Rafael Lerma’s Photojournalistic Take on the Duterte Administration’s Drug War: A Counter-Barthesian Semiological Study


Rafael Lerma is an award-winning and outspoken Filipino photojournalist who works for the broadsheet The Philippine Daily Inquirer. When President Rodrigo Duterte took office on 01 July 2016 and started to implement his campaign promise to mount a thorough war on drugs, Lerma became one of the photojournalists who consistently documented the grisly track of the said war. His most iconic image—that of a dead pedicab driver being cradled by his grief-stricken widow—did not escape the rambling speech of the President himself during the latter’s first State of the Nation Address. This paper culls 25 of Lerma’s most famous images related to the Duterte administration’s drug war. From these 25 images, six recurrent sociocultural icons have been identified: 1) poverty; 2) the dehumanization/demonization of the casualties; 3) religion; 4) the weakness of governance in the Philippines; 5) Operation Plan Tokhang conducted by the Philippine National Police; and 6) the state and the nation. By subjecting these visual sociocultural icons to an inverted version of the semiology of the early phase of the French philosopher and cultural critic Roland Barthes, the researcher textually explores Lerma’s take on the said war. Furthermore, this paper theoretically tests the capacity of Barthes’ semiology to tackle not only ideological discourses that are tucked beneath some sociocultural icons but more so counter-ideological discourses that are launched by the less privileged sectors of society.