Resistance to Duterte’s Penal Populism: The Photojournalism of Hannah Reyes Morales & Eloisa Lopez

by: , June 25, 2022

© Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales. Courtesy of the artist.


In this article, I focus on the ways in which Eloisa Lopez and Hannah Reyes Morales, two talented photographers, capture, produce, and frame images which push back against the ‘War on Drugs’ in the Philippines. In the early months of Duterte’s presidency, Lopez was part of a group of photographers dubbed the ‘Nightcrawlers,’ who documented the raw brutality of the extrajudicial violence (Coronel 2017) and sought to bring the reality of this to the attention of the public and the international community. She won the 2019 Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, partly in recognition of this work. Reyes Morales was recently awarded the International Centre of Photography’s Infinity Award, for her ability to document ‘tenderness amidst adversity’ and explorations of ‘how resilience is embodied in daily life’ (ICP 2020).

Their work documents the lived realities of women and girls in Filipino society, and this is conceptualised here as a method of resisting dominant narratives which seek to positively frame state violence and perpetuate Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity. The former president’s methods of control were redolent with patriarchal assumptions, and invoked nationalistic sentiment and securitisation rhetoric in order to excuse the targeting of vulnerable communities (Parmanand 2020). I will argue that by increasing the visibility of these groups of women and girls who represent the reach and magnitude of the threat posed by patriarchal populism, both photojournalists highlight how women’s resistance to Duterte’s political violence has taken varied forms across the social spectrum.

The first section of this article establishes how Lopez and Reyes Morales draw attention to how the dogged and myopic pursuit of the ‘War on Drugs’ in the Philippines has resulted in a failure to offer security to predominantly female, precarious overseas domestic workers. The second section continues to consider how Lopez celebrates the existence of a counter public of women—the ‘Death Squad Disrupters’—who are embedded in local communities, and who have successfully challenged the ‘petty sovereignty’ (Rafael 2020) of vigilantes and violent police. Finally, this article analyses how Lopez and Reyes Morales’ images of Nobel Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa evidence their role in a reciprocal network of women journalists from the Philippines who have opposed Duterte, and how these images disavow the construction of Ressa as an ‘enemy’ of the state.

The Irreducible Vulnerability of the Body: Documenting the Precarity of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) as Secondary Victims of Duterte’s Policies

As the coronavirus pandemic continued to disrupt international travel into the summer of 2020, Lopez published a set of images on Instagram showing ‘[h]undreds of stranded passengers, mostly Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) with cancelled flights’ (Lopez 2020b). [1] The visibility of so many overseas workers challenged Duterte’s claims to being a national saviour and hero and revealed the hollow performativity of his election campaign. Duterte promised, and continued to promise throughout his presidency, to ‘return’ OFWs to the Philippines by creating secure, sustainable employment (Gita-Carlos 2019). These promises succeeded in maintaining Duterte’s popularity amongst OFWs (Abad 2021). Lopez’s images expose the complexity of the situation of OFW women, who are simultaneously part of a historically celebrated workforce indispensable to the economy, and liable to be exploited by employers (Eadie 2011).

Notwithstanding the travel limitations imposed by the pandemic, the number of declared OFWs has remained consistent throughout Duterte’s presidency—around 2.2-2.4 million workers between 2016 and 2019 (Philippine Statistics Authority 2017; Philippine Statistics Authority 2020). The pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the plight of OFWs, with an increased number of journalistic exposés detailing how Filipina domestic workers are subjected to scaled-down imperialist practices in the homes of the rich in Europe. Women are reduced to the status of disposable and easily exploited (former) colonial subjects (Redfern 2021). Instead of seeking to permanently return these workers by focusing on economic reform, Duterte attempted to ensure the continuation of their support by framing the eradication of drug users and dealers as a necessary precursor to progress. In his State of the Nation address of July 2017, Duterte sought to reinvigorate public support for the war on drugs by explaining that:

