New Internationalist

Surfacing: my nth wall

It is Saturday night in the busy streets of Quezon City, a place next to Manila, the Philippine capital. In a small café, artists, photographers, theatre actors, folk singers, writers and activists are gathered.

There’s ice-cold beer, the usual grilled pork skewers and what-have-you. There’s good music, too. And tonight, as on most nights in this watering hole, there’s lots of laughter and jamming.

Suddenly, as if lightning had struck, two photographers dashed inside the café. They sat down, gulped some drinks, listened to musicians on stage, laughed with friends and looked around to choose the best spot and in seconds, started spreading paste on the wall.

They worked fast. It must have been their nth wall. In a few minutes, blown-up black and white photo of Edith Burgos, the mother of missing Filipino activist Jonas Burgos, filled the wall. It was not one giant photo but small squares put together piece by piece like a puzzle.

Jonas, a 36-year-old activist, has not been seen since 28 April 2007. Witnesses say gunmen dragged him from a mall in the northern part of the city to a waiting vehicle whose licence plate was traced to another car impounded in a military camp.

On another wall, the group started pasting the photograph of Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon, a journalist killed in the gruesome 23 November 2009 massacre of 58 people on the southern Philippine island of Maguindanao.

Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon.

Editha Tiamzon, widow of Daniel Tiamzon. Photo by Sandino Nartea.

People at the café started helping, filling their hands with home-cooked paste and making sure that every piece of the photograph fell right into place.

It’s called Dikit’rato, which means photo-graffiti, or literally, photos pasted on walls.

Dikit’rato is all about raising awareness about the country’s human rights situation. It is a series of photo-graffiti activities on various public spaces, cafés and state universities to call attention to the worsening situation. It is part of a larger project dubbed Surfacing, wherein a number of Filipino photographers portray the struggles against human rights violations of their friends and families.

‘We want to make these photos visible and accessible to the common Filipino, who comprise the vast majority of victims of these human rights abuses, and who therefore need to be informed the most. By mounting photos in public spaces and by enjoining communities and groups to participate, they are also empowered to act as “curators” in their own neighbourhood or setting and not just passive observers and “receivers” of information,’ the organizers behind the Surfacing project say on their website

Furthermore, the group said that ‘Dikit’rato is thus a rethinking of the concept of photographic exhibition – to think out of the box and be unboxed, to liberate the viewing of photographs from the limited confines of a traditional gallery’s box. It is also our statement against the intrusion of commercial advertising into public spaces – against the visual pollution of product promotion. Dikit’rato is therefore also a “reclaiming” of public spaces, which we believe should be the domain of people’s art rather than mind-numbing advertisement.’

In the Philippines, the human rights situation is defined by the increasing number of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, a cold-blooded massacre of 58 people, a growing culture of impunity, of desperate widows and orphaned children and a government that allows it to happen.

But this is what the government and the perpetrators of these inhuman acts do not know – that for every human rights victim, there are countless individuals who will stand up for them.

There will be loud voices of protest. There will be piercing words. There will be court battles. There will be fighting mothers. And yes, there will hundreds of photos plastered on walls and the calls for justice will reverberate through and through even in the dead of night.

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  1. #1 ciderpunx 11 Jan 11

    What an inspiring combination of photography, politics and art to read about. Will check out their blog. Thanks for posting Iris.

  2. #2 Giedre 11 Jan 11

    Wonderful initiative!

    But what happens if these photo-activists get caught by the police? Are they considered ’criminals’ by the state?

  3. #3 Iris Gonzales 13 Jan 11

    @Ciderpunx. Thank you. Glad you liked it. @Giedre, they can't and shouldn't be considered criminals. Hopefully, they wouldn't be caught. It is indeed, a wonderful initiative!

  4. #4 Ler Rey 16 Jan 11

    Hello Giedre,

    The act itself of putting up these installations without a permit would technically be considered as vandalism or maybe disturbance of public order, so in a sense ’criminal’, petty though we hope it may be adjudged.

    We've considered that possibility and we think its a small price to pay to get this message across.

    Thanks for the concern!


  5. #5 Iris Gonzales 17 Jan 11


    I totally agree. Small price to pay to get the message across. Keep it up!

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About the author

Iris Gonzales a New Internationalist contributor

Iris Cecilia Gonzales is a Filipino journalist and blogger. At present, she covers economic news for a Manila broadsheet, but she also writes other stories here and there. She has been blogging since 2004 on various issues including women and children and human rights. She is among the winners in the TH!NK 3 global blogging competition organized by the Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre.

You may email her at [email protected]

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