Behind the Lens of Duterte’s Hell

 

 

Before directing Field of Vision’s latest film, “Duterte’s Hell,” with Aaron Goodman, Luis Liwanag worked as a photojournalist for local and foreign press in the Philippines. In the following essay, he reflects on his transition from taking still photographs to filmmaking, and what it was like to capture the horrors of President Duterte’s “war on drugs.

I discovered photography when I was 11. My family did not own a single camera, but our neighborhood sorbetero [ice cream vendor] had a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera and would take our family photos for us. I remember we had so many that when I opened my mother’s closet, dozens of photo albums would cascade down from the shelves. My dad, an artist and illustrator, kept stacks of old National Geographic, Time, and Life magazines tucked away in his filing cabinet. I bought my first camera at age 12: a Kodak Instamatic. I guess you could say I was destined to be in this line of work.

As a kid, I would just snap pictures of my friends in school. As an adult, being a photographer has given me the power to make observations about daily life in my country and voice my opinion on certain issues.

When President Rodrigo Duterte came into power, the rampage of extrajudicial killings started. My fellow journalists were covering the night shifts at the police headquarters. Reports would come in—either from radio dispatch or via Twitter—and they would travel to crime scenes in convoys. It was only a matter of time before I decided to started going with them, to see the effects of Duterte’s war on drugs for myself.

A mother cries for her dead son, who was shot dead inside an apartment during a police operation. She claims her son is not a drug pusher and was actually helping the police as an informer. Luis Liwanag

Shooting this and other documentaries has been transformative experience for me. When working as a hired photojournalist, I didn’t really set up my shots—I just filmed whatever is happening right in front of me.

And as I witnessed the aftermath of the slayings, I felt like I was reconnecting to my old self. I was a police beat photographer at the onset of my career, but later shifted to more varied issues and mainstream news coverage. I became focused on issues dictated by the editorial policies of media entities that employed me.

Now, as a freelancer—and particularly with this film—I’ve had the leeway to choose stories that I feel I can interpret better visually. And although the nightly spate of killings numbed me in some ways, I felt for the people directly or indirectly affected by them.

An elderly woman is comforted by her relatives after witnessing her son dead on the pavement in a dark alley in Tondo, Manila. Luis Liwanag

A couple of months into photographing the killings in Manila and its surrounding metro area, Aaron Goodman, an educator and video journalist whom I had worked with previously, saw my images on social media and asked me if I was interested in collaborating with him on a video documentary about Duterte’s drug war.

A suspected drug user lies dead on the ground in Tondo, Manila. Witnesses say he was shot in the face by masked men. Luis Liwanag

While filming, we had to maintain a low-key lighting style, and only expose for the midtones. I wanted to be unobtrusive and invisible while shooting the events so that we left as few traces of ourselves as possible.

Bodies of several young men lie inside a house on Agham Road in Quezon City after they allegedly shot back at police operative during an alleged drug raid. Luis Liwanag

Police flaslights reveal a dead body found during an investigation of a crime scene in Mandaluyong City. The killing was allegedly perpetrated by masked vigilantes who hogtied the victim before he was shot. Luis Liwanag

We had a limited amount of time to set up each shot. When you’re filming events as they unfold, you don’t really have control over what is going to happen. You have to visualize the image in your mind’s eye beforehand, and shoot whatever occurs in the moment.

While filming, we were very attuned to the sounds, textures, emotions and details of each scene. My approach was to linger in a single framed shot as if it was a single image and slowly transition into another well-composed frame and capture the entire story happening between those frames.

Although I am an advocate of still photographs and what photography great Henri Cartier- Bresson calls “the decisive moment,” I have discovered that video, though more fleeting, can be equally powerful in stringing together single images to make a powerful statement.

See Goodman and Liwanag’s film here:

To see more work by Luis Liwanag, visit his website here.

Duterte’s Hell

Now, a new film shows the human toll of Duterte’s campaign. “Duterte’s Hell,” by Aaron Goodman and Luis Liwanag and produced with the documentary unit Field of Vision, shows graphic images of Philippine police examining and carting off dead bodies, and grieving communities struggling to cope with the government-sanctioned murders.

In 2016, Duterte campaigned on a policy of mass extermination for anyone involved in the drug trade — not only drug traffickers, but addicts as well. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” Duterte said in September. “Now there is 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Join Us: A Baguio Workshop Weekend

 

Photos: Luis Liwanag
Photo: Luis Liwanag

A few years back, the ‘WIDE OPEN STREETS WORKSHOP’ trooped to the summer city of Baguio to walk up and down it’s sloping streets and shoot the vibrant and diverse life that it offered. The ‘WOW’ as we fondly call it is a Street Photography workshop that I formed with some friends about six years ago. I have been facilitating the workshop ever since and it is now about to have it’s 48th batch of participants and what better way but to return to the city I have come to love since I was a kid.

