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Is Duterte’s birthday ‘rice cake’ photo truthful, a lie, or somewhere in between?

By CHUCK SMITH Published Mar 29, 2021 7:09 pm

What’s in a picture—and does it offer the complete truth? These are the questions being asked by netizens today after a photo of President Rodrigo Duterte during his birthday on Sunday, March 28 became viral.

On Sunday, Sen. Christopher Lawrence Go released a photo that shows Duterte blowing a candlestick on top of a mound of rice. The photo also shows what appears to be leftover food on a plate. 

President Rodrigo Duterte celebrated his 76th birthday on Sunday, March 28.

“Sa matagal na panahong kasama ko ang Pangulo, marami akong hinangaan at natutunan sa kanya. Isa na dito ang kaniyang simpleng pagkatao. Bawat kaarawan niya, kahit kailan ay hindi po iyan nagpa-party o nag-celebrate,” Go wrote.

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A post shared by Bong Go (@sapbonggo)

It was earlier reported that Duterte flew to Davao City, his hometown, to celebrate his birthday with family, days before Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal were placed on enhanced community quarantine. 

But the photo received flak online, particularly after Go posted a video on social media of the same table shown in his earlier photo filled with various food items—including a whole lechon or roasted pig. Go’s original video has been deleted. However, many netizens have saved and shared Go’s video online.

Many criticized Duterte and his camp over the photo, which seemed to be giving off the appearance of simplicity.

“Acting poor for your birthday photo ops when you're not really poor is just mocking those who truly have nothing to put on their tables for their own birthdays,” Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said in a tweet.

Netizens, too, commented on the post, noting that while the photo is focusing on Duterte blowing a candle stuck into a mound of rice—highlighting what Go described as the president’s “simpleng pagkatao”—the other items visible in the photo seem to negate this.

“If people only knew na the comp chair behind him costs 11k++,” a Twitter user said.

The Palace defended Duterte over the photo and the video from his 76th birthday celebration. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said on Monday, March 29 that he doesn't think the “President ever pretended to be poor.” “He has always been known as simple. That is why he did not have guests on his birthday,” he said.

"It’s really crab mentality for anyone to suggest that the president was pretending. No, the President never pretends, he is known for his authenticity. He has simple celebrations and I think that’s what happened on his birthday," Roque said in an interview with the ABS-CBN News Channel.

But other netizens noted how the angle of Duterte’s birthday photo seems selective in what it is trying to leave out of the entire picture.

In a Facebook post, photojournalist Jimmy Domingo said, “The past days, in my photojournalism classes, I shared issues on framing (the camera frame)—what to include and what to exclude depending on how the photographer controls the narrative.”

Pertaining to the first photo of Duterte uploaded by Go and the video that followed it, Domingo said, "Kapag hindi lumabas ang video, di malalaman ang bigger story or bigger picture. Sa photojournalism practice, kung mag-isa lang ang photographer sa isang scene, sa kanya nakasalalay ang "faithful representation of the event". And one key question, as I point out in my lectures is: What is the photographic truth?”

Asked to further explain his views, Domingo told PhilSTAR L!fe that the camera has a limitation, since the person taking the photo can choose what to include and exclude in the frame.

“And ang limitation na yan puwede mong i-weaponize by including and excluding, you control the narrative,” Domingo said.

Meanwhile, a photographer and academic who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal told PhilSTAR L!fe that it is important to look at the Duterte photo with three questions in mind: what is the photo’s intent, what is the photo’s context, and what is the photo’s content.

For instance, if you are to take a photo of a flower, the intent is to capture the photo and the content is the flower. The context is where things could get tricky since this pertains to everything external to the photo being taken.

If we are to ask these questions about the Duterte photo, he said: “The content of the image is that he was blowing "a birthday rice cake"

“So what is the intent? Was it for Bong Go to show that Duterte is as simple living just like you and me? To add another meme image? Or just simple ‘I'm greeting my friend’ post?”

He added, “The context is that we are in the middle of the pandemic, people are starving, literally dying, and Harry Roque is saying that he is an everyman.”

“Now given all that, does the content, the intent, and context match? More often than not, if it doesn't, we can say there is something not truthful with the image. If it does, we can say that the image is sincere.”

It’s also important to note, he said, of what was left out in a photo. “What you leave out is as important as what is in the image. These deliberate choices can twist the meaning,” he said.

He added, referencing Roque’s statement about Duterte’s photo: “The fact that they have to add the context that the image does not intend to show the president as poor means that the image is questionable to begin with. Why was it made in the first place? Given the administration's penchant for doing performative actions, it doesn't seem far-fetched to assume that this was another one of those that failed.”