This project aims to increase and deepen public understandings of the Cold War and its legacies in Latin America. Recent academic scholarship, and events such as the ongoing Efraín Ríos Montt genocide trial in Guatemala or the late 2014 declaration of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, demonstrate that the conflict remains a potent political and cultural force. This project proposes that photography is a powerful means to promote timely reflection on and public awareness of the legacies and memories of the Latin American Cold War. Its premise is that photography had and still has a key role in the cultural politics of the global conflict: through state surveillance operations; through deployment in resistance to state-sponsored terrorism; and by its role in commemorative and judicial processes. Questions of visuality — of what can (and cannot) be seen, known, and felt — stand at the centre of the cultural politics of the Cold War and its aftermath.
Cold War Camera is a collaboration with the Centro de la Imagen and the internationally-recognised Guatemalan photographer/activist Daniel Hernández-Salazar. The project takes the form of three practitioner workshops to be hosted in partnership with cultural institutions dedicated to the preservation and promotion of memory of the conflict in lesser known sites of Cold War: The Museum of Memories (Asunción), National Police Historical Archive (Guatemala City) and the 68 Memorial (Mexico City). The workshops will bring photographers from different Latin American countries together with archivists from the partner institutions, and with human rights activists, curators and academics to stimulate creative work that investigates what can be learned from the local histories, lived experiences, material traces of the Cold War, as well as its transnational connections.
Posted October 30, 2015
The last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) was marked by repression, terror and censorship. Approximately 30,000 men, woman and children were systematically abducted, tortured in clandestine detention centres and thrown alive into the River Plate or buried in anonymous graves. Around 500 children – of which only 117 have been found so far thanks to the work of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo – were illegally adopted, sometimes raised, in perverse fashion, by the murderers of their parents or their accomplices, who never told the children about their true origins.
The phenomenon of forced disappearance challenges our very understanding of what ‘being human’ is. If both vitality and mortality make us all human, the disappeared are, strictly speaking, neither dead nor alive; they live a ghostly existence, both in the past and the present, wandering among us like errant shadows and testing our experience of time and space. It is this uncertain death – the bodies were never found and the final days and whereabouts of the victims can never be completely reconstructed – that makes disappearance an ongoing crime: someone is (even today) disappeared.
During and after the dictatorship photography became a privileged resource for referring to state terrorism and disappearance. Even as early as 1977, for example, portraits of the victims were exhibited, as part of the demonstrations of the relatives of the victims and human rights organisations. The language of photography has been a close ally of memory struggles in Argentina.
More recently, photographers of the post-dictatorship generations, many of them children of disappeared parents, have used collage, montage, transfer and digital technology to produce imaginary encounters between generations and the missing picture in the family album.
That is precisely the motivation behind Lucila Quieto’s pioneering photographic montages. Carlos Alberto Quieto disappeared five months before the birth of Lucila. In the images of this series, Quieto combines fiction and biography, performance and photography, extending this practice to other children of disappeared parents who responded to an advertisement she put in a branch of HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio) that made a tempting offer: ‘Now you can have the picture you always wanted’. Quieto remembers: ‘I asked every son or daughter to look for a photograph of their parents, I then reproduced the images as slides. I projected them on the wall and asked the children to insert themselves between the camera and the image’. The experiment resulted in 35 black-and-white photographs that show a playful and fictional family scene re-made against the fatal destinies of those families.
One of the key aspects of Quieto’s images is their anachronistic quality. Anachronism is the disarming of the chronological disposition of events and the creation of a new, artificial arrangement of time that refers to what has happened in the past but most importantly what could have happened in a conditional temporality. The images of Arqueología de la ausencia are thus answers to a disturbing question: what might have happened had the disappeared survived? Quieto’s montages speak of a time that is neither in the past nor in the present but in what she calls ‘a third time’, an invented, dream-like temporality, a dimension where everything, even the impossible, seems plausible.
By intervening in a situation from which they were originally excluded, the children of the disappeared create autofictional images and demand a memory and a time violently stolen from them. Thus we witness private scenes of everyday family life: a celebration, a furtive kiss in the street, and a lively and loving conversation between a couple. The figures of the parents appear projected on the skin of their children, on walls, everywhere. The use of light and shadow creates ghostly scenes: faces, bodies, times and spaces become confused and raise a perplexing question for the spectator: which are the parents and which the children? In addition, the choice of personal photographs for this intervention also reaffirms the importance of everyday life at a time when everything, even the family, was subjugated to politics.
Curiously, given the increasingly digitalized world and virtual realities in which we live, Ana Amado has highlighted how instead of using the digital manipulation of images to produce a complete simulacrum, Quieto self-consciously makes visible the handmade composition of the scenes, the materiality of the old pictures (irregular borders, breakages, folds) and the frames. This gesture stresses the artificiality of the generational encounters, suggesting that something has been broken and the efforts to fix it are, ultimately, in vain.
