2024 Conference's Exhibition



This program is made possible by City College University of New York, SUNY/CUNY Southeast Asia Consortium, the New York Southeast Asian Network, and Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts.



Resbak! Arts and Resistance to the Drug Killings is an art exhibition focusing on the realities of the drug killings in the Philippines under the Duterte administration. Featuring the work of RESBAK (RESpond and Break the Silence Against the Killings), a global, Philippines-based alliance of artists and cultural workers, the exhibition presents photography, visual art, and multimedia that confront the consequences and aftermath of Duterte's “war on drugs,” particularly its impact on poor and marginalized communities. This exhibition serves as both a tribute to the victims and a call for justice, encouraging viewers to consider the human cost of political actions.


Paghilom Children
by Filipino freelance photographer Raffy Lerma


RAFFY LERMA is a freelance photographer based in Manila, Philippines. 

Raffy Lerma began his career in photojournalism as a student of the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Diliman—covering events and street protests that led to the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001. He worked as a staff photographer for the Philippine Collegian, the university's official student publication, and later served as its photo editor in 2004. Lerma finished his diploma in photojournalism at the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University. 

For 12 years, Lerma worked as a staff photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, covering the daily news beat in Metro Manila. He shifted into working independently to focus on his documentation of the Philippines' war on drugs and has been exhibiting his photographs and giving talks in different parts of the  Philippines and the world to help disseminate to a broader audience the realities of the drug war in the country.



Q1. What is your name? Tell us about what you do.

I'm Raffy Lerma, a Filipino freelance photographer based in Manila focused on documenting human rights and social issues in the country.

Q2. Tell us about this image.

The image was taken during a summer camp for orphans and children affected by the violence of the war on drugs back in August of 2023 in a province outside of Manila. It was organized by the church-based group Program Paghilom, which assists families of drug war victims during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. The camp was for these children to get to know one another as well as offer psychological and spiritual intervention for the trauma they’ve experienced.

One morning, during one of the children's activities, they had a walk where they had to pass a fish pond. I saw their reflection in the water and decided that this was an appropriate image that could represent the children and their trauma—intentionally hiding their faces to protect their identities from bullying in school, criticism, and being trolled on social media, which some have experienced in the past because of the stigma created by the drug war.

Q3. What does it mean to you to photograph these happenings in the Philippines?

It means to document and witness this sad and dark part of our history, which serves as a photographic record that these crimes did happen.It means to journey and be part of a bigger community with families of drug war victims and groups who assist them in the search for justice. It also means actively using these images and participating in what can be done to help.

Q4. What are your intentions and hopes for your work?

I hope my work can contribute to a bigger cause to move people to act and ultimately bring about societal change in the country from oppressive systems and institutions in government. I hope we exact accountability from those who committed these crimes and attain justice one day. Finally, I hope we learn from what happened and it does not happen again. 

Q5. How does art contribute to human rights in the Philippines?

Most Filipinos do not know their rights. It is hard to grasp when there is so much poverty, inequality, and disregard for human rights in the country. Art plays a vital role in bridging this gap by advocating for human rights and spreading awareness.

Q6. What do you want audiences in New York to know?

I want the audience in New York to know that in this corner of the world, mass killings did happen in the campaign against illegal drugs and criminality by the administration of former president Duterte, who completely disregarded human rights, due process, and the rule of law. He saw a group of people as not humans. He instigated the killings of thousands and gave the police a license to kill. It was cheered upon and supported by the majority of Filipinos. All this bred a culture of violence and impunity that exists to this day. What happened in the Philippines has similar patterns that are all too familiar to mass killings and genocides all over the world.


*RESBAK (RESpond and Break the Silence Against the Killings) is an interdisciplinary alliance of artists, media practitioners, and cultural workers. The primary goal of RESBAK is to advance social awareness with regards to the killings brought forth by the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs.” “Resbak” is also a slang term for gathering reinforcements to get even with someone who did something wrong. Through various art forms and platforms, RESBAK seeks to give voice to and empower the most vulnerable sectors targeted by the state-endorsed killings.
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Rodrigo Duterte was voted to power in 2016 following a foul-mouthed campaign that rode on the promise of eradicating crime. A day after his inauguration, he guaranteed that his term would be  "a bloody one." In his signature wild, irreverent, and dehumanizing rhetoric, Duterte’s first marching order as president was to incite as many people as possible to commit summary executions:  "If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.” As dead bodies, mostly from urban slums, began to pile up, it became increasingly clear that this was not a war against drugs as much as it was a war against the poor. The war against drugs is the modern Jim Crow, a legitimization of anti-poor sentiments, a smokescreen for longstanding class-based discrimination, a punitive measure for being poor, and the rationale for this brutal, dehumanizing, and murderous policy against the poor. And there is evidence to show for it. A 2017 study showed that: (1) police targeted the poor disproportionately, (2) many drug-related extrajudicial killings in urban slums directly implicated the police, (3) police officers categorically used paid assassins to carry out the summary executions. Against this backdrop, a  group of artists and activists began to meet and work together toward the last quarter of 2016. The immediate objective was to expose and oppose the brutality of what was happening in the Philippines through creative means. With the realization that there was no existing artist collective that specifically registered its opposition to the anti-illegal drug campaign of the government, they decided to organize themselves. They settled on the name “Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings,” an acrostic that spells out the Filipino street slang “RESBAK” which means to retaliate or get even.

Last Updated: 05/08/2024 13:23