THE DRUG WAR’S VISUAL REGIME
In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was buoyed into the Philippine presidency through a campaign that maximized the use of online, digital platforms. For a seventy-one-year-old candidate with no social media account 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 demands the creation of copious amounts of eye-catching content. This success was propped by an organized team of advertising and public relations 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 trolls.
With the presidency in the bag, the slew of online dominance from rabid followers continued. On one hand, supporters shared and bolstered posts, comments, hashtags, and images in praise of Duterte, and on the other, attacked actual or perceived political opponents. The armory of images, content, and abuse kept at a relentless pace. Then it was payback time. Influencers who had been supportive of Duterte during his run were hired in government posts and contracts. 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, seeing the online world as a critical area where it can 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. As his predecessor monopolized the yellow 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. However, any absence from the public eye similarly incites rumor and controversy. His most recent public disappearance—made stranger by the release of grainy, night-time videos as proof of life—straddles 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. This has led to comparisons with the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who lied about his deteriorating health as he continued to cling to power.
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 with alarm 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. In the drug war, photojournalists played a crucial part in documenting the ravaged bodies of supposed drug peddlers that counted as its victims. The victims were often poor and of the unwashed masses. However, images of the corpses—described by Vicente Rafael as the “fearsome signs” of the sovereign’s extralegal power and indomitable will— has not quite led to a straightforward incitement of public outrage, as hoped. At times, the photographs inspired mere passivity, fear, or acceptance of the project’s success.
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,” here, the state agents, with Duterte at the helm, are the ones rendered criminally monstrous. As Duterte’s promise to rid the nation of drug lords, pushers, and users in the first six months of his administration started to fail, it mutated. Almost by design, the bloodlust of the drug war turned into the targeted killings of human rights defenders and the extrajudicial killings (EJK) of lawyers and anyone Duterte deemed criminal, in particular local government officials.
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.
In the early years of the Duterte presidency, photographic images of the drug war often showed the outcome of drug operations. The sequence of events that led to the outcome were understandably left in the dark, allowing the state agents to write the now common script that the suspect attempted a fatal assault on them, forcing them to retaliate and kill the suspect. This entrenched the “nanlaban” narrative. An excuse for murder that also entails manufacturing and planting pieces of evidence, from shabu sachets to guns. These pre-pandemic works explicitly point to the perpetrators and their motivations, while also foregrounding the catalyst that emboldened state agents.
“gg” by Tarantadong Kalbo
“Nanlaban the Movie” by Tarantadong Kalbo
Captured videos of police killings have drawn the ire of a restless public that were already grappling with the economic effects of a pandemic. In as much as recent patterns of abuse and corruption are understood from the template of Oplan Tokhang, they may also open an avenue for the reassessment of the Drug War. The recent push for the acquisition and use of body cams in police operations is illustrative of the ways in which their actions, and the Drug War itself, are construed in the realm of the visual.
“Within Arms Reach” by Electromilk
It seems that all roads lead to Malacanang. Throughout his presidency, Duterte has had no qualms in proclaiming his desire to rid the country of suspected drug pushers and users through mass killings. In these set of images, Duterte is rendered as perpetrator, enabler, and figurehead.
“Murderer” by Andoyman
“Rest Assured” by Marx Fidel
At a time when endless new emergencies distract from older issues, and in online spaces where it is far too easy to shuttle to the next viral topic, the importance of cohering events into a narrative acquires importance. In surfacing larger issues and establishing links, artists attempt to channel and make sense of collective anger, fear, but also, of hope. In the last image, a yearning for justice is evoked.
“No to EJK” by Andoyman