In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was buoyed into the Philippine presidency by a campaign that maximized the use of online, digital platforms.1 For a candidate in his seventies with no social media accounts of his own, it was quite a feat. The online realm is highly visual and dynamic, structured as it is by an attention economy that necessitates the creation of copious amounts of eye-catching content. This success was propped by an organized team of advertising and PR strategists (with seemingly predatory instincts for virality and a knack in skewing the algorithm for their client’s advantage), an emerging breed of political influencers and commentators, and an army of part-time trolls.
After ascending to the highest political post in the country, the slew of online dominance from rabid followers continued. Supporters shared and bolstered posts, comments, hashtags, and images in praise of Duterte, on one hand, and attacks on actual and perceived political opponents, on the other. The armory of images, content, and abuse kept at a relentless pace. 5,6 At around the same time, influencers, who had been supportive of Duterte during his run, were hired in government posts and contracts.7 Here then was a form of governing that seemingly took the realm of digital images seriously. It invested and gleefully took part in the transaction of images, regarding the online world as a critical area in which it can continue to drum up support for various issues and personalities, while also reinforcing the State’s political power.
But perhaps this fascination with the visual can be partly attributed to the President himself. Duterte is a colorful character that demands public attention. Part comedic showman, part ruthless demagogue, his is a persona that lends itself towards hypervisibility, routinely stealing headlines and inciting extreme emotions with his antics, speeches, and gestures. In parallel to how his predecessor has monopolized a particular color, Duterte’s characteristic fist bump, reproduced in numerous stickers and images and invoked in numerous photo ops, has been utilized as a sign of political allegiance. Other personalities, perhaps wishing to ride the coattails of his social and political largesse, had made use of this gesture.8,9,10 However, any absence from the public eye similarly incites rumor and controversy.11,12,13 His most recent public disappearance— made stranger by the release of grainy, night-time videos as proof of life 14 (the person in the video donned a face mask and a face shield, and the lighting was insufficient at times, that theories abound as to whether it was Duterte or an actor) — straddle a kind of gray area in terms of visibility, wherein political intrigue, information blackout, and presidential responsibilities (or lack thereof) seem to come to a head.
Duterte’s electoral centerpiece and long-standing obsession, the Drug War, is similarly disposed to a regime of visuality. Support for it was aided by images and narratives of alleged crimes and victims of drug users, shared profusely by social media influencers and supporters. It did not matter that some of these images provided false information, the waves of content and attacks threatened to silence any form of disapproval or criticism.15,16 In the conduct of the War, photojournalists played a crucial part in documenting the ravaged bodies of supposed drug peddlers that counted as its victims. However, images of the corpses— described by Vicente Rafael as the “fearsome signs” of the sovereign’s extralegal power and indomitable will17— has not quite led to a straightforward incitement of public outrage, as hoped. Instead, the photographs have at times inspired mere passivity, fear, or acceptance of the project’s success.18
The works collected here take a slightly different tack. By no means comprehensive, they present ruptures in populist (and online) discourse which have legitimized images, policies, and utterances that rendered segments of the population as subhuman. In a reversal of those traditionally determined as ‘social enemies’,19 here it is State agents, with Duterte at the helm, that are rendered criminally monstrous. Highly political, these digital and editorial illustrations attempt to wrest meaning away from the sway of influencers, supporters, and trolls; and do so in the very same platforms in which these groups have dominated. The presentation of the works is an attempt to make legible and coherent a bloody war that has mostly unfolded in disparate corners, houses, and roads, and within the vicinities of urban poor communities, with an almost daily regularity. But the commensurate burden of transgression is shifted away from the victims. Instead, focus turns toward a far different set of personalities as visible targets, in the hopes that in doing so, condemnation and indignation can be further sharpened and channeled.