[P]rogress and development will sputter if criminals, illegal drugs, and illegal users of drugs are allowed to roam the streets freely, victimizing seemingly with impunity, the innocent and the helpless … I have learned that the economy surges only when there is peace and order prevailing in places where investors can pour in their capital and expertise. (Johnson & Fernquest 2018: 378)

Images of the groups of women who were forced to travel during the pandemic highlight the ‘inferior’ position they occupy as poor Filipinos in more affluent countries and showcase class inequalities at home. [2] Huddled for temporary shelter beneath an expressway near the airport in Pasay City in Metropolitan Manila, their precarity the embodiment of what Tadiar (2007) describes as the conditions of social control imposed in the ‘megalopolitan fortress of foreclosure.’ The harsh architecture of the city’s infrastructure passes over the affected women, a physical representation of how violent policies, allegedly aimed at increasing economic growth, ignore and pass over OFWs.

Built by previous governments, the expressways ‘coast and tunnel through the thick of the city, connecting the scattered, archipelagic commercial centres and gated communities where the upper-class and upwardly mobile sectors work, live, shop and socialize’ (Tadiar 2007). The architecture of this project of progress looms over the forgotten and foreclosed spaces, above the women who are the less obvious, ‘hidden’ victims of Duterte’s own violent project of progress. Just as the ‘old city of Manila was unified with surrounding cities and outlying municipalities, and all were transformed into a single, shining metropolis that would serve as the showcase of Marcos’s authoritarian vision of a New Society, dubbed the “City of Man”’ (Tadiar 2007), the drug war represents an effort to contain and conceal the failure of the government to deliver on its main promises, the waning of sovereign power, and the inability of the state to protect its citizens against foreign influence and exploitation. In the service of a nationalistic ‘tough on crime’ narrative and the prioritisation of violent penalties as cornerstones of Duterte’s popularity, the OFW women stranded under the expressway became victims. The image accidentally captured this collision between representations of the consequences of the old and new authoritarian visions, whose policies ‘foreclose complex representations of Filipina women’s humanity’ (Diaz 2019).

In another image from the same series, a woman sits next to a suitcase embellished with the motivational quote ‘Dream High, Travel Light.’ [3] In the context of the photograph, the phrase reads as a wry reminder of the false promises and performative celebration of OFWs, who have long been at the centre of political campaigning but are discarded and ignored when it comes to political action and policy making.

The position of the OFWs in these images dispels the mythology of women who work overseas as ‘national heroes,’ rhetoric which was emphasised by Duterte as a means of ensuring their political support. The images highlight the liminal space they and other OFWs now occupy—not welcome to return to their places of employment and denied access to funds earmarked to help ease their transition back into the country.  Over 600,000 OFWs applied for financial support during the pandemic, but approval rates are low (Fernandez, et al. 2020). The performative, rather than practical, nature of the alleged assistance schemes also fell short of repatriating now-jobless OFWs, some of whom were ‘forced to sell blood’ in order to survive (Casilao, 2020).

Lopez’s work draws attention to the narrow distance between these workers and the targets of the drug war. The decline in their economic status—from contributing significant remittances to being unemployed, interminably reliant on the state— shifted their social status (World Bank Group 2020). When OFW women are unable to occupy positions as privileged citizens who contribute to the economy, they experience a similar liminal form of existence to people accused of being drug addicts.

Tadiar (1997) describes how suggestions that Filipina domestic workers take cultural lessons in order to better please their employers and assimilate into their new environment reveal ‘the truth contained in the expression “warm-body export” domestic helpers’ bodies are commodities, corporeal objects for the use of others.’ Within this logic of commodity fetishism, extra ‘processing’ of OFWs is advised, lest they bring too much of their own culture into the workplace. In the images captured by Lopez, OFWs await a different and uncertain kind of processing, which is nevertheless predicated on ascertaining their corporeal value. Those leaving to undertake domestic roles become less valuable—even valueless—to their employers if they have COVID-19. Media reports convey accounts of Filipino women working in domestic settings who were fired immediately upon getting ill. By showing OFWs waiting to be ‘processed,’ stuck in the liminal space of the underpass, Lopez insists that we as audiences recognise the inhumanity of their commodification. In this context, the words ‘Dream High, Travel Light’ take on new meaning—they illuminate how OFWs are required to leave behind their cultural ties and emotional ‘baggage’ and have also been divested of the support of the state in a crisis situation. The spectacle of hundreds of women huddled beneath the underpass makes their exploitation visible and the vulnerability of their commodified bodies apparent in a public, rather than a private setting.


Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales. Courtesy of the artist. Each December nearly a million people land in Manila, many of them Filipinos returning for the holidays for precious time with family and friends, and 2017 was no different: The airport is filled with family members waiting for a plane bringing their long-absent mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters home. In the sea of welcome signs, Sherina Mateo holds up a homemade one the family made for her mother, Shella, coming home for the first time after two years in Oman, where she works as a domestic helper.


Prior to the pandemic, Reyes Morales documented how deeply embedded cultural narratives perpetuate grief and trauma in OFW families, and that this has become normalised as an inevitable condition of economic stability. In December 2018, she shared an image of a young girl, Sherina, holding a homemade sign welcoming her mother —an overseas domestic worker—home for Christmas (see figure 1). Sherina reiterates the framing of OFWs as national heroes, personalising this by writing ‘You’re our super hero!!’ The sign emphasizes how long her mother has been away without being able to visit (‘More than two years!!’) and includes an image of an aeroplane, which dwarfs smaller drawings of their home and a stick-figure family. Reyes Morales selects the words in her caption carefully, following a recap of what Sherina has written with the sentence: ‘[t]he diaspora which former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called “our greatest export”, is home again’ (Reyes Morales, 2018).

In the context of the female OFWs’ ‘continued involvement in homeland politics’ (Brubaker 2005: 2), they might also be subsumed into Anderson’s sub-category of ‘long-distance nationalists’ (ibid). Reyes Morales’ caption implicitly compares Duterte’s presidency and its (lack of) impact on OFWs and former president Arroyo’s failure to reverse the trend of outward migration (Alcid 2003). Drawing this comparison hints that Duterte’s political style is similar to that of the corrupt and oligarchic Arroyo (Quimpo 2009). The discursive themes of Arroyo’s rhetoric have been re-produced by Sherina, who celebrates her mother’s sacrifice, reminding those who view the image that the legacy of celebrating, but not permanently returning OFWs to their families is being repeated (Encinas-Franco 2013). Centring Sherina, who is part of the next generation of Filipino women, reminds us of this ‘significant social cost’ (Eadie 2011). Children like Sherina were generally obscured in the regime of visibility (Blagaard, Morternsen and Neumayer 2017) instituted by Duterte. Sherina’s sign, as a visible representation of what is sacrificed because of the abuse of resources and political power in the pursuit of Duterte’s drug war, reminds audiences that Duterte’s treatment of OFWs was no different from that of past leaders. It emphasizes Duterte’s ‘incapacity and refusal to comprehend Filipino women’s position in the world as both imperative to the Philippine national economy and dispensable within the global circuits of exchange that facilitate migrant labor’ (Diaz 2019) and positions the young girl as a victim of the hollow nature of his flattery of, and promises to, OFWs. Reyes Morales’ work, read alongside Lopez’s, implicitly suggests that women OFWs should be concerned not only about their own precarious position within their society and economy, but also that of their children.

The Politicisation of Grieving Women: Countering a Haunting Trope in Filipino Social History

Comparing the ways in which Lopez represents the Death Squad Disrupter—women from the barangays, whose communities and families have been ravaged by the drug war, and who actively resist violence—in her photographs with the ways in which Duterte’s official Instagram account has exploited the grief of the mothers and sisters of allegedly ‘accidental’ victims of the drug war reveals how women’s grief can function as a catalyst for reimagining sovereign power.

