Life in Bolivia
Posted January 27, 2014
In May 1961, Life published a photo essay on Bolivia, announcing new modernization initiatives there and proclaiming that "West Germany is already joining us to make Bolivia a 'showcase' for the West." The photos in this first essay, by Dmitri Kessel, contrast properly regimented indigenous women and children with grimacing “armed and angry” miners, depicting both Bolivia’s imagined path to modernity (which, for the majority of the population, required the casting-off of indigenous identity, values, and systems of social organization) and the miners’ potential to derail Bolivia from that path. With these photos, Life taught its readers what underdevelopment looked like, how individuals and nations might become modern, and how to identify threats to modernization.
In January 1964, Life produced another photo essay on Bolivia that seemed to bear out the first essay’s fears: miners from the Siglo XX mine had seized four American hostages in late 1963, in response to US-backed Bolivian military interventions in the mines and the arrests of union leaders. The photo essay chronicles the “10 harrowing days” when the American development and USIS workers were in “mortal danger.”
Writer Miguel Acoca describes how he and photographer Michael Rougier "wangled [their] way in" to see the hostages, held in "a second floor room, crammed with miners and their women, all of them hostile and some carrying dynamite sticks."The photographs in the essay, as well as the ultimate narrative of the hostage crisis, disrupt Acoca’s assertions of "hostility.” This is particularly true of the only close-up photo of the miners:
Assembled atop the statue, the men, perform a wide variety of attitudes towards it and the camera. The three most prominent men in the photo, all young, affect Hollywood-influenced poses, down to their half-open shirts and turned-up collars; if they are sullen, the photo suggests, it is by way of James Dean. So while these poses may demonstrate the miners’ defiant subjectivity and their deliberate performances for the camera, the photograph’s inclusion in the essay suggests the magazine’s desire to fit these performances into a different narrative. It asks us to read their "sullen" clinging in a new way: they become rebellious teenagers, acting out in the face of the "labor discipline" measures the United States is forcing the government to impose; not dangerous at all, in fact, but simply in need of firmer control. Thus Life incorporates the menacing impediments to modernization into a developmental narrative of adolescent sulking and rebellion, demonstrating one of the more effective ways that the international development establishment was able to counter and neutralize challenges throughout the 1960s.
Miguel Acoca, "Hostages of a Mob of Miners," Life (Jan 3 1964) 62.