Family Photos in Cold War Contexts

By Andrea Noble Posted June 24, 2013

Medium tanopolsky

On 24 August 2004, the digital edition of the Argentine daily Clarín featured a colour photograph of a smartly-dressed man in his mid forties holding up two family snapshots for the camera. Like most family photographs, those on display in this image are unremarkable: a man and woman smile warmly at the viewer. Numerous details within each image accentuate the homey, relaxed intimacy of these family scenarios: the man’s pipe; the bisected figure of the child who leans back into the embrace of the person we assume to be his father to get into the viewfinder’s field of vision; and the arm that affectionately rests across the woman’s shoulder. Although this couple is unknown to us, their pose is more than familiar in its everyday informality and predictability that are the hallmark of family photography as a genre. Displayed in their current context, however, these family snaps, whilst sadly familiar, are anything but ordinary.

As the configuration of accompanying caption (‘Pain: Yesterday Tarnopolsky with Estela de Carlotto, leader of the Grandmothers, shows photos of his parents’), text and other elements in the image reveal, the man who proffers the photographs to the camera is Daniel Tarnopolsky, the only surviving child of Hugo Tarnopolsky and Blanca Edelberg, who, with two of their three children, were disappeared by agents of the military dictatorship in July 1976 . Their still images here bear eloquent testimony in the context of a photo opportunity staged to mark the compensation that ex-admiral Emilio Massera, a key perpetrator in the regime of state terror (1976–83), has been ordered to pay Tarnopolsky. To the right of the frame, completing this politically charged family scenario, sits Estela Carlotto, the leader of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo [Grandmothers of May Square], a civic association whose aim is to locate and return to their rightful families those children kidnapped during the dictatorship.

If these intimate, private snapshots of Hugo Tarnopolsky and Blanca Edelberg are, through their repetition of the conventions of family photography, in themselves instantly familiar, so too is the public display of this photographic genre in images such as this one. Alongside formal portraits and ID photographs, the family snapshot has acquired emblematic status in the context of human rights activism in Argentina and indeed across a range of Latin American countries. In response to the violence and impunity unleashed by the region’s position in the context of Cold War politics, with particular force between the 1960s and 1980s, photography has emerged as a centrally important element in the material culture of protest and struggles for justice.

The political uses to which photographs have been put are multiple in those countries of the subcontinent in which state repression and its favoured modus operandi, forced disappearance, are prevalent. From Argentina, Chile, through Peru, Honduras, Guatemala to Mexico, photographic images have wide currency in the political arena of human rights struggles, with the potential to engage a community of viewers outside the national sphere in which the disappearance took place. As a mode of photographic performance and endlessly repeated gesture staged precisely for the camera, such images have achieved iconic status. Instantly recognizable by a broad transnational viewing public, they loudly proclaim, ‘these are our children, our partners, our siblings; they are missing; where are they? We want them back.’ Or, in the case of the Tarnopolsky photo opportunity, ‘these were my parents, my siblings: all the money in the world cannot bring them back’. In fact, what makes the Tarnopolsky photo opportunity such a compelling image is, in part, its intensely self-referential nod to an established iconography of human rights activism in Argentina and beyond, in which the photograph within the photograph has become a poignant symbol of forced disappearance. Despite the charged, emotive freight of these photographs, there is, however, a tendency to overlook them, to view them as mere props in human rights activism, rather than endowed with their own specifically photographic agency in the struggles for justice, truth and memory across the subcontinent.