Around this time last year, I was at the edge of Lake Lanao in Tugaya, Lanao del Sur, an artisan town southwest of Marawi City. I was setting up a drone camera, a small black DJI Mavic Air that I and my research team from the Ateneo de Manila University planned to fly over the lake.
Before setting up, we had asked the townsfolk for permission, through our guide and translator, a Tugaya resident. They asked what it was for and we said it was for documentation of the area. Reluctantly, they agreed.
A few moments into the flight, a commotion erupted from the town hall nearby. People were agitated and apparently we caused it. The barangay captain told us to stop immediately, saying they didn't want drones in their town.
Through our translator, we were told that our drone emitted a sound that was all too familiar: the sound of surveillance, war, and terror. The buzz of the drone sparked traumatic experiences.
We apologized profusely and stopped our work, and talked to the community about the history of drones in the area. “Akala namin may operation (We thought there was an operation),” people said. They have come to associate drones with military surveillance, they said, and the appearance of one usually foreshadowed a military operation.
Although Tugaya is 25 kilometers southwest of Marawi, many of its residents live, work or do business in the city, which became the arena of war between the ISIS-affiliated group of rebels led by the brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute and government forces, for five months beginning May 23, 2017. The Mautes wanted to build a caliphate out of Marawi, the business, economic and educational center of Muslim Mindanao. The entire city center was destroyed, including the business establishments where Tugaya's artisans sold their woodcarving and brassware, the traditional craft of the Meranaw, the people of the lake.
At the time of my visit, the Marawi siege two years earlier was still fresh in people's minds. The drone triggered the memory and the trauma.
Not everyone we encountered feared the drone. In the evacuation centers where the bakwit or displaced persons were used to seeing reporters carry all sorts of gear, people were a little more accommodating but nevertheless questioning. All of these encounters made me realize that each time I unpacked the drone; I was also opening a lightning rod of attention and questions.
“Dapat sinabi nyo may drone kayo (You should have told us you brought a drone),” was the admonition I heard uttered multiple times from different people in Marawi and neighboring areas.
Media studies professor Kevin Howley in his 2018 book "Drones: Media Discourse and the Public Imagination" described drones as "the latest in a series of sublime technologies to seize the public imagination."
One takeaway from Howley's book is that drones, coming in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles that carry cameras and payloads, serve as weapons of surveillance and armory and enforce the perception of a "perpetual war."
Howley also provides the interesting angle that drones have been domesticated by civilian and commercial entities. It can be a toy bought as a holiday gift but at the same time, at least in the U.S., delivered by another drone if purchased online. According to Howley, “drones are the icon of America’s war and capitalism.”
In Marawi, people are familiar with drones. When I first arrived after a 100-kilometer land trip from Laguindingan airport, I proceeded to the homestay where our team was billeted. In the process of unloading and seeing my gear, the taxi driver asked in Tagalog, "Is that a drone? Where will you fly it?"
I said yes, and answered, wherever they will allow us. At that point we had not received permission to fly the drone, much less enter the Most Affected Area (MAA) of Marawi City.
On that trip, I was joining photojournalist Veejay Villafranca who had arrived days earlier. We were on assignment to conduct interviews, document, and photograph how the city and the Meranaw were recovering from the wounds and scars left by the siege.
As I was travelling from Laguindingan, Veejay texted me to say that he and another team member, Matet Norbe, had already gone around the city. "Matet and I found several spots for you,” Veejay said, referring to locations from which we could send off the drone.
Our aim was to fly it over MAA, also known as Ground Zero. But we were not given the permission we sought. We wondered why, since we knew of members of the media flying different sizes of drones on different days. How they got permission is still unknown to us. But we surmised it must have been because in our case we happened to be in Ground Zero on May 23, the exact day two years earlier when the fighting started.
We visited the spots Veejay and Matet found, and also searched for alternatives for where to fly the drone and capture aerial images and videos for our project. We went to the evacuation centers.
While we were watching a volleyball game at the Sarimanok tent city, a man approached us and asked, “Anong channel kayo (What channel do you work for)? ” We said our affiliation and he casually replied, “Kaya pala maliit lang dala nyo. Yung ibang channels tsaka sa foreigners ang laki (So that's why your equipment is small. The other channels and the foreigners had big ones).”
In another encounter, children asked us, “Kuya pwede i-send yan at post sa Facebook at Instagram (Can you send it and post on Facebook and Instagram)?” It seemed trivial at that time, but looking back, it seems that drones are part of their imagination.
Drone video over Sarimanok Tent City, May 2019. Youngsters played volleyball in a clearing near the tents. Video by Aaron R. Vicencio.
This was further validated in another evacuation area when the bakwit told us that there was a good spot to fly out from. They said it was where they brought most of the previous media visitors. I was also told to fly over a certain ridge so that I could get a dramatic image of the MAA from afar. But the place turned out to be inaccessible because of road constructions.
We traced the area in Lanao Lake where the Maute brothers entered. We were waiting for a Navy captain to give us the go signal to fly our drone. While waiting, it started raining and the chance to fly the drone was becoming bleak.
Eventually, he arrived and gave us two conditions. First, he would watch over my shoulder so that he could see on my monitor where the drone was going. Second, we could not cross an imaginary line because it would be over the Navy controlled area.
Then the other officers started saying there was a bounty for shot down and recovered drones. Maybe they were just intimidating us, maybe they were telling the truth. I did not want to risk the drone that I did not own, so we quickly brought it down.
Radio interference made it particularly difficult to fly anyway. If I lost signal, I might not get good footage or worse, I might lose contact with the drone. What also made it difficult were the light rain and the pressure of someone looking over my shoulder.
In his book, Howley also talked about witnessing and resistance. Drones are being used to look at, document, and record the landscapes of conflicts and disasters. They provide an aerial perspective that covers a huge area of land in minimal time. But it is the survivors and the witnesses to atrocities who recognize the negative impact of drones.
With these experiences I have come to realize the reality and application of the theory of visual ethics articulated in 2005 by Julianne Newton, professor of visual communication, “on how images and imaging affect the ways we think, feel, behave, create, use, and interpret meaning, for good or for bad.”
According to Newton, it is in this practice we have to be aware of how we create and use images in communicating with others and ourselves, such that visual ethics becomes the “soul of communication, that indescribable yet knowable aspect of meaning making, conveying and interpreting.” It is in the experience of doing and understanding that there should be an appropriate use of imaging power in regard to self and others.
Newton calls for a responsible visual ecology, to be aware of the images that are created and continuously circulated. This should be a concern for those who document landscapes of pain, terror, and war.
Marawi is still reeling and waiting for its chance to recover. The government has left the Meranaw in the air with slow relief efforts and minimal public services. These are manifested in the systemic injustices of red tape, vertical permissions of power, and the lingering trauma of displacement.
Three years since the siege, its horrors and impact have receded from public view, but there is a need to sustain responsible storytelling, to hear from the voices on the ground, and to keep pressuring for action.
Not listening is to just drone out the narratives and it will be costly.
(Aaron R. Vicencio is a member of the faculty of the Communication Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. He is also executive director of the Eugenio Lopez Jr Center for Multimedia Communication and was part of “Voices from the Rubble: Marawi Narratives,” a project of the AdMU’s Agenda for Hope.)