The emotive story and curated visibility of the ‘grieving widow’ has long been a source of political capital and an exploited trope in Filipino society. Often, this involves suggesting that women possess power-by-association, rather than being intrinsically powerful themselves. Their visible grief is a pre-cursor to becoming involved in political action—a widow’s succession facilitates a move into politics because ‘widow candidates carry a powerful aura of suffering and perseverance that resonates with voters in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation’ (Lavallée 2019). Well-known women in Filipino politics whose campaigns have invoked the figures of their dead husbands include former president Corazon Aquino and Duterte’s vice-president Leni Robredo. The grief of these visible, high-profile individuals functions as a means of connecting political figures to their nation and culture, lest they ‘encounter a new kind of nightmare —not the gothic terror of being haunted by the dead, but the greater terror of not being haunted, of ceasing to feel the weight of past generations in one’s bones’ (Yaeger 2002: 35). Invoked by candidates on opposing ends of the spectrum, a form of referential spectrality creates palimpsests of new images which centre these figures, continually linking them to ‘traditional’ Filipino values and historic sovereign power, via their likeness to those used to secure political support in the past.

Duterte and his staff, well aware of the affective power of this trope, ensured that the majority of women who appeared in his Instagram photographs were identified as the bereaved family members of slain men and boys. [4] These women included Cpl. Ronnie Navarro’s widow, Lorenza delos Santos (Kian delos Santos’ mother), and Eva Arnaiz (Carlos Arnaiz’ mother). Those who grieve non-accidental victims of the drug war were excluded. The ways in which the mothers of delos Santos and Arnaiz were presented purposefully differed from how Navarro’s widow was presented. Navarro, a member of the Filipino military, was killed in 2016 during a clash between the army and members of Islamist militia group Abu Sayyaf (PCOO 2016). Lorenza delos Santos and Eva Arnaiz look composed and not visibly emotional, while Navarro’s widow clutches her baby and appears to have been crying. Her disconsolate expression conveys extreme grief and imparts the weight of Navarro’s sacrifice for Duterte’s political aims to viewers. Marciel Navarro becomes, then, a symbol of national grief, whose helplessness confirms the righteousness of Duterte’s social and religious crusades. This allowed Duterte to maintain his masculine image (Parmanand 2020) as the protector of the widow, and to assert his strength in comparison to allegedly vulnerable, feminine citizens.

In focusing upon the individual dead through photographic opportunities with their kin, Duterte underlined his authority by suggesting that their deaths haunted him, yet framed their murders as either exceptional, and thereby denying that those like them are at risk, or heroic. These bereaved mothers and widows were given attention by Duterte because it was politically advantageous to be seen meeting with and listening to them.

Deflecting attention away from women’s work and social presence by focusing on their relationships to (dead) men continually reinvokes the spectre of the male kin in order to detract from their potentiality as figures of resistance. The disproportionality of male deaths in Duterte’s drug war (Amnesty International 2020) meant that even those who did seek to document the social harm created by Duterte’s policies became interested in the widows and mothers of the dead as living signifiers of grief, whose suffering bore witness to the criminality and authoritarianism of Duterte. Rarely was their grief conceptualised as resistance or seen as an emotion that motivated active opposition. Other examples of Lopez’s work have captured the bravery of women openly grieving for dehumanised and outcast victims. However, even those analysing Lopez’s work as having positive ‘truth-telling’ qualities misidentify images of distraught women as grieving for men, instead of identifying them as primary victims of violence. Labella mistakes Lopez’s photograph of Grace de Guzman as an image of a grieving relative, when she is actually distraught because she was illegally detained in a hidden cell by police (Lopez, 2017).

