‘We Are Not Observers Now’: In Conversation with Raffy Lerma

Molly Bolding 12 April 2019
Image Credit: Raffy Lerma

Content note: this article contains images that may be disturbing for some readers.

Raffy Lerma is a freelance photojournalist based in the Philippines, who studied photojournalism at the College of Fine Arts in the University of the Philippines Diliman and later finished his Diploma at the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has won multiple awards for his photographs, and for the last 12 years has worked as a photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The majority of his work is as a ‘Nightcrawler’; providing coverage of the ‘War on Drugs’ and its effect on life in the country since 2016.

My first question concerned the nature of his job – why images? At its heart, journalism is about delivering a message or covering details of events, and I wondered what Mr Lerma saw as the unique ability that images can have in this regard.

“To me, it’s both [words and pictures that are needed] – words and photographs…when they go together, it’s more powerful. With photojournalists, it’s the first…how to explain it?”, he said, choosing his words with care. “We have to get attention, and it’s images that actually grabs that attention and it lasts. Images last. If you recall moments of history, you would recall them very vividly with visuals, so it has that recall factor and you will always associate images with what happened.”

Image Credit: Raffy Lerma

Looking at some of the photos on Mr Lerma’s website, it is immediately obvious what he is talking about – these photos are shocking and unforgivingly personal; overwhelmingly human and intimate photos of people you will never meet, caught in a conflict on the other side of the world. I asked Mr Lerma if there were any particular photos that stick out in his memory, given the sheer number he must have taken in his career.

“There is one photograph from the Drug Wars, of Jennilyn Olayres and she was holding onto her partner Michael Siaron, and people familiarised themselves with the photograph because it resembled the sculpture of Pietà by Michelangelo, of Mother Mary holding Jesus Christ. It was a powerful photo but it became viral and people said it was one of those iconic photographs of the drug war. It resonated with many people, for or against the killings…it brought the issue to light and some said it gave a human face to the victims of the drug war.”

Image Credit: Raffy Lerma

Despite this, I imagined that there had to be personal difficulty in being present yet simultaneously distant from those pictured – being an observer of people in such pain must have be troubling.

Mr Lerma reflected that whilst that had been the case for the first six months, when he took the majority of the photos that later became internationally recognised images of the struggle, his role, and that of others like him, had begun to evolve.

“If you ask me now what I’m doing, talking here [at the Union] and going to all of these [events]…we are not observers now.” He gave a sad laugh and said, “people ask me now, “are you a journalist?” “Are you an activist?” I tell them, you can call me whatever you want… It’s not just me, it’s a group of photojournalists who have been doing this for the past almost 3 years, and most of us are freelancers now and have resigned from our work. We just continue documenting this tragic sad history for our country, in the hopes that it doesn’t happen again. We were hoping that it could somehow change minds or opinions, and end it, but it’s not stopping it.”

Image Credit: Raffy Lerma

I asked Mr Lerma what he considered the key messages of his images to be, and what he was hoping people would take away from his work.

“Hopefully with our work, we will document this in the hopes that we will learn from this – it was the vilification of our people; of alleged drug users and drug pushers, who have been vilified for so many years, that led to this. For the Filipino society who support this, people getting killed without due process…”, he sighed, “we have a lot to learn. We have to bring back the humanity they deserve…it’s a long way to go. Many years of vilification, you can’t end it right away.”

Image Credit: Raffy Lerma

Mr Lerma gestured to me. “You’re in the media, you’re a journalist too, you’re a part of this. We’re trying to educate… I was a journalist too, for so long, and when this came around, I realised I was part of the problem before. If it’s a heinous crime, or a high profile crime, you always blame the drug addict. They’re the easiest targets, it’s an easy excuse. But sometimes it’s just sloppy work. And hopefully this, we’ll try to change.”

Find Mr Lerma’s website and other work here!