The activity in Baguio spurred an exhibit and the following images made it .An eclectic collection of the daily life in the streets of Baguio.

Photos:
Photos: Arianne Olegario
Photos:
Photos: Bob Manzano
Photos:
Photos: Ray Panaligan
Photos:
Photos: Cha Malazarte
Photos:
Photos:Chris Quintana
Photos:
Photos: Clifford Nunez
Photos:
Photos: Darwin Villanueva
Photos:
Photo: Dave Leprozo Jr.
Photo: Egay Aguilar
Photo: Egay Aguilar
Photo by: Garu
Photo by: Garu
Photo: Jennifer Lie
Photo: Jennifer Lie
Photo: Jo Santos
Photo: Jo Santos
Photo: Johann Guasch
Photo: Johann Guasch
Photo: Jun DIestro
Photo: Jun DIestro
Photo: Kimmy Baraoidan
Photo: Kimmy Baraoidan
Photo:Maike Domingo
Photo:Maike Domingo
Photo:Marko Matillano
Photo:Marko Matillano
Photo:Michael Olivares
Photo:Michael Olivares
Photo:Rocel Ann Junio
Photo:Rocel Ann Junio
Photo:Spot Marasigan
Photo:Spot Marasigan
Photo:Aura Sevilla
Photo:Aura Sevilla
Photo: Venus Liwanag
Photo: Venus Liwanag
Photo:WIng Luna
Photo:WIng Luna

Watch out for the Baguio Workshop Weekend! For those interested, you can register now by emailing me at luis.liwanag@gmail.com or text and call me +639194852870

Continuing Saga; Dead Men Walking , Walking Dead, and Playing Dead

Work in progress

 

A mother cries in anguish as she sees the lifeless body of his son who was seen walking aimlessly in the dark alleys of Tondo until he dropped dead in a gutter.Witnesses say  an unidentified assailant shot him several times in the body.

 

 

 

 

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Handcuffed men wait to be processed after they were caught peddling drugs during a buy-bust operation in Caloocan City. A total of 3 suspected drug peddlers were shot dead and 3 men arrested during the night operation.

 

 

drugwar_luis_liwanag-95

 

 

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A drug peddler lay dead with his alleged weapon after a brief chase near the railroad tracks in Caloocan City

 

 

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A Scene of the Crime Operative (SOCO) process a dead suspects body in the university belt area. He was accosted for urinating in a public place and engaged policemen in alleged running gun battle.A sachet of suspected crystal meth (shabu) reportedly fell from one of his pockets later.

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Local and international journalists covering the nightly events related to the drug wars of President Rodrigo Duterte.

 

 

 

Change has finally come to our land…but is it good?

 

Dateline Manila: September 2016. A few months back, before Rodrigo Duterte had even assumed office as President of the Republic, lifeless bodies started appearing daily like clockwork signalling the start of the anti drug-war in the country. I detached myself from reliving my days of ambulance-chasing and felt numbed from the outgoing and  the new leadership’s promises, so I temporarily restrained myself from chronicling the events.

Dead on the streets have become a daily or nightly occurence and all are allegedly drug-related
Dead on the streets have become a daily or nightly occurence and all are allegedly drug-related
A distraught mother breaks down upon learning the death of her son, an alleged drug user.
A distraught mother breaks down upon learning the death of her son, an alleged drug user.

 

In the early days of my career as a news photographer, I was almost a fulltime resident in  Manila’s police headquarters. I spent days and nights covering the police beat as a stringer for a newspaper.I slept in a couch at the press office behind the reception desk of the then Western police headquarters. Documenting daily ocurrences of human misdeeds and tragedy can creep in your system and it wasn’t too long before all kinds of quirky things started happening as I walk the streets of the metro, a habit that was special to me because I loved documenting daily life on the streets in my free time. In one of my walks, a group of men started fighting and stabbing each other with forks and spoons…one time as I sit calmly in a bus, the engine would burst in flames in front of me. One night as I went home past midnight while I was distraught with some office problems, I accidentally boarded a jeepney which was about to be held up. My instincts signaled me that something was wrong but it didn’t sink in enough as my mind was deeply preoccupied. luckily, the hold-up men were professionals and I was able to put across that I was from the ‘PRESS’ and my gear didn’t belong to me so they let me go…but not without giving them my watch. The cameras ,two-way radio were all spared from their crime as I jumped out of the jeepney when they made a detour into ome of the dimly-lit side streets in Espana in Manila.

