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BLOG: Panel - The Streets Don't Forget: Photojournalism and Creative Research on the Philippine Drug War

last modified Jul 29, 2019 04:49 PM
Kiara van Hout, Law (Tripos), member of CGHR's Student Group wrote about the panel "The Streets Don't Forget: Photojournalism and Creative Research on the Philippine Drug War" with Raffy Lerma, Ica Fernandez and Inez Feria

On Tuesday the 26thof February, the Centre for Governance and Human Rights was privileged to welcome Raffy Lerma, Ica Fernandez and Inez Feria to a panel titled ‘The Streets Don’t Forget: Photojournalism and Creative Research’. These three entrepreneurial advocates are each, through their diverse professional backgrounds, seeking to combat the grave repercussions of the Philippine drug war, which has resulted in thousands ofdeaths since President Rodrigo Duterte launched the ‘all-out-war’ in 2016.

Raffy Lerma, an award-winning photojournalist, has been covering the violence since its earliest days. The media have dubbed journalists and photographers like Raffy the ‘nightcrawlers’, a sensationalist label stripped straight from Hollywood but with little resemblance to the grim realities of their work. The group, mostly composed of freelancers, obtain tip-offs about the extra-judicial killings, most of which happen at night, from a range of sources: journalists, citizens, social media, and even police who are proud of their work. Raffy and his colleagues work from dusk until dawn to document the crimes, many of which would otherwise be ignored by the media. 

Raffy’s images are powerful and confronting, humanising the victims and their loved ones in the face of a prominent culture of normalisation of the violence. Yet his work has been repeatedly criticised and denigrated: his photos have been described as fake or staged, and work like his is accused of aiming to destabilise the country through negative portrayals. When Raffy’s photo of a woman embracing her partner, who had been shot and killed by gunmen on motorcycles because of his alleged involvement in pushing drugs, appeared on the front cover of the Philippine Sunday Enquirer, it prompted a nationwide conversation about the significance and veracity of the photo and the extent of the killings, even eliciting a (derisory) mention in Duterte’s State of the Union speech. ‘I was bothered in some ways because they were destroying my credibility as a photographer,’ Raffy remarks. Yet he is not easily deterred: ‘You really have to go out and… defend the truth.’ By documenting the reality of the violence and its disproportionate impact on the vulnerable and ‘disposable’ urban poor, Raffy seeks to spark conversation and societal change. Raffy has kindly allowed CGHR to display some of his images, which can be visited in the CGHR office. 

Ica Fernandez is an urban planner and independent researcher whose work is bringing together an unlikely couple: academic research and hip hop. Ica and her fellow researchers aim to create policy change by producing hard data, and their work maps the impact of the killings on local communities that are already vulnerable to a host of problems such as poverty, housing instability and climate change. Their research has highlighted the serious damage to families when a breadwinner is lost to the drug war, leaving behind a generation of children raised by widows or grandmothers. In thinking about how to use these findings for social change, Ica and the team at Sandata have been searching for alternatives to peer-reviewed journal articles, which are slow to produce and can be extractive vis-à-vis  the local communities that are their subjects.

Thus, a more immediate means of getting the message out at a grassroots-level is needed, and the solution came in the form of artistic collaboration. Sandata have worked with local artists, photographers, video game programmers and musicians to disseminate the findings of their research in a manner accessible to the urban poor affected by the drug war. They host gigs with hip hop artists in bars and community spaces, raising awareness as well as money to support families affected. As Ica astutely observes, the fight against the drug war takes many forms, and this ingenious collaboration between the artistic and the academic is proving a powerful way of educating and giving back to the very communities most affected by the crisis.

Inez Feria is founder of NoBox Philippines, a non-profit organisation pushing for more compassionate drug policies based on harm reduction, human rights and social justice. Even prior to the drug war, stigma and misleading preconceptions were deeply embedded in the way people thought about those who use drugs. Through her work with NoBox, Inez seeks to create a space for a more accurate conversation about drug use. She notes that her work often involves taking a step back and unpacking internalised ideas about drugs and their users. ‘How can you talk about human rights if they don’t think [drug addicts] deserve them?’ she points out.

NoBox has worked with local government officials to develop programs that do not focus exclusively on eliminating drug use, but also vitally on understanding the reasons why people turn to drugs. Furthermore, they seek to make programs that are more accessible to those who need them, bringing programs into communities to cut travel costs and promoting out-of-hours schemes for workers. They have also helped to support teachers who lack the training to give mandatory drug education, and provide information about harm reduction to national agencies like the Departments of Education and Health. By building a mass base of support for more compassionate and better-informed drug policies, Inez and NoBox seek to prevent something like the drug war from happening again in the future.

The Centre for Governance and Human Rights would like to warmly thank Raffy Lerma, Ica Fernandez and Inez Feria for sharing their innovative responses to the drug war. The panel was a poignant reminder that human rights advocacy comes in diverse forms, and that people with any professional background or skillset can contribute to remedying the injustices around them.


More information:

SANDATA - The power of data and the need for collaboration across different fields in beginning to understand, resist, and respond to the ongoing Philippine Drug War

Article released on the role of local government officials in the Philippines co-written with Mix, Abbey. Illustrations AJ Bernardo, Josel Nicolas, and Miguel Punzalan. This is supported by the PCIJ Story Project.

Full hip-hop concept album on the Philippine War on Drugs, Kolateral (English translations and partial policy annotations can be found here)

Article on the hip-hop concept album Kolateral: ''Rap group slashes drug war numbers to highlight human suffering''