It’s so overt, it’s covert: Aznar and Gonzales’ ‘Inside the Lion’s Den’

published at POC.

photo courtesy of Jes Aznar

Photojournalist Jes Aznar and reporter Iris Gonzales’s collaborative book, Inside the Lion’s Den provides a disclaimer in its introduction: “It does not pretend to offer an exhaustive account of the Bureau of Custom’s (BoC) day-to-day operations nor does it claim to be an investigative work.”

Strictly speaking, investigative it is not. But it will take you into untold territories far within and around the close and remote peripheries of the restricted universe of the BoC.

Into the wild

The BoC is an attached agency of the Department of Finance. Its main mandate is to facilitate and regulate imports, exports and foreign trade. As such, it has figured in one-too-many controversies and allegations of corruption and bribery, red tape and political patronage to accommodate big businesses, fraudulent officials and powers-that-be.

In Inside the Lion’s Den, Gonzales refers to the bureau as the Philippines’ very own infamous “wild, wild west”. Years of covering the BoC as public finance beat reporter for the Philippine Star piqued her interest in writing an in-depth reportage.  Aznar, on the other hand, confesses that prior to the making of the book he had a persistent desire to capture the BoC’s clandestine world.

“Matagal ko nang gustong makapasok, but it was very hard to penetrate. You have to have the right connections and enough resources.” The duo has former Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez to thank. “Without his endorsement, we would not have been able to delve deep into the bureau.”

And into the wild they embarked. The making of the documentary project was a whirlwind wild-goose chase. “Whenever we were summoned, we would immediately pack our bags and go. No second thoughts. Kulang ang time, kulang ang resources but we were determined to go through with it.”

It took the pair five months to gather sufficient material from the ports of Manila, Subic, Batangas, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Davao and Tawi-Tawi.

“It was at once tedious, frustrating but exhilarating. We practically lived with them, assimilated into their ways and endured the traditions and customs of the Customs. But still, we were always the outsiders,” Gonzales said.

Indeed, the BoC has a reputation of having a world of its own. In the book, Gonzales talks about a “mafia-like” organization, exclusive and ever-wary of intruders. Thanks to Aznar’s photos, the reader gets a glimpse of the proverbial underworld where everything is so overt, it’s covert.

So was it “commissioned work”? “Some would probably say that,” Aznar said, perhaps referring to the apparent perfunctory and obligatory photographs and articles in the book. “But we had all the journalistic and artistic freedom, no one interfered with the outcome of the book.  Our materials and output are ours. Our observations and opinions are uninfluenced.”


Not a typical photo book

Inside the Lion’s Den is a portfolio-sized, hard-bound, full-color 200-page book that could easily aesthetically decorate any coffee table or book shelf. But it is not your typical photo book.

The text and images, though related, are independent of each other. For the conventional reader, it can be somewhat confounding to read. One has to either read through the text first before skimming through the photographs or vice versa. This can be arguably inconvenient, so much so if one expects to read the whole book from leaf-to-leaf presuming the text to complement the photographs or vice versa. There is the sense that the authors intended for the book to possess a somewhat disorderly texture. If so, the BoC could not have been more aptly presented – unsystematic in its own systems, systematic in its own un-systems.

Gonzales’s accounts of their five-month stint are a mix of candid story-telling and factual articles. She stays loyal to detail, using a first-person, journal-entry approach as if to enjoin readers to empathize in her narration of the sometimes inconceivable, sometimes stirring tales revolving inside and around the BoC. In no-nonsense manner, she relates the story of an unapologetic prosperous “veteran”, in another an inferior employee who remained at the bottom of the ladder for rejecting the enticement of easy money. “Kung malinis at marangal, mayroon namang ilan. Pero ang siste lang, kahit na alam nila ang nangyayari, kapag nagkukuwento sila para bang hindi sila kasali,” she said.

Aznar’s photos are telling and compelling. They provide documentary evidence of the proliferation of smuggled goods – from hot cars, fertilizers, imported crude oil to merchant goods that inevitably find their way to local port markets or duty-free shops. Diverse characters, faces and demeanors splash the pages in full color. Every molecule is trapped in each image, all shots meticulously-timed, a testament to Aznar’s discipline and mastery of photojournalism.


“Sinking ship”

After Inside the Lion’s Den came out, Gonzales and Aznar were surprised that all of its 1,500 copies sold out in a matter of weeks.

Is that not a good thing? “It would be if the copies were bought by real patrons,” Aznar sardonically says. They suspect that because of sensitive issues and images published in the book, copies may have been hoarded in bulk by those who preferred for business of the BoC to stay “private.”

They recount incidents of strange phone calls and “being followed by a mysterious car one night” after the book had been launched. Still both appear unnerved. “It comes with the territory,” Aznar shrugs. He says that they did not produce and conceptualize the book “to make enemies” but to just “tell it like it is”.

“Before all these, we just heard about stories of corruption and bribery and mafia in government. Now we know first-hand how rampant these are. Kahit na busilak ang puso mo you’ll eventually get sucked into coddling or tolerating the system,” Gonzales says.

So how can all these be resolved? “Naisip kong masasalba na lang kung sasakay silang lahat sa isang barko, lahat, walang matitira, tapos lulubog ‘yung barko,” Aznar says, tongue-in-cheek but clearly half-serious.

That, or a total overhaul not only of the bureau but of a whole system of government through and in which bureaucrat-capitalism thrives.

Are related projects in store? Aznar says, “Ang objective talaga ay mapasok ‘yung underworld. Bonus na lang kung mapasok din ‘yung iba. Why not?”


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