Natalia Fortuny is a Lecturer in Latin American Visual Arts and Photography at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and teaches a Masters degree in Contemporary History at the Universidad Nacional DE General Sarmiento. She was awarded her PhD in Social Sciences (Universidad of Buenos Aires) and has a masters degree in History of Argentine and Latin American Art (IDAES-UNSAM). Her current research focuses on photography and memory in Latin America. She has published two books: Memorias fotográficas. Imagen y dictadura en la fotografía argentina contemporánea (La Luminosa, 2014, available here) and Instantáneas de la memoria: fotografía y dictadura en Argentina y América Latina (with Jordana Blejmar and Luis Ignacio García, Libraria, 2013). She is also a photographer (under the pseudonym of Nat Oliva) and the author of the poetry books Hueso (2007) and La construcción (2010).
Jordana Blejmar is a Research Associate in the School of the Arts at the University of Liverpool. She was previously a researcher at the AHRC-funded project Latin(o) American Digital Art and a University Teacher at Liverpool, as well as a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London. Originally a literature graduate from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, she was awarded an MPhil and a PhD (as a Gates Scholar) at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of the steering committee of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory (London). She has curated art exhibitions in Buenos Aires, Liverpool and Paris. Her research focuses on the material culture of childhood, ludic art and playful memories of trauma in Latin America. She is the co-editor (with Natalia Fortuny and Luis García) of Instantáneas de la memoria: Fotografía y dictadura en Argentina y América Latina (2013, Libraria), of a special issue on Latin American postmemories (with N. Fortuny, Journal of Romance Studies, 2013) and of a special issue on contemporary Argentine poetry (with Ben Bollig, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, in press). She is also currently completing the manuscript Playful Memories: The Autofictional Turn in Post-Dictatorship Argentina.
Posted June 23, 2015
For the past four years, I have been studying what I call the expanded field of photography during the military dictatorship in Chile. I’ve interviewed photographers, visited institutional and private archives, read magazines, catalogues, and photo-books, listened to different testimonies, and—of course—looked at hundreds of photo prints and photo negatives. I am now asked to choose one photograph, and to say something about it—not an easy task.
Every time I look at a photo I face the same challenge: What to say, how to begin talking about a photograph? Should I, perhaps, begin by its context? But, what ‘context’? Is it the ‘event’ identified in the caption (‘First Rally, O’ Higgins Park, Santiago de Chile, 1983’); is it the visual space where the photo emerges, is published or circulates—a magazine, a street rally, an itinerant exhibit, an art gallery, a photo-book published 20 years later; or is it the largest period to which both the event and the photograph belong? And, speaking of context(s), should I refer to the photographer’s background or to the background of the photographed subject? In each instance, our own perspective as researchers inevitably determines what we define as the ‘context of a photograph.’ If this perspective is so significant and decisive, then, why not begin by talking about how the photograph affects me? Why am I choosing this photograph and not another? But, could we possibly speak about photos that, one way or another, do not touch us? (Benjamin and Barthes would say we couldn’t). A photograph triggers different emotions and memories, depending on the beholder. Affects, memories, and reminiscences: what if I begin by telling what the photo evokes without showing, that what is latent, that what ultimately haunts the image (and indirectly haunts us)? Another (different approach) is to begin wherever we are (and I echo here Derrida’s early remarks about the trace in De la grammatologie, “We must begin wherever we are, and the thought of the trace, which cannot not take the scent into account, has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely”). To begin, then, wherever we are in the photograph, in the visual surface of the image. This approach, needless to say, has no guarantees: I must follow the trace’s path, wherever it takes me.
At the center, there is a young man. I don’t know who this man is. He seems to be looking up, but I don’t know what he is looking at. His gaze is somewhat defiant, he is not afraid (but then, why would he be afraid?) There are other people around him, most of them out of focus. Some of them carry posters and banners. In one of the background posters, I recognize Salvador Allende’s face (the trace of a trace). Some people look up. What are they looking at? I don’t know. The man’s message T-shirt strikes me: Pico. In regular Spanish, ‘pico’ means ‘beak’; in chileno it also means ‘dick,’ and even ‘fuck it’ or ‘fuck you,’ which I think is the best translation in this case, given the young man’s defiant gaze.
I know—or at least this is what I can infer from the photograph’s caption—that the photograph was taken in Santiago de Chile in 1983: “Pico. Primera manifestación. Parque O’Higgins.” [Pico. First Rally. O’Higgins Park.] For someone familiar with the history of the country in question, the information provided in the caption of this photo serves to locate this young man (and the people around him) in a specific juncture. 1983: ten years have passed since the military coup of September 11th, 1973 that put a violent end to the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Since the beginning of the eighties, and particularly since 1983, protests and rallies against the dictatorship become more and more frequent. Pico: this young man, through his message T-shirt, embodies the views of the people congregated on that particular day for that rally, as well as the opinion of other millions of people both inside and outside of the country. Pico: this four letter word—like the “No +” that begun proliferating in graffiti walls, pamphlets, and posters—condenses, then, the different affects and views people in the opposition held against Pinochet and against his regime. The moment captured in this photograph is just but one instance within a constellation of moments of resistance. Even if the forced disappearances, the tortures, and the street violence do not surface in this photograph, it seems nevertheless impregnated by all of that history.
