Dead Serious by Raffy Lerma

I have seen death many times in my work as a photographer, but the daily sight of suffering can take its toll. You shoot, as is expected of you, but every click of the shutter chips away at your humanity.

There was a body dumped on a dimly lit street corner in Sampaloc, Manila. The man’s head was wrapped in packaging tape, his hands bound with rope and his chest marked with multiple stab wounds.

Cardboard justice

As the coroner slowly removed the packaging tape from the corpse’s head, I saw the nameless man’s dying expression. He was obviously gasping for air, struggling for life in his last moments.

It was a most inhuman way to die, I thought to myself. To be reduced to a faceless body, judged only by a cardboard proclaiming your supposed crime. “Pusher ako, ’wag tularan. (I’m a pusher: Do not emulate me).”

His is but one of the hundreds of unresolved murders in this administration’s total war against illegal drugs. Unclaimed, with no family to grieve him, the dead man faced a pauper’s burial, with no wake nor religious service to acknowledge that he was once part of a community.

The drug war was the centerpiece of the presidential campaign of then Davao City mayor, now President Duterte.

He promised to fatten the fishes in Manila Bay on the bodies of thousands of drug personalities and criminals that he said he would dump in the murky waters.

After the first 100 days of the Duterte administration, it is now clear that the war on drugs and criminality is dead serious and fueled by a scorched earth policy that has seen bodies pile up on street corners, dumped like so much garbage at all hours of the night.

Questioning drug war

The last time I pounded the streets on a graveyard shift was in 2007. Finding dead bodies on Metro Manila streets was not yet a nightly occurrence.

But in July 2016 alone, I saw more bodies and death on the streets of the Metro than I’ve encountered for an entire year in 2007.

There are nights when I question the supposed noble intentions of this war.

One of these occasions was when I saw a grieving Jennilyn Olayres holding the lifeless body of her partner, Michael Siaron, along Edsa Rotonda in Pasay City.

It had been a particularly busy and bloody night. We were responding to various calls telling us of corpses left behind by unknown assailants.

They had dreams

Siaron, by all accounts, was an admitted drug user. But her partner said he had long stopped using the illegal substance.

He was a thoughtful and kind man, Olayres said. They had plans for a better life, they had dreams, she added.

On July 23, Siaron was gunned down by masked men on a motorcycle while he was on his pedicab waiting for passengers. The men shot him three times, and left a cardboard sign tagging him as a drug pusher.


Most brutal on poor

I saw Olayres calling out for help as she cradled her husband. Maybe there was still life in there. Maybe there was still hope.

It was then that I realized that the drug war was most brutal on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable sector of society. One rainy night at the crime scene of a buy-bust operation, a saleslady asked what the commotion was all about. “Na- duterte, (Another Duterte casualty),” said one bystander. The term is quickly gaining currency. I recall my first night covering the drug war. A body had been dumped on the corner of Taft Avenue and Pedro Gil in Manila. The victim was found inside a sack, his hands tied with nylon rope, his head wrapped in packaging tape. A cardboard sign beside the corpse listed his supposed crimes.

Where’s the compassion?

A small crowd had gathered, and was startled when a shriek from a street dweller broke the silence. Asked if she knew the victim, she said no, but she was crying.

“Hindi ba kayo naawa? Hindi ba kayo naawa sapatay? (Have you no pity? Do you not feel sorry for the dead?)”

At that moment, the words of this nameless street dweller made the most sense. She reminded everyone about humanity and compassion, and how they may have already been buried beneath the pile of bodies we’ve somehow gotten used to.

The story behind the viral photo by Raffy Lerma

It was the third extrajudicial killing of suspected drug pushers that I covered on the graveyard shift last week.

Around 1:30 a.m. on July 23, upon arriving on Edsa Taft-Pasay Rotunda from another crime scene, I could already see the picture.

I knew this was different. In the middle of the police line in which photographers and bystanders are not allowed to cross was the lifeless body of suspected drug pusher Michael Siaron, cradled by partner Jennilyn Olayres. A cardboard sign that read “Drug pusher huwag tularan” (I am a drug pusher, don’t emulate) was left near the body.

An hour had passed after the shooting, according to witnesses. A gunman on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice fired on Siaron and left the cardboard sign beside him. Another person was wounded.

TV floodlights and news cameras popped and flashed as Olayres wept for Siaron while cradling him in her arms like Michelangelo’s world-famous sculpture “Pieta,” a depiction of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ.

I took many shots from a distance supported by the light from cameras illuminating Siaron and Olayres, which appeared very much like lighting from a theater stage. Hearing her pleading for help was gut-wrenching. I could do nothing but take more shots.

I saw no need to use a flash, as I needed to capture the dark-at-dawn atmosphere.

“That’s enough! And help us!” she cried out to media workers, authorities and onlookers.

I stopped taking pictures and looked for a policeman. I asked him, “What are you waiting for?”

The policeman replied: “We can’t do anything as he is already dead. Let’s wait for the Soco (Scene of the Crime Operatives).”

The members of the Soco team came several minutes late because they came from the same crime scene we covered earlier outside the Senate Building in Pasay City.

What could I do? It was heartbreaking but I knew I had to do my job. The crime scene still had to be processed. Evidence had to be gathered.

I climbed the overpass and took more shots: an overview of the scene with cars passing along Edsa, with a few motorists stopping and looking at the commotion, a crowd gathering around the body and Olayres laying Siaron down on the pavement and weeping.

Another report came—a body was found in Leveriza, Pasay City, the fourth on that shift. Many of my colleagues and I hurried off but we all had a heavy heart.

We were not able to take pictures of the male victim—the fourth in “Patay City” (a play on Pasay City, meaning city of the dead), as a radio reporter jokingly said—as the body had been removed from the crime scene. The victim, a mute, was shot and killed by a motorcycle-riding gunman, who also left a cardboard message near his body.

We were quiet as we went back to the Manila Police District, the office of graveyard-shift media workers. I lighted a cigarette to calm my nerves. Another photographer took deep breaths. Together, we recounted moments from the scene at Pasay Rotunda.

Another veteran photographer said, while shaking his head, “I no longer want to be a photographer.” We all had the same feeling of guilt.

We were unsure whether to submit the pictures for publication because we felt guilty for not being able to help the victim and his partner. We only took photographs.

I remember shaking my head, wiping off my sweat and processing what had just transpired in my head.

I told my colleagues: “Let’s file this. It’s our work.”

We may not have helped the victim and his partner but it is our job to show these pictures. We have to show reality as it is and perhaps, get people to react and even take action.