- Raffy Lermaaward-winning photojournalist who has documented President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”
President Donald Trump’s five-nation tour of Asia will include a stop in the Philippines to meet with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been overseeing a controversial “war on drugs.” Since Duterte was elected in 2016, more than 7,000 people have been extrajudicially killed by police or vigilantes. While human rights groups have condemned Duterte, he has received backing from Trump, who invited Duterte to visit the White House. Human Rights Watch slammed the invitation, saying, “Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.” We speak with Raffy Lerma, an award-winning photojournalist who has documented Duterte’s “war on drugs.” He describes his work and the situation in the Philippines and says he hopes Trump will address the deadly crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. President Trump’s five-nation tour of Asia will include a stop in the Philippines to attend a summit meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Manila and to meet with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who’s been overseeing a bloody “war on drugs.” On Thursday, Duterte gave a defiant speech to promote his drug war ahead of the summit, and used obscene language to hit back at critics of his deadly drugs crackdown. Since Duterte was elected in 2016, more than 7,000 people have been extrajudicially killed by police or vigilantes. While human rights groups have condemned Duterte, he has received backing from President Trump, who invited Duterte to the White House. Human Rights Watch slammed the invitation by saying, “By effectively endorsing Duterte’s murderous 'war on drugs,' Trump has made himself morally complicit in future killings.”
Well, I recently sat down with Raffy Lerma, an incredibly brave, award-winning photojournalist who has documented Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Raffy Lerma is usually based in the Philippines, but he was in New York to discuss his work. A Huffington Post profile described one of Lerma’s nights on the job like this: quote, “Photographer Raffy Lerma was only a few minutes into the overnight shift for the Philippine Daily Inquirer when he received word that three bodies had been found on the streets of Manila. Out he went to capture the image. Then there was a drug bust, and a few hours later an extrajudicial killing. It was his first night back on the shift, and he was shocked by the rate the calls were coming in.”
Well, a warning to our viewers: Many of Raffy Lerma’s images show graphic violence.
I began by asking him to describe what’s happening in the Philippines right now.
RAFFY LERMA: It’s really overwhelming, what’s happening in the Philippines right now. There, close to 14,000 people have been killed in this—the name of the drug war, and 4,000 of which have been claimed by police in police operations. They claim that they have killed 4,000 people. And the rest are unexplained killings, those they say that are deaths under investigation. And some of them are the vigilante killings. And, well, yes, so many people have been killed.
AMY GOODMAN: One of Raffy Lerma’s most famous photographs documents President Duterte’s “war on drugs,” showing a woman, Jennilyn Olayres, grieving as she cradles the lifeless body of her husband, Michael Siaron. Next to him is a sign, left by his killers, that reads, “I am a drug pusher. Do not copy.” Raffy, your photo is known as the “Pieta,” “Pieta” image, because it echoes the Pieta sculpture in the Vatican that shows the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. Talk about the night that you took this photograph.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, I could remember still what happened that night. We came from another crime scene. Actually, he was—Michael Siaron was the third killing that night, out of four. And I could already see that there was a strong picture. It’s rarely you see a family member inside the police cordon and beside the victim. And she was holding onto her partner, Michael Siaron. And when I—later on, I interviewed Jennilyn Olayres, and she told me she wanted to feel if the body of Michael Siaron was still hot or warm, if he was still alive. And also, I could remember still how she was telling us to stop taking pictures and just to help them.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel about that?
RAFFY LERMA: To be honest, like a vulture.
AMY GOODMAN: You felt like a vulture?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes. And we were preying on the—taking the pictures. And we couldn’t do anything. And, well, I have to do my job, but it was really—you know, you felt you wanted to do something more, but you also have to do your job.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does Jennilyn feel now about this picture you took that has become so famous? She has become this image very much showing the pain of what is happening. I mean, you’re talking about what? Like more than 10 people killed on average every night. And we’re talking about by police, by vigilantes, all coordinated in this “war on drugs” that is coordinated by the president of your country, the Philippines, Duterte.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, it’s hard to speak for Jennilyn. I’m still in contact with her and her family. But she would rather not remember it and remember what happened that night. She wants to, of course, forget about it and move on. But still, it’s hard.
AMY GOODMAN: Did she tell you about Michael and who he was?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes, of course. And I remember, too, that—I think it was four days later—I went to the wake of Michael Siaron. And first, the family members were hesitant for letting media into the wake, because, first, of course, what happened that night had been—kind of they were feasted upon, everyone taking their pictures, and film crews.
AMY GOODMAN: And it came about because of your photograph, which Duterte specifically addressed.
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, you got to him.
RAFFY LERMA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Because you captured what is happening on his streets with his own so-called law enforcement forces. He called your photograph overly dramatic and criticized it as fake?
RAFFY LERMA: Yes, he did mention it in the State of the Nation address. He did mention that. He said it was overly dramatic, and you’re being portrayed like a Mother Mary and Jesus Christ. I really felt sorry for Jennilyn Olayres and the family of Michael Siaron, because they were already grieving, and he should have given them that dignity already, for me. But the second part is, I think—I’m not sure, again, with the word, if I was vindicated that the photo was mentioned during the State of the Nation address, but it reached the person who had to be reached. It was the president. And now people began talking about the drug war and the killings.
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump, visiting the Philippines. Trump shocked many when he talked about his admiration for Duterte. I want to go to a clip of Philippines President Duterte, in his own words. Last September, Duterte likened himself to Hitler.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million—what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: Philippines President Duterte. Your thoughts on what he said, talking about Hitler and more?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, if they’re not owning up to these killings, I don’t know what. I mean, he’s the president. And saying this does not help in solving the killings. He’s instigating. He’s promoting it.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have our president, the president of the United States, President Trump, who seemed to endorse the so-called war on drugs of Duterte. Duterte, who spoke with Trump by telephone, said Trump was “quite sensitive” to “our worry about drugs.” “He wishes me well,” said Duterte, “in my campaign … [H]e said … we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way.”
And I want to share with you the words of President Trump: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said in an April 29th phone call, according to a leaked transcript of the conversation with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte published by The Intercept and also obtained by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Trump said, “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that,” President Trump said.
RAFFY LERMA: Well, sorry to say this, but I hope this—what’s happening in the Philippines does not happen here. If he’s—if they’re solving the drug problem this way and killing people, I hope it does not happen in America.
AMY GOODMAN: And what thoughts do you have on President Trump coming to meet the Philippines president, Duterte?
RAFFY LERMA: Well, I hope that he is more aware of what the human rights situation is happening in the Philippines. And it should be addressed. He’s the leader of the free world. He should set an example. And I hope he says something about it now.
AMY GOODMAN: Raffy Lerma, award-winning photojournalist based in Manila, Philippines, where he was a staff photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He has been documenting the government’s “war on drugs,” now a freelance photographer. President Trump is set to meet with Philippines President Roderigo Duterte this weekend, during his five-nation tour of Asia, which includes a stop in the Philippines to attend a summit meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Manila. Since Duterte has taken office last year, 7,000 people have been killed by police and vigilantes in his so-called war on drugs.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, as we head off to Bonn, Germany, for the U.N. climate summit. Stay with us.