The Nightcrawlers is a tag Lerma says is not exactly accurate, as their coverage go beyond the midnight shift: they go to the victims’ funerals on Sundays, attend wakes. They follow the likes of the OFW mother of the clubfooted teenager Raymart Siapo when she arrived from the airport and proceeded to the barangay in Navotas to question authorities on the details of her son’s death.


Some of the journalists are freelancers, not bound by newspaper companies to turn up with photographs by the end of the day, yet on most nights they come to the Manila Police District (MPD) headquarters in U.N. Avenue anyway, to wait for a tip on an operation, or on a dead body found in some dark alley.


Lerma is not a neophyte to the graveyard shift. He’s had his taste of it during the Arroyo administration and stuck with the beat for more than a year. He requested to be reassigned to it when the new President was about to assume power, foreseeing the ungodly hours are where all the action will be. Duterte, after all, won the May 2016 elections largely because he promised to wipeout the streets of thousands of criminals. “I could always compare 2007 to this administration na one month ko pa lang sa night shift, mas marami na na-cover ko na pinapatay na drug-related killings, summary executions, compared to my first year,” Lerma says. “Of course there were people getting killed before, in 2007—petty crimes, minsan may drug-related—but it wasn’t at this level ‘yung dami, ‘yung frequency.”



His first night back at the shift was ominous at the very least. “Ten minutes pa lang, kakapasok ko pa lang ng MPD tatlo kaagad patay,” he recounts. “Not long after, there were another three, “pero buhay naman, buy bust, sa Taguig. Tapos to cap the night, eto, may summary execution sa Taft. May binalutan ng tape, dumped along Taft Avenue.” It was already 5 a.m. when Lerma got back to the Inquirer office to file his stories. The sun was up when he got home. It would turn out to be one of his worst nights. He remembers when he took the famous Pieta photograph, which was already the third killing he had covered for the evening. He remembers the morning of November 17 when there were eight summary executions, each one with the head wrapped in packaging tape. He says the bodies were part of a group but were dumped in different areas of the city, some in Makati, a couple in Pasay. “At one point, parang, tangina, tama na. Napapa-ganon ka lang sa sarili mo e. Tangina, tama na.”


It didn’t help that at the scene near the boundary of Pasay and Makati, he spotted a few bystanders, grownups, taking selfies with the dead as background. Lerma lost his cool. “Napa-stop ako e, nilapitan ko sila e, parang, ‘Tama ba ‘yung ginagawa nyo? Nakakatawa ba yung nagseselfie kayo sa harap ng patay?’”


Lerma has been a photographer for the Inquirer for 14 years, a photojournalist for close to 20, counting his years as a staffmember in the Philippine Collegian, the official school paper of the University of the Philippines. His early school years were spent at the Southridge School in Alabang, a private school for boys, whose spiritual constitution is dictated by the Opus Dei. He says he was quiet and quite shy when he was younger, but friends say he was very well liked in school.


“Definitely very popular around campus,” says the writer Erwin Romulo, a friend, also from Southridge. “He was good at football. Went to Gothia Cup. And teachers also liked him. So the perfect Southridge student, I guess. I bet he still knows his Catechism.”


He remembers one evening when he photographed about eight dead bodies. “Mababaliw ka kung saan ka pupunta eh,” he says. “It’s impossible to cover them all.”


“He wore what he wanted, said what he wanted, and did what he wanted. He wasn’t one of those stupid preppy guys who all dressed the same and wore so much cologne, and were pa-angas-angas kuno,” says writer Gabbie dela Rama, who Lerma took to her prom. “I always had a feeling he would be someone in the future and not something boring like a millionaire or a model. He seemed to me like he was made for something bigger. I just couldn’t tell what.”


Lerma got into UP with a sports scholarship, and took a public administration course at first because the scholarship didn’t allow him to choose from among the quota courses. He eventually shifted to architecture, and then ended up in the fine arts department when he started getting into photography. He took a basic photography workshop in school, and started noticing from his shots that he liked taking pictures of people. “I was very quiet back then, and I had to train myself to talk to people,” he says. Having a camera gave him license to start conversations with strangers. “Tapos, nagpa-practice ako sa Quiapo. Doon mumurahin ka talaga ng ‘Putangina!’ So kailangan mo lang silang kausapin.”


Of his early years, he remembers what the revered John Stanmeyer once told him during a workshop in Hanoi in 2004. “If you think this job is all about glamour and rock’n’roll, you’re in the wrong profession,” says Lerma, paraphrasing the American photojournalist. “Banish that from your heads because what we do here is not easy.”


At the start of covering the drug war, Lerma didn’t expect the number of deaths he would encounter. Mondays used to be a very busy night for some reason. “Some [journalists], alam na nila ‘yung pattern, hindi na pupunta sa ibang days. Some would say, ‘Kahit Monday lang kayo pumunta maraming mangyayari diyan.’ Dati mga two to three months gano’n, puro Monday. Sa ibang days, isa, dalawa, pero ‘pag Monday hindi bababa ng lima.” He remembers one evening when he photographed about eight dead bodies. “Mababaliw ka kung saan ka pupunta eh,” he says. “It’s impossible to cover them all.”


