Looking back

By Thy Phu Posted March 24, 2014

Figure 1. Preserving Photographic Records at the Police Archives, Guatemala City, Marcos Armstrong, 2014.

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We must have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs in Guatemala.  It’s what everyone does these days, especially when travelling. It’s what we do, as historians, theorists, and critics of photography. Still, on February 20th, 2014, during the Sites of Memory tour that kicked off the Cold War Camera conference, the clicking and snapping seemed especially obsessive. 

At the FAFG Bone Laboratory, where we were led through a dark corridor stacked high with boxes—we were told they were packed with human remains—to a workroom where other bones were cleaned and catalogued, we kept our cameras close. The recovery, identification and memorialization of bones and other artifacts are integral to the slowly unfolding process of transitional justice. The excavation and display of these bodies of evidence are part of a politics of appearance to counter state violence that “disappeared” thousands of Guatemalans during a bloody civil war. In response to this unmistakable, though unspoken, call to visibility, we obliged by compulsively clicking.

This was an event asking to be photographed. It was, to borrow Ariella Azoulay’s phrase, an event of photography.

Figure 2. The Event of Photography, Guatemala City, Guatemala, Daniel Hernández-Salazar, 2014.

The focus remained intense throughout this poignant day: at the Museum of Martyrs we listened while Samuel Villatoro, the son of one of the disappeared, testified about his lost father, former union leader Amancio Villatoro, whose bones were displayed in a glass case lit with bright halogens. This gleaming tomb rested near frayed blue jeans that had helped in the process of identification. When viewed together, the artifacts lent authority to the bones that authenticated our guide’s testimony—punctuated more forcefully by a brief documentary film that he played for us. In the background, cameras clicked away.

It was the same at the Police Archives (Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional), where the surreal setting—you have to drive through a junkyard of cars to get to the archive—reveals the imminent threat of disintegration. Against this backdrop of ruin, the tasks of recording and documenting seem all the more urgent.

Figure 3. Driving through the Junkyard of History, Andrés Mario Zervigón.

We photographed the boxes. Despite our misgivings (prompted by our belief that bones should be treated respectfully, though what this means in such an extraordinary context is less clear), we photographed the bones.

We photographed photographs of bones. Then, we photographed each other photographing.

We were also photographed.

Who was it that turned the camera on us? I worried that it was the far-seeing eyes of the state, and shied away from these strange lenses, until I discovered that the cameras belonged to the archives themselves.

As researchers, it’s common to carry to archives assumptions and expectations: if lucky, they will yield information, and if unlucky, seem impenetrable.

We visit archives to look. In Guatemala, the archives look back. On the Police Archives's website is our portrait. They look back, hoping to find, in the eyes of researchers like us, witnesses to the evidence that they disclose, legitimation for their ongoing work.