The privileged position of distant audiences whose ability to resist was not limited by living under Duterte’s regime means they ‘remain agile despite the immobilising shock these images impose’ (Labella 2020). In the set of images I analyse here, Lopez focuses on the work of the women, while also centring their bodies, physical presence, and relationship to their community. This displays how personal grief has been a catalyst for resistance to violence. What differs from images and narratives which deflect attention from women’s power and potentiality is that Lopez emphasises how women act, rather than simply exist, in the context of atrocities. Simultaneously, Lopez is invariably always sharing her own action, and is able to define her resistance through her own photojournalism.

In Pateros, part of metropolitan Manilla, women’s patrols styled as ‘Death Squad Disrupters’ organise nightly walks to deter supposed ‘vigilantes’— ‘attackers in hoods and ski masks, known locally as the “bonnet gang”’ (Petty and Lopez 2020). [5] As Lopez explains, ‘their story begins from a killing in their neighbourhood in 2017’ but their focus is on the protection of the living (Lopez 2020a). The spectre of violence haunts and motivates them to perform their roles as ‘mothers and grandmothers’ to protect the community (Lopez 2018b). The belief that their feminine identities protect them from the worst physical violence committed by the state is supported by statistical evidence, which frames ‘victimhood’ in the context of the war on drugs as a male experience (Amnesty International 2020).

Lopez captures the defiance and courage of these women by emphasising their difference from those who conceal their identities, like the gang of vigilantes, or the police, whose ‘uniforms’ function as a homogenising cloak to conceal individual accountability. By contrast, the women wear simple t-shirts to identify them as disrupters and peacekeepers, are unarmed, and do not cover their faces, ready and willing to identify themselves. In Lopez’s photographic series on the death squad disrupters, which she posted on Instagram, streetlights and cars illuminate the faces of individual women, showing their serious but resolute expressions as they conduct sousveillance of the police. They are women in the process of re-appropriating vigilantism, acting as watchers (as the term originally implies), and insisting on ending cultural cycles of violence. Their bodies are the focus of the police, yet they have subversively used their feminine physicality to create a ‘barrier’ to violence. Present as proudly identifiable community witnesses, they counteract ‘the informal means by which suspects were identified [and] acted as a form of “uncertainty absorption” (Kessler & Werner 2008: 290), as police were given carte blanche to kill probable suspects’ (Raffle 2021: 3), exposing the absurdity of this weaponisation of uncertainty. Their knowledge of, and position in, the local community limits the potential for death squads to claim they mistook the identity of their targets.

Their intervention is a form of soft power, maternalistic in its surveillance practices, and characterised by a will to create change through reassuring physical presence, which counterposed the President’s threatening absence and simultaneous abstract omnipresence in the barangays. They have defied the attempts made by the government to turn neighbours against each other, and subvert the growing trend towards vigilantism, which emanates from this vicious encouragement. Instead, they adopt aims which oppose central governance and sovereignty. Their positionality within the local area—as mothers, sisters, cousins, and friends of victims—ascribes legible emotions and motivations onto their action, and makes it comprehensible to all women with relational ties in their families and communities, no matter how distant.

Labella’s reading of Lopez’ images of drug war victims maps well onto this interpretation of the series focusing on the death squad disrupters. He states, ‘[i]f the official ideology in this war of cameras seeks to build a studium for terrorising spectators, the photography Lopez practices opens the images of violence to a space outside grief, pity, or rage’ (Labella 2020). They show how citizens—and particularly women—can successfully challenge state power, without the intervention of outside influences (the ICC, NGOs etc.), or the liberal elite (both of which Duterte has insisted ordinary Filipino people cannot trust). Though not invited to participate in Duterte’s performative images and meaning making about drug war victims, the women insert themselves into the public sphere. One image shows a woman standing confidently in the middle of the road, with a resolute and watchful expression and perfect lipstick, whilst a car waits behind her. [6] Backlit by the car, and also illuminated from the front, she appears regal and commands the attention of those around her, filling the space. In framing and publicising the women’s resistance in this way, Lopez marks them out as a subaltern counter public, who engage in ‘much needed constructive efforts to project alternative models of democracy’ (Fraser 1990). This interpretation is reflected by online audiences, with some Twitter and Instagram users commenting that the women are ‘Queens’ (Lopez 2020).

