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.”

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.





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.






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



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.



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



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


Repurposing Street Photography and other ramblings…

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


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


Dateline: Tacloban, Six months after Typhoon Haiyan

It’s been quite a while since I have revisited typhoon devastated Tacloban City. I was hoping on documenting it’s rise from devastation.
A couple of weeks back, just before the 6 month after typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) struck and destroyed a large swath of the area, I was commissioned to do some video work for the UN’s Farm and Agriculture Organization. Below is the finished short.

May 2014
Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) hit the central Philippines on 8 November 2013, destroying some 600 000 hectares of farmland and leaving tens of thousands of farmers without a source of income, severely threatening their food security.

Thanks to an immediate response by the international community, the Department of Agriculture and FAO were able to assist tens of thousands of rice farmers quickly restore and replant their devastated fields in the wake of the disaster, working closely with the national government at all levels. Within weeks of the disaster, FAO, the Department of Agriculture and their partners, began distributing certified rice seeds and urea fertilizer to severely affected farmers, reaching 80 000 families in time for the December/January planting season.

Some have already gathered their crops, others will be doing so over the coming weeks and into early June, giving farmers hope for the future and kick-starting their recovery.

– See more at:

Hot Summer Nights

hot summer nights
A woman sits by a main road beside her cart full of recyclable materials. Taken with a Fujifilm XPro-1 with a Voigtlander Nokton 35mm Classic lens.

I started using my M-mount lenses on the Xpro-1 so I had my 35mm Nokton Classic cleaned and calibrated so I can use it for poor lighting conditions as a normal lens owing to the 1.5 crop on the XPro-1’s APS-C sized sensor.

Nightfall:Tomas Morato Ave.
Nightfall:Tomas Morato Ave.

Getting inspired

Whenever I go out hunting for images on the street, I don’t really have a planned theme…Street photography for me is supposed to be spontaneous or unplanned..the fun of it is when moments or a unique vignette of a scene pops out from your visual landscape. Themes and projects are for the photojournalistic side of my brain. Street photography allows me to wear a different hat. to have the luxury of being able to shoot freely and without pressure from paid assignments.
Most of the time, you lose your touch …and that is the main reason why photography has to be a passion, a lifestyle…It is and should be a part of my daily life, otherwise I suffer from a “visual block”.
Today I started out by visiting The San Sebastian church, where i sat down, absorbed the tranquility and began to meditate, to thank God for pulling me out of evry predicament I thought I could not handle. Then I became aware of the surroundings and began to shoot.



San Sabastian Church 2014
San Sabastian Church 2014