“That’s the worst thing: the dead bodies have become normal”

By Dana Dübbers

Over 12,000 men, women and children have been killed by unidentified vigilantes or during confrontations with the police because of President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines. Since he took office in June 2016, killings have become commonplace across the country. 23-year-old photojournalist Basilio H. Sepe, who just became Philippines Photographer of the year at the International Photography Awards, reflects on the challenges of reporting on a violent drug war run by the state. 

“I’m seeing my countrymen die here without getting proper justice. When the killings started, I had this urge to cover it. I was still a student and one of the youngest journalists who reported on it.

During that time, we always went to the police station or waited for calls to get information on new crime scenes. In my first night shift we had just responded to another call about an alleged drug addict shot to death. We found a woman who was grieving, while holding the lifeless body of her partner and calling for help. He was shot by unidentified perpetrators and left with a sign on him, labelling him a ‘pusher’. From that night on I continued and waited for something to happen.

When I report on the war, I go to places where I haven’t been before, mostly the slum areas. Of course, I am scared. But I’m mostly concerned about my fellow journalists, who have become my friends. We have been working together night after night in a group called ‘the night shift’, standing in the front line at places where people just died. We want to show the world what’s happening here. We want everyone to see what’s happening behind the campaign. The perpetrators are still a mystery, there is still an enemy in the dark.

I have had moments where I just couldn’t take it anymore. This happened the first time when I reported on a funeral. Ronnel Jaraba was found shot, although according to his family he quit using drugs when his kids were born.  There were so many relatives crying, so much pain. But what moved me most was seeing his own father screaming. His friends had to take him to the site to calm him down. At some point I realized tears were rolling down my cheeks. I stopped taking pictures and just cried. I pray for those who I have seen suffering and reflect on the events to release the pictures

Basilio H. Sepe, copyright: Basilio H. Sep

in my head.

 I’m not used to seeing dead bodies. Before I was just covering protests and conflicts, but when the drug war started it changed my personality. I was able to build connections to the victims and their families. That makes it a dilemma to report on the war on drugs. We don’t even know if we are still journalists or have become activists already.

It is exciting at first: you feel the adrenalin, the experiences stick with you. Sometimes, when a motorcycle passes by, I’m afraid that the rider will point a gun at me. That’s what they do to their victims, they just drive by your house and the man on the back of the motorcycle will shoot. Sometimes they pretend that they are policemen, sometimes it is the police doing the killings. Through that a lot of people have become scared of the police.

That’s the job, there will always be risk. You just have to love what you are doing and focus on your work, so you won’t get affected by it personally and mentally.

Now I don’t feel anything anymore, I’m used to it. The blood, the people looking at the scene, the police strobe lights, the smell.

But at the same time, this is the worst thing: it has become normal. The sight of a crime scene and dead bodies is normal.

The world has seen the killings now. We need to think deeper. What is behind all of this? What happened to the families? We need more investigative and personal stories, not just single images and news. The people behind the killings will get caught, it’s a puzzle and we are still in the process. Maybe one day after Duterte’s presidency, he will be the one behind bars.”