Given that Duterte used images of grieving women as part of his proclamation of ‘a new national sovereignty underlined by a masculinist decolonial ideology’ (Diaz 2019), the women’s actions and Lopez’s images make visible the scope of an alternative form of ‘sovereignty,’ underlined by a feminist decolonial ideology, where peaceful intervention replaces violent populism. They successfully confirm that the use of excessive physical force and the creation of fear are not necessities for security.

Lopez’s images might act as a didactic tool to suggest that fearful residents of the barangays themselves reclaim public space. They counter the historical trope of using images of grieving women to support and strengthen the sovereignty of the state, and instead imply that sovereignty can be re-appropriated by individuals and groups of women in communities who are unaffiliated with the state or political parties and exercise their power to protect locals. The Death Squad Disrupters (and Lopez as a woman photojournalist) reject ‘classical traditions that cast femininity and publicity as oxymorons’ (Fraser 1990). The actions of both insert women into the public frame in a way which counters this tradition, which Duterte looked to protect.

Supporting Maria Ressa’s Resistance: The Public Face of the Counterpublic of Women


Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales. Courtesy of the artist. Editor Maria Ressa at work at Rappler, a Philippine news site Ressa co-founded, has provided critical coverage on Duterte’s war on drugs. The writing on the glass wall in the @rappler office reads ‘SEEK THE TRUTH, NOT WHAT IS CONVENIENT.’


Another key figure who forms a part of this counter public of women is Maria Ressa, the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning-journalist and owner of the media outlet Rappler. Although Ressa’s background and methods of opposing Duterte are very different from those of women like the Death Squad Disrupters, they share the common aim of visibly resisting his violence. As such, despite Ressa’s mainstream (and global) appeal, I argue that she forms part of the discursive arena which positioned itself in opposition to Duterte and publicises the activities of women with less reach, like the Death Squad Disrupters (whose actions are reported on in Rappler). Ressa’s refusal to be silenced by legal threats to her freedom is more intertwined with the actions of local women’s groups than it may appear on the surface.

Lopez and Reyes Morales’ images invited audiences to reject the framing of Ressa as a threat to national security, problematising the then-President’s ongoing misogynistic rhetoric, and challenging the proliferation of ‘online gendered abuse’ (Posetti 2017). Both Lopez and Reyes Morales have published their work through Rappler and have aligned themselves with Ressa, choosing to document her resistance to criminalisation through images. I suggest that this journalistic alliance, and the artefacts/images created as a result of it, are a method of pushing back against the virtual ‘army’ of online trolls and digital vigilantes who have attacked the reputation and character of women who opposed Duterte. Enacted partly through images which support and publicise Ressa’s words, I conceptualise this alliance as a form of what Cixous (1976: 877) describes as ‘L’Écriture féminine’ —women’s writing which resists the ‘fantasized obligatory virility’ of men and male leaders, ‘meant to invade, to colonize, and the consequential phantasm of woman as a “dark continent” to penetrate and to “pacify.”’

Firstly, they capture images which show Ressa physically engaged in resistance, drawing attention to how legal and rhetorical threats to her liberty invade her existence and create a complex relationship between Ressa and the ‘digital’ public. Secondly, where Duterte delegitimised Ressa as a member of the untrustworthy ‘liberal’ elite, and as a ‘foreign’ influence who poses a threat to sovereignty, the photojournalists contradicted this by situating her as a woman in and of the Filipino metropolis.

Reyes Morales’ work includes six images from an assignment during which she followed Ressa ‘at work as she went through legal proceedings’ (Reyes Morales 2020). The origins of these legal proceedings were tenuous at best, and retroactively applied novel legislation to indirectly intimidate those who publicly disavowed Duterte’s policies. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Ressa explains:

Seven years ago, Rappler had published the story of a former chief justice who had used a bulletproof car belonging to a businessman linked to a murder. Now the businessman was filing a cyber-libel charge against us- for an article posted four months before cyber libel had been made a crime. The head of the police’s cybercrime unit threw the case out, but a week later, his decision was overturned (Ressa 2019).

