Rodrigo Duterte’s “Manila Gothic” Photographs of the Phillippines’s War on Drugs

Lawrence Sumulong's photo series "Manila Gothic" powerfully documents the casualties of the Philippine government's violent war on drugs.


Since president Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016, the Phillippine government has been carrying out a violent “war on drugs” which has resulted in over 7,000 deaths. Although the official aim of this campaign is supposedly to eradicate drug dealers, the president himself has urged people to kill drug addicts, and Humans Rights Watch has found that a majority of the victims of these extrajudicial killings are drug users among the urban poor.

In his ongoing work Manila Gothic, Filipino-American photographer Lawrence Sumulong gives a voice to the Filipino people who have lost family and friends to Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. Sumulong seeks to document this continuing tragedy through “the lens of the impoverished men, women, and children who violently lost loved ones via extrajudicial killings.”

He says, “This story doesn’t traffic in spectacle, but hopes to report, analyze, and interpret trauma and its portrayal in a personal light and different spectrum. Using a forensic camera and a filter that captures a mixture of IR and UV light for the still imagery, the resulting uncanny colors express the ubiquitous and lingering grief of the bereaved.”

Sumulong’s choice to shoot with this unusual camera creates images that look like black-and-white photographs partially colorized by hand. The effect is unsettling, adding a surreal element to photographs that are already, at times, difficult to process. In several shots, Sumulong has asked people to hold up photos of loved ones they’ve lost.

“Along with handwritten letters from the victims, ephemera, and site-specific street art, the start of this series revisits former murder sites and reconnects with the families and individuals living in the wake of personal ruin,” he explains. Copies of these handwritten letters can be viewed on Sumulong’s website portfolio. In keeping with the eerie, almost sickly colors of Manila Gothic’s images, the letters are written on yellow paper.

The artificial yellow tone of Sumulong’s images has a greater purpose than simply making the photos look uncanny. “The color yellow specifically holds a deep significance in Filipino history,” Sumulong explains. “On August 31, 1986, two million people protested against martial law and lined the streets of Metro Manila. Yellow appeared as a symbol of unity and defiance. It will always be a reminder of those who sacrificed their lives during the Marcos martial law regime. I am using this color in a similar fashion, but in a new and equally terrifying context.”

See more of Lawrence Sumulong’s photography at his portfolio, built using Format.

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