Left behind

A mother of an extrajudicial execution victim in Manila. Photos by NICOLA LONGOBARDI

Left behind

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - August 25, 2017 - 4:00pm

Close to a hundred men are cramped inside a drug rehabilitation center in Taguig, all dressed in matching plain white shirts and green shorts, all covering their faces with their hands. Their expressions are concealed but one can tell that they are not looks of shame. The emotion they evoke is that of fear and despair. Maybe it is in the tenuous way these men place their hands over their faces. Maybe it is in the context that comes with the image — the war on drugs in the Philippines and the toll it has taken on some of its citizens. But the photograph is undeniably powerful, and for Italian photojournalist Nicola Longobardi, who won his country’s Treccani Web Prize (together with journalist Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi) for this image, the drug war has always been a problem of power.

“It’s a way to tell that the victims (of the drug war) are not only the persons found on the streets with their faces covered with tape, but also the families left behind and the people who go into rehab,” Longobardi says. “Everybody without a face, without an identity, without rights.”

Covering President Duterte’s war on drugs has won for many media organizations many awards this year, but for journalists like Longobardi who have seen the atrocities up close, it’s the stories that deserve the recognition. “I am very happy to have won the award but I think that the most important thing is that, thanks to this prize, the interest in what’s happening in the Philippines is back,” he says.

Born and raised in Bologna, Italy, where he developed his passion for photography, Longobardi is now based in Hong Kong, a place whose history, as he notes, was shaped by the Opium Wars. “Drug use is an aspect of our society that has always interested me. It’s an economy that moves huge amounts of money,” he says. “But what attracts my attention most is its effects on society.” This fascination brought him, not only to the Philippines, but also to Myanmar, the world’s second-largest producer of opium, according to the international think tank Transnational Institute. Myanmar’s war on drugs is different in many ways from that of the Philippines (theirs is not government-led and hasn’t resulted in thousands of murders) but Longobardi sees a familiar pattern.

“Both in Myanmar and in the Philippines the efforts to counter this plague are directed against those who use drugs, pointing them out as if they were the culprits,” he notes. “In the Philippines they are killed without pity and their bodies thrown in the streets; in Myanmar they are caught and locked up in crumbling structures for months. No one tries to fight against the real causes of drug spread — social problems like poverty or lack of education, no hope for the future. Why do these campaigns always attack those who are already weak, and don’t try to help them?”





Despite his years of experience covering drug wars and their resultant violations of human rights, nothing could have prepared Longobardi for what he was about to see in Manila. He found the routine nature of the violence jarring. “We were sitting at a press office one night talking to other journalists, then all of a sudden, without anyone saying anything, one went to the car and we all did the same and we left,” he says. “That was the beginning of a very long night.” That night, he and his journalist partner Ghezzi found 12 dead bodies. Their designated informant would take them from one part of the city to another, from one dead body to the next, and before he could even digest the carnage, it was already morning. “I had been sucked into the vortex of the events that happened that night,” Longobardi relates. “I woke up the next day and realized that the thing I was most interested in was knowing the families of the victims.”

Thus began Longobardi’s photo series of wives and relatives of murder victims covering their faces with their hands, much like the men in the rehab center in his award-winning photograph. The gesture lends the photos with an artistic formalism not normally found in photojournalism and the effect is startling. But Longobardi’s intent is far more pragmatic. “The covered faces were a way to bypass the problem I had in the rehab center,” he says. “I signed a paper where I was not allowed to show the identity of the guests of the center. In that moment I thought even the faces of the victims on the streets had the faces covered. When I was in the slums of Tondo, the widows were worried when I took out the camera. I decided to ask them to cover their faces.”

Behind these concealed faces are stories that have stayed with Longobardi. The empty gazes of widows who have been left alone to raise their children. The smiling faces drawn on the packaging tape wrapped around the heads of murder victims. There was this boy, mourning the death of his father, who Longobardi belatedly realizes was one of the bodies he photographed in his first night in the city. As the boy relates seeing his father’s dead body, Longobardi remembers seeing the body in its earlier state, the face wrapped in packaging tape. He chooses not to tell this to the grieving boy.

“You realize how a historical moment, a news item, can deeply change the lives of the people, and you stop to think about the big numbers and focus your attention and your thoughts on what can happen to one person,” Longobardi says. He explains, in essence, the importance of photojournalism in the war on drugs; how we need images to humanize the growing numbers, which now tallies to more than 7,000 murders. Photojournalism seeks to counter the ubiquity with specificity, with intimate knowledge.

In perhaps his most moving crime scene photo, a dead body lies next to bags of trash on the street. The imagery spoke to Longobardi. “The body is almost lost in the environment,” he says. “That was what I wanted to tell. The frequency with which these bodies are found is so high that I fear that one day people will get used to seeing them in the street like garbage.”

The job does get scary, he says, but not for reasons many of us may think. “It’s not because it could be dangerous for me or for my colleagues,” he explains. “It’s scary because I could see again what the human being is capable of doing. It was not just the murders, but how they were killed.” Longobardi was only able to cover Manila for two weeks, which he admits is “not enough time to fully understand the situation.” But he does plan on coming back to start another project. “The war on drugs is a topic that I always follow and probably will take up more in the future,” he says.

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