Nothing could have prepared him for his third night on the shift. At a crime scene, a pair of scissors were used to remove the tape wrapped around a dead man’s head. “Gugupitin nila ‘yung tape para makita ‘yung mukha,‘di ba?” Lerma explains. Using his long lens, he focused on the face—although he rarely shoots a face in close up. “Pagtanggal ng tape, nakatingin sa’kin yung bangkay,” he recalls. “Talagang nangilabot ako. I felt na naramdaman ko kung anong naramdaman niya nung time na pinapatay siya. Binabalot ka, nawawalan ka ng ilaw, yung parang binabaon ka sa hukay.”


There was also that time when a body was lying on its stomach, its head wrapped in tape. When the body was turned over to lie on its back, he was greeted by a smiley drawn on the tape that covered the head. “Parang naka-smile sa amin,” the photographer relates. “Yung iba sa amin napamura eh. May isang babaeng tumili. Sobrang vile ng pakiramdam. Pinatay na nga, pinaglaruan pa. Pinagkatuwaan pa.”


Like many photojournalists covering wars and disasters, there are days when Lerma feels like a vulture: that he’s just out there to take a photograph for tomorrow’s news, that he’s making a living off of people’s tragedies. It doesn’t help that on top of dealing with the limitations of their job, they are accused of painting a bad image of the country—or worse, and very characteristic of how low and unlearned the blows online have become, that they are supposedly being paid for it by anti-administration groups.


Lerma could just easily cover another beat—he’s covered lifestyle before, fashion (“Mukha ba akong fashionista?” he asks)—but he wanted to stay in the graveyard shift, along with, as he once said in his Instagram feed, the “company of journalists who share the same passion and commitment.” Yes, he can take decent pictures of food and clothes. He’s been a roving photographer in the afternoon shift, been assigned to the beat of a certain area like Quezon City. They’re all part of the reality of being a staff photographer. “You cover one story to the next and sometimes you don’t even know anymore what you’re covering. You click, you look for photos, but can you talk about it? I can tell you small details.”


But the government’s drug war he feels he has a strong grasp of, its ins and outs, its patterns. “Documenting the nightly executions, hearing the victims’ families and helping out in whatever way we can is what I believe is important,” he once wrote. He has come to know some of the victims’ families enough that he has been asked to be a ninong sa binyag. The past months has left indelible images in his mind, exposed him to brutalities (he once witnessed a policeman threaten someone who was arrested, “Putangina ka, papatayin kita ngayon, buti na lang andito ‘yung photographer”), and raised questions about his countrymen. “Fuck, ganito na tayo?”


Over the last few months, a few things have changed in the EJK front. The noise on the killings have subsided. “Meron pa din, definitely, marami pa rin pinapatay vigilante-style. Pero with police operations I feel now na marami na silang hinuhuli ngayon.” The police’s attitude toward journalists has also changed. “They let us shoot from behind the police lines but of course mas ramdam namin ‘yung restrictions. Mas malayo kami mag-cover. Less na yung tips.”


Lerma doesn’t go to the nightly coverage that much anymore the last time we saw him (he started his freelance life in late June) but that does not mean he’s abandoned the issue altogether. When we spoke in early April for this story, in a restaurant at Capital Commons near where he lives, he was thinking of focusing his attention on the precinct jails where the arrested pushers and dealers are brought, even as he was already about to begin documentation work on the rehabilitation program that the Argentinian priest Fr. Luciano Felloni set up in Caloocan for drug addicts who surrender to police. Lerma will still be wearing the hat of the photojournalist, of course, a job he has accepted will be his lifelong career. “Hindi ka yayaman niyan,” we chide him. “Alam ko. At least mayaman ako sa kuwento.”

As it nears midnight, the party at Oarhouse draws to a close, but not after each photograph is taken down from the walls. Of the show, Ben Razon, who runs the bar and was himself a photojournalist back in the day, wrote as a sort of exhibition note, “For young but veteran photojournalists such as Raffy Lerma, it has been a thankless task to be witness to murders, which, rightly or wrongly, points to a much deeper and dysfunctional problem of how justice has long been administered in this country. But this [show] is not about the politics or the cause of anyone. For this group, it is about remembering why they became journalists and photographers in the first place.”


It is clear to Lerma that the local coverage has been effective in telling the story of the pitfalls of Duterte’s war on drugs, and that it made a great impact in the national consciousness, apart from successfully restoring the once diminishing value and importance of photojournalism in Philippine media. It is the photographs, too, and the stories behind them, that sent foreign news outfits flying in to the country to take their own pictures and tell their own story of the killings to the international audience. In Lerma’s words, it was the Filipino photojournalist that started the fire. “And we know that when they leave, tayo pa rin maiiwan dito, and we have to continue,” says Lerma. “‘Di pa tapos e. ‘Di pa tapos.”


It is not the last time the pictures from the Oarhouse show will see the light of day, it turns out. One of Lerma’s comrades, Ciriaco “Brother Jun” Santiago of the Redemptorists who works with a church organization in Baclaran, is taking them to the United Nations office in Geneva. As the photographers and guests make their way out to pay the evening’s tabs, we sit across Lerma watching the pictures that have been mounted on foam boards pile up neatly on one of the bar’s tables. They are eventually wrapped together on hard paper like some gift package.


As goodbyes are said, and last orders taken, Lerma looks at the bundle of photographs for a while as he holds his bottle of light beer, very likely hopeful that wherever they go, they will tell the stories they need to tell.