The photograph | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

The photograph

The banner photograph of the Inquirer last Sunday drew a negative off-the-cuff remark from President Duterte. He showed he was pissed off when he ditched the teleprompter and ad-libbed during his first State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Monday and dwelled on his favorite subject: his war on drugs that, during his 25 days in office, has seen more than 100—and counting—blown to kingdom come.

Many were reportedly killed during shoot-outs and drug busts, while the rest were killed by unknown persons, their bullet-riddled bodies dumped on the wayside. Others were found wrapped in plastic or inside sacks, head and arms tightly taped. Some were found with a sign bearing a message: drug pusher, huwag tularan (do not be like them).


The Commission on Human Rights is very busy indeed, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism that is following up the cases.

During his Sona Duterte said a newspaper had come out with a photo of a woman and a corpse made to look like Mother Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ. He must have been thinking of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It was as if this broadsheet was calling for sympathy for what he considered the scum of society that needed to be eliminated through fair means or foul—and why should anyone care?


His words: “Eh tapos nandiyan ka nakabulagta and you are portrayed in a broadsheet na parang Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ. Eh yan yang mga yan magda-dramahan tayo dito.”

The photo was taken by Inquirer photographer Raffy Lerma. It is a captivating image to behold, especially if one withholds judgment and simply looks at it without bias. Near the feet of the victim and the weeping woman is a piece of cardboard with the words “drug pusher.”

The caption was simple: “Lamentation: A weeping Jennelyn Olaires hugs partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver and alleged drug pusher, who was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen near Pasay Rotonda on Edsa. He was one of six killed in drug-related incidents in Pasay and Manila yesterday. (Story on Page A8.)”

Below that banner photo is the Sunday issue’s banner headline “Church: Thou shall not kill” with the subhead “Message to Duterte to coincide with Sona.” Well, Mr. Duterte was certainly pissed off. As always, with the Catholic Church.

The Philippine Sunday Inquirer (the word Sunday written in lovely font) front page is usually dedicated to good news and inspiring stories to give readers a breather, except when very important breaking news are anything but, and grim images that land on the news desk are so irresistible because they speak loudly.

Lerma’s photograph silently speaks. Luck, pluck, vigilance, readiness and talent synchronized to spring that photo opportunity that comes once in a rare while to a photojournalist who is constantly on the run. The photograph almost looks like an oil painting—with a burnished look of a Rembrandt, if I may say so. I don’t know how much, if at all, our art department enhanced the photo, but this “Pieta” certainly evokes thoughts and feelings.

The two figures look illumined in the middle of the blackness. While examining the image, I found interesting details: the word “drug” very small (I had to use a magnifying glass) and “pusher” big, the intricate tattoo on the weeping woman’s upper arm, her blue nail polish, the colorful fabric strewn on the concrete. The two figures have no footwear. I could not make out the signage behind. The face of the victim is not seen, only the back of his head. No blood is seen, only the sorrow on the face of the woman, Jennelyn.


What’s with that name? Years ago I did a piece (“Sad photograph”) on a photo of a teenage girl, an armed fighter of the New People’s Army who had survived an encounter with the military. (It was a front-page banner photo captioned “Still Life by a Soldier.”) A soldier found her wounded, all alone and seated among the ferns in the wilderness, and took her photo. Her name was Jenalyn.  All her comrades in arms had died.

I have not spoken with Lerma about the what, where, when and how of his photograph and to congratulate him. But here is Lynett Villariba of the Inquirer’s art department and her post on Facebook: “The final layout is a conspiracy of the universe. We have this banner story. The pic by Raffy Lerma lands on the news desk like it is beamed from heaven. No argument. No doubt. No-brainer. Even the printing cooperates. [News editor] Jun Engracia braces for the Pieta effect. And this is it.”

Chelo Banal-Formoso posted on Facebook: “‘Positive Sunday’ would have been a big lie if the Inquirer didn’t use this heart-wrenching photograph taken by Raffy Lerma… For many years now, ‘Positive Sunday’ has been the guiding light for the editorial team that works on the Sunday issue of the Inquirer, to make reading the newspaper a pleasant or more pleasant experience if only for a day. All week the team sets aside the positive news and feel-good features turned in by reporters and contributors for publication on Sunday.

“But the reality of Bloody Sunday was too compelling to ignore, as we can see in this photo and the story on the indiscriminate killings going on in our country.”

When US-based photographer Rick Rocamora gifted me with the huge book, “In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers,” he included a copy of a letter of photojournalist and Magnum founder George Rodger to his son Jonathan: “You look into the viewfinder and what you see there may be pretty and gay or it may be sad. Your heart may stand still for the horror of it or your eyes dim in pity or in shame. But it is all a reality and you must know what to do with it.”

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TAGS: drugs, Killings, photograph, Raffy Lerma, Rodrigo Duterte
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