Documenting a Lasting Heartbreak: A Conversation with Kimberly dela Cruz
By Lk Rigor
For photographers, W. Eugene Smith is a familiar name, a pioneer in the field. “When you talk about the first photo essay, it’s him, [with his 1948 series] The Country Doctor,” Kimberly dela Cruz said, explaining how she first heard about Smith.
In 2021, dela Cruz became the first Filipino photographer to receive the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant, which supports projects that reflect the “passionate involvement” of Smith’s 45-year documentary photography practice. Dela Cruz’s winning series, Death of a Nation (2016–22), shines a light on the fragility of Philippine democracy, with a focus on the extrajudicial war on drugs heavily advocated by former president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. However, it is not just about violence and grief but also—and more importantly—hope, as the victims’ bereaved families help each other heal and find courage to continue to seek justice.
In September, dela Cruz was preparing the works that she will donate to the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund as part of the grant. When she dropped by the Manila-based photography service Pioneer Studios (full disclosure: I work for Luzviminda, the photography archive run by Pioneer Studios) to pick up the prints, I spoke to her about her experience making and evolving Death of a Nation. Katya Guerrero, co-founder of Pioneer Studios, also joined me in this conversation.
Why did you choose Death of a Nation for your proposal to the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant?
It was my major ongoing project at that time. I’ve been going at it since 2016, and it grew organically. When I started photographing the crime scenes at night, the funerals, and then the families, I realized that it is my duty to finish the project because, in allowing themselves to be photographed, the families have given me their trust with their stories. I felt that it was my responsibility that the work should go somewhere.
How did you communicate the purpose of the project to these families?
In the initial stages, they knew that I was curious about the war on drugs, and they were also curious about my work. Some people don’t react well to being photographed, or there’s an initial distrust because they know they could be portrayed dishonestly. There are stages where you have to bridge the gap, where you have to communicate that this is not a forceful intervention in their life; this is documentation. I try to explain to them that this is a work for history, and that there might be a purpose for it in the future. I tell them that once they give their consent to be photographed or to be named, I will take the handling of their story seriously. That there is also room to refuse or not reveal their identity, and it’s not my intention to cause them harm. A lot of families fear repercussions from the police, the government, or their community. I think that’s what the effect of the war on drugs is—fear. It sowed distrust because a lot of the victims’ families still don’t know why their loved ones were killed.
How has the project developed since you received the grant?
I was able to photograph exhumations and the months leading up to the 2022 elections, as well as revisit people I’ve photographed for years and meet new families. There is also this collaborative process I’ve decided to pursue as a send-off. Portraits I made of the participants are destroyed and are recreated through their hands. There are sad aspects to the stories, but that’s not all. There are many aspects of life, like love, yearning, and whimsy. Through this process, I want them to understand that I’m not just portraying them as a sad body, and that first and foremost they are the bearers of their own stories.
It’s a different way of framing the victims of the war on drugs, creating a bigger picture than the death or blood.
Yes, violence is more than just blood, gore, and death. This is also about a lasting heartbreak. It’s impunity. There’s institutional injustice and ongoing trauma. The photos are an appeal to be considered, to be remembered.
When you’re taking the photos, how do you capture abstract feelings like pain or sadness?
I struggle with that because when you’re taking the photo, you’re also interpreting the scene at the same time. There’s a pressure that comes with conveying the magnitude of somebody’s suffering in a photograph. I always wonder if it looks like I’m exploiting them. If the trust between the person and the camera is still not established, it shows. For me, you’re really just waiting for that moment where it feels like everything is in the frame and hoping that the essence stays with the photograph. It’s not science, it’s art. As people we have our biases, our different interpretations. I’m just hoping that I’m understanding the scene correctly and that I’m loyal to the story in my interpretation.
There are also situations where I just talk to the people without taking their photograph. I am very sensitive to when I feel that people are just waiting for me to finish shooting because it’s not like when I’m done, I just go home. I’m also trying to understand the story as I go.
It seems your process is fluid.
There’s no formula, really. Sometimes I don’t chat with them, I’m just a silent observer. I have to be a fly on the wall but at the same time, I also have to be aware of the atmosphere or expectations of the people I’m documenting.
What changes have you noticed in yourself as you continue this project?
I was a news photographer when I started. I changed lanes and started focusing on documentary photography with this project. There was something lacking for me with news. Documentary challenges you to think deeper and really question your perspective, your interpretation of the story, and even your relationship with the people you photograph. You question a lot of things. If you’re thinking one dimensionally, or if you’re feeling restricted and your work feels limited then there’s something wrong. You have to overcome that; you have to expand.
With regards to the feeling of your photos, there’s a “tenderness.” What emotions have you felt as you were making them?
There are different emotions because it depends on what I’m being exposed to. At the start, I was photographing crime scenes, then wakes. I also followed people attending grief counseling and mothers and widows who are part of groups that are still campaigning to stop the killings and seek justice for their families. But I always have to anchor myself as a documentary photographer. I have to abide by its ethics and parameters, and set the boundary that it’s not friendship, it’s solidarity through a relationship between a photographer and a person who agreed to be photographed. I have to maintain this boundary because I want the participation to be open-hearted in the sense of informing people what happened. But I’m also a person. Honestly, there are times when I want to cry but I can’t because they would shift to comforting me. So I have to be what they need me to be at the moment. I have to be a listener, the person that they can confide in, or a photographer who’s just following them around. With that flexibility, there’s not one prevailing thing. And I want to convey complex emotions—they could be sad, triumphant, or fearful, and sometimes it’s all these things at the same time. A person is complex. There’s courage in them reliving the events for the sake of letting other people know what happened, to believe in justice because we’re still talking about it, that we’re not forgetting.
Going back to the grant, how did it help actualize the project?
I was able to buy a good recorder, polaroids. A lot went to buying hard drives as well. The majority of it was gear. And transport fees. It gave me the freedom to go out and photograph without the expectation of making a photograph.
For you, what’s the importance of sharing your experience with the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant?
I have the responsibility to share my experience so that others can learn from it. You have to be clear with your vision and you have to demonstrate your dedication. I think that’s what institutions are looking for. Getting the grant was a huge honor for me, and it opened room for discussion. It will create chances for people to perhaps pay attention to the work and give it more consideration.
My work will eventually be found in the archive of W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund. It will have a chance to survive; perhaps people could study it in the future. I’m hoping it will outlive me in that sense—that it’s something that can’t be erased.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.