The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law

Humanizing the Inhuman: Photographing Death in Duterte's Drug War in the Philippines

Colloquium with Vicente L. Rafael, University of Washington

This talk will focus on the bloody border between the human and the inhuman opened up by the relentless war on drugs under the regime of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Seeing meth addicts as essentially inhuman and beyond redemption, Duterte has encouraged the police to kill them. He has sought, ironically, to use the most inhumane means to re-humanize society. Since his election in May 2016, thousands of corpses have turned up nightly in Manila's dense neighborhoods--the victims of summary killings either by the police who claimed they fought back and resisted arrest, or by vigilante groups working for drug lords or the police, or usually both. 

This talk will ask about Duterte's narco- and necro-politics. But it will also address the emerging counter-politics of humanizing the inhuman by focusing on the courageous work of dedicated photojournalists who have been covering this war at great risk to their physical and mental health. Their photos have had the effect of bringing to light the nightly harvest of corpses for the world to see. The talk will inquire into the process by which photojournalists position themselves as moral agents, serving as witnesses to injustice. This entails experiencing the traumatic sight of the crime scene, their attempts to empathize and mourn with the survivors of victims, the ambivalent effects of the circulation of their photos for global consumption, and, among the survivors, the stories of being haunted by the returning spirits of the dead.

Vicente L. Rafael is the Giovanni and Ann Costigan Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of several works on the colonial and post-colonial Philippines, including Contracting Colonialism, White Love and Other Events in Filipino Histories, The Promise of the Foreign and Motherless Tongues: the Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation, all published by Duke University Press. He also recently wrote the Introduction to Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic, published by Penguin Classics.

Sponsor(s): Center for Southeast Asian Studies; The Promise Institute for Human Rights