The first of Reyes Morales’ images is taken inside the offices of Rappler, where the glass wall of a meeting room reads ‘SEEK THE TRUTH, NOT WHAT IS CONVENIENT’ (see figure 2). In the text accompanying the image, Reyes Morales writes that ‘The Philippines has become one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist—Duterte has said “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination”’ (Reyes Morales 2020). Women journalists are not as likely to become physical targets of violence as men in the Philippines (Reporters Without Borders 2017-2021). Instead, women’s bodies become sites for the production of public fear, where the image of a dangerous enemy is imposed. Rhetorical violence (through manipulating legal accusations) against women who opposed Duterte was re-produced by Duterte’s supporters. The vibrant, recognisable, and living figure of Ressa, persisting in fighting the accusations made against her, may have the potential to shift this narrative. Instead of over-saturating audiences with words, incorporating a few phrases alludes to the idea that perpetuating violence is a ‘convenient’ political strategy which mystifies security (Rafael 2020). The bold lettering on the glass frames Ressa’s face, which barely fits between the letters. Only Ressa and another woman are identifiable—the two other figures have their backs to the glass. Both women write in their notebooks, and Ressa looks inquiringly at one unidentifiable participant, whose body appears to be masculine. The scene is reminiscent of a legal, non-violent interrogation. The writing surrounding Ressa, and the writing which she is engaged in doing, emphasise the possibility of alternative ways of seeking truth and attaining security.


Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales. Courtesy of the artist. Maria Ressa, editor of Rappler, making her way to the office after an appearance in court in June 2021.


Yet reminding audiences of the physicality involved in resisting Duterte lends a kind of credibility to Ressa’s participation in this ‘war.’ In a 2020 podcast interview, Ressa explains that though she feels powerless in comparison to Duterte and his supporters, her aim is always to bring what she believes is the truth about abuses of power and human rights violations. Invoking the metaphor of light, Ressa states, ‘I feel like I have no power except to shine the light’ (Ressa as quoted in Big Tech 2020). This is carried through into the images of Ressa captured by Reyes Morales. Sitting in the back of a car after nightfall, Ressa works diligently on her laptop, her face and upper body illuminated by the glare from the screen. Whatever Ressa is reading and writing in this moment is reflected in her glasses and, as such, the minute words are inscribed onto her body. Her work both shines a light on her resistance and makes her hyper-visible to those who wish her harm. Ressa reports that at the height of the digital harassment, she ‘was counting at least 90 hate messages per hour. Because at the beginning I was responding, and then, all of a sudden, I realised they’re not interested in talking about it. This is meant to pound me to silence.’

In October 2021, Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her ‘efforts to safeguard freedom of expression’ (The Nobel Prize 2021). In the immediate aftermath of this announcement, online petitions sprung up calling for the prize to be recalled. [7] These amassed over 100,000 signatures, and comments made by signatories reflect how successfully Duterte’s smear campaigns against Ressa pervaded the public imagination. Many attack Ressa as ‘un-Filipino,’ and as being a ‘puppet’ of foreign powers, intent on exercising their influence in the Philippines and curtailing Duterte’s sovereignty. [8] Lopez’s image shows Ressa working diligently at her desk, with the skyscrapers of metropolitan Manila looming in the distance. [9] Lopez uses a long depth of field, and this creates the impression that Ressa is a tiny figure, diminutive in relation to the urban landscape surrounding her. The manipulation of the legal system and the creation of new laws to punish Ressa serve a similar function—to metaphorically surround and intimidate her. Yet Ressa chooses to remain, working calmly at her desk in resistance. Both photographers document Ressa’s continued presence in Manila, defying Duterte’s framing of her as a dualistic, dual citizen, whose interests and allegiance align with the US. Ressa’s presence in public space was a challenge to Duterte, who had previously succeeded in forcing women who publicly opposed him into detention [10]. In Lopez’s photograph, many press-passes hang on the wall to the left of the frame, evidence of Ressa’s continued entry into journalistic spaces, and artefacts which reiterate the link between Ressa and Lopez.