Manila, 2016: It finally dawned on me that the killings related to the Duterte’s drugwars is a significant point in history that I could not miss specially when the only thing I know well (photojournalism) is being questioned or branded as destabilizing the country. So I dusted off my beaten camera gear and started hanging out with the other journalists maintaining their nightly vigil at the Manila Police Department Press office.

Fellow photographers huddle near a crime scene, planning the next move
Fellow photographers huddle near a crime scene, planning the next move

There is a saying about photojournalists when I was just starting out that goes “We don’t take sides, we only take pictures”. Maybe that is partly true because ‘news’ is supposed to be based on truth and facts. Things have changed and in my journey as a photojournalist and a documentary photographer, I knew and felt from deep inside my heart that images should be compelling, provocative and to somehow spark changes in our lives. Every photograph is a reflection of the person who captured it. there will never be identical images from every photographer even if they were all herded together in one spot looking at one subject. Working on my own and without commisioned assignments, I am more free to post images with just simple captions or datelines…It is difficult to verbalize every image that I capture because not all of them are literal…sometimes my images are just abstractions of what is happening before me.

A heavily armored policeman watches over the police lines
A heavily armored policeman watches over the police lines

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Two more dead bodies; buy bust victims who allegedly attempted to escape

I try to go and cover whatever unfolds for the night and shoot it and approach it clearing any biases I have . No image is ever objective but on this personal project, I am being careful not to add or remove anything from the visual landscape and let  who ever views them to complete the  equation on their own. The narratives will unfold with the passage of each night.

Next: Continuing saga

 

Wide Open Workshops XLVI

DIscussions at Ramsey's Farm (photo by Egay Aguilar
DIscussions at Ramsey’s Farm (photo by Egay Aguilar)

After meeting early in Quiapo, the group walked around Sta.Cruz and ended up in Binondo to have a hearty lunch at the photographer’s favourite  pokestop, Wai Ying . Needless to say that the place is part of the ritual to taking good street photographs.The following are excerpts from the two-day activity. The workshop aims to enhance the way photographers look for pictures.

photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo
photo by Mai Calapardo

 

photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia

ronnieday01-3

photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia
photo by Ronnie Garcia

Repurposing Street Photography and other ramblings…

isis_45th-11
photo by: Isis Liwanag

Since Street Photography  has evolved from the classic to the contemporary form as it is now known, it is then safe to say that the genre is in flux.

The traditional SP that we have come to recognize as leaning on the edge of Art and Documentary is now  undergoing a gradual process of transformation. I for one have slowly veered towards injecting my own sensibilities and beliefs into the genre (I call it a genre but is a debatable term). I myself have failed to come up with a definition for Street Photography so whenever I discuss it among my students in the” Wide Open Streets Workshop” or “Wide Open Workshops in Street Photography”  I always explain it to them in 1001 different ways evry time.

I started out as a photojournalist shooting general and spot news in the early 80’s and in between these assignments, we fill the gaps by engaging myself in long walks around the city and shoot what was popularly called as ” Human Interest”. An old term for a category that is now known as “Daily Life”. which is a lighter a  lighter, feature type of photography showcasing facets of life in the streets. As we know, humans can display a wide variety of notable activity and the photographer has the power to capture them in equally limitless ways. The photographs then become documents of history, social change, and or personal expressions without any public ambitions .

At this point, it is important to also mention that Street Photography has also given birth to different schools of thought and styles…personally, I believe that SP need not be just derivatives of the old and classic images…everyday we must strive to find new imagery and directions. The unbelievable and dizzying surge in digital technology and the real time postings on social media have given birth to the photographers in all of us. We are all photographers now. When we were just starting out, you can even count the practitioners by hand.

Enough with these random ramblings for now..what I am really trying to say is that in my next workshop on August 27-28 2016, I would be trying to discuss how to repurpose Street Photography and veer in different directions.

SP as a tool to record:

  •  Changes in social conditions
  • an expression of  Defiance and or Resistance (political or ideological)
  • Intellectual and pure artistic expression
  • Critique of society
  • Propaganda

I am not trying to revolutionize Street Photography but will try to make it more relevant to the change that has been promised by our leaders.

Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro

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Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro
Participant to the WIde Open Streets Workshop on Street Photography as they go for a field shoot in various places in the metro