The global increase in online harassment of women journalists (Al Jazeera 2021) demands digital resistance in response. Ressa’s refusal to claim to be neutral [11] as a spokesperson for Filipino journalism reflects her commitment to interrogate, rather than simply report news. Equally, Lopez and Reyes Morales, in their framing of Ressa as the righteous figure who speaks truth to power, refuse neutrality. Though commentators like Cabanes and Cornelio propose that preserving democracy against trolls involves the media presenting both sides of debates about Duterte’s policies (Cabanes & Cornelio 2017), this perspective does not acknowledge the impact of this on the safety of online spaces where women can curate dissent. In their support for Ressa and sharing of images which celebrate her work, the photojournalists counteract Duterte’s ‘army’ of trolls.

Both photographers simultaneously capture the complicated relationship Ressa has with digital culture. The frequency of images of Ressa with her computer or laptop show how she is unable to escape the negative commentary about her and her actions yet is simultaneously bound to the digital as a tool for increasing her reach. As Lopez captions a recent post about Ressa, ‘Your courage is contagious,’ and a supportive online community has worked hard to counteract the trolls and Duterte supporters who remain pervasive in online spaces used and interacted with by Filipinos.


Lopez and Reyes Morales take ‘a gender-based and intersectional approach in order to deconstruct these discourses and to identify the exclusion and inclusion mechanisms’ to ‘make the working of this “politics of fear” … more comprehensible’ to public audiences (Donà 2020). Centring women and girls in the numerous images discussed in this article allows the photographers to expose subtle and overt forms of gendered exclusion and make visible its consequences. Directly challenging historical perceptions of women as those who exist amidst atrocities but do not act, Lopez advocates for further extra-legal disruption to the impunity of police and pro-Duterte vigilantes.

Both photographers have actively disentangled their resistance from a reliance on ‘spectacular rhetorics’ (Hesford 2011), which may actively or unintentionally lead to the photographer asserting ownership over individual trauma and experiences of state violence and necessitate the existence and visible inclusion of violated bodies to guarantee attention (Alemoru 2020). The impact of these, as Reyes attests, has diminished. In moving away from the trend, Lopez and Reyes Morales are not producing ‘un-spectacular’ images—those analysed in this article are still impressive and affective. Instead, they evidence how seemingly unconnected women, occupying varied positions in the social structure, are linked, or have the potential to be linked as a forceful counter public.



[1] Lopez’ss Instagram account can be accessed here: Many of her other photographs (including several important projects documenting the ‘War on Drugs’) can be viewed on her personal website:

[2] Lopez’ss series can be viewed on her Instagram account here:

[3] This image can be seen here:

[4] President Duterte’s official Instagram account can be accessed here:

[5]Lopez extensively photographed these Dear Squad Disruptors. A selection of these photographs can be seen on her Instagram account:

[6] This image can be seen here on Lopez’ss Instagram:

[7] The petition has since been removed by hosting site

[8] Some examples of comments include ‘This rezza monkey is not a Filipino a bastard n a liar like USA’; ‘Hypocrite, a traitor to her mother land a puppet or western capitalists’; ‘shes not representing this country… shes not filipino…. she doest know the real situation which she is falsely making a fuss. in short….. shes a false witness…. and SHE DOESNT represent the country’ ( 2021).

[9] Lopez’s image can be seen here:

[10] Senator Leila de Lima has been imprisoned in Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police’s headquarters since February 2017.

[11] Ressa, Maria (@mariaressa). “Good morning from Manila! “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu #CourageON.” Twitter, 25 Aug 2020.


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