The photographer is Kena Lorenzini. The first time I encountered this photograph was in Fragmento fotográfico: arte, narración y memoria. Chile 1980-1990 [Photographic Fragment. Art, Narration, and Memory. Chile 1980-1990] a photo-book containing a fragment of Lorenzini’s personal photo archive, published in 2006. A few years ago, during an interview, I asked Lorenzini about this photo. She told me that the caption in the book was not correct. Even though the date was most likely correct—the photo negative was inside an envelope with the date 1983 on it—as far as she could recall, the rally could not had been at Parque O’Higgins. Today, as I write about this photograph, I ask her again (via email). Again, she answers: “I cannot remember a rally at Parque O’Higgins in 1983, yet there are so many things about this period that get mixed up in my mind now.”
The young man in this photo keeps haunting me. The image touches me; it pricks me (as Barthes would say). I encounter this photo almost 30 years after it was taken, but many pedestrians may have seen it on their way back home from work, or during a coffee break, one day of 1988. On that day, a group of photographers decided to exhibit their photographs on a busy boulevard in downtown Santiago using their bodies as stands. In this collective portrait, we can see Lorenzini along with José Moreno, Álvaro Hoppe, and Alejandro Hoppe exhibiting and carrying their photographs. This was one of the many instances in which photographers brought photography closer to the public during the dictatorship, but that is another (though definitely related) story.
The author would like to thank Kena Lorenzini for granting permission to publish these photographs. Lorenzini’s website can be found here.
Ángeles Donoso Macaya is a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY. Her research interests include Latino/a American photography theory and history, documentary film theory, and contemporary literature from the Southern Cone and Mexico. Her most recent work on critical studies of photography draws from such fields as visual studies, performance studies, media studies, philosophy and art history. Her articles appear or are forthcoming in American Quarterly, Aisthesis, Chasqui, Revista Hispánica Moderna, LaFuga Revista de Cine, and in the edited volumesTechnology, Literature, and Digital Culture in Latin America (Routledge, 2015) and Des/Memorias Hemisféricas(Linkgua, 2015). She is co-editor of Latinas/os on the East Coast: A Critical Reader (Peter Lang, 2015) and is currently completing a book entitled Depth of Field: Photography between the Artwork and the Document.
Posted March 24, 2014
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.
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.
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.
Posted February 12, 2014
Posted February 3, 2014
El Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica (CIRMA), ubicada en La Antigua Guatemala, fue fundado en 1978 por Christopher Lutz y William Swezey como una pequeña biblioteca de publicaciones, no disponibles entonces en el país, y un centro de encuentro para investigadores en las ciencias sociales.
En los últimos 35 años, CIRMA has sido reconocida internacionalmente por su permanente interés en el rescate y preservación del patrimonio histórico, visual y cultural de Guatemala. Lutz y Swezey unieron sus bibliotecas personales con el apoyo material y moral de Julio Pinto Soria, Julio Castellanos Cambranes, Stephen Webre, W. George Lovell y Jorge Luján Muñoz, entre otros, creando así la Biblioteca de Ciencias Sociales de CIRMA. En 1997 CIRMA fundó el Archivo Histórico, cuyos fondos van del siglo XIX a la fecha, haciendo énfasis en la época contemporánea y jugando un papel crítico en la recuperación de la memoria histórica del país.
La Fototeca Guatemala, creada en 1979, al principio inspirada por el trabajo de Mitchell Denburg, representa el esfuerzo más significativo para rescatar la memoria visual de Guatemala. Retrata los diferentes grupos étnicos, sociales y políticos desde 1850 hasta el presente, provee un rico registro de la evolución histórica del país y refleja las tradiciones culturales, la vida cotidiana, el arte, la arquitectura, los hechos políticos y los desastres naturales. Hoy en día cuenta con más de un millón de imágenes y es considerada una de las colecciones visuales más importantes en Centroamérica.
Actualmente, CIRMA se está enfocando en sistematizar la organización y acceso a estas colecciones para ampliar la disponibilidad de todos sus contenidos y a la vez difundir las buenas prácticas de preservación y manejo de colecciones a todos los guatemaltecos.
The Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica (CIRMA) was founded by Christopher Lutz and William Swezey in Antigua, Guatemala in 1978. CIRMA first began as a small library of publications then unavailable in Guatemala and a meeting place for researchers working in the social sciences.
In the last 35 years CIRMA has been recognized internationally for its dedication to the rescue and historical preservation of Guatemala’s visual and cultural patrimony. CIRMA´s Social Sciences Library began with Lutz and Swezey’s personal collections, with the material and moral support of Julio Pinto Soria, Julio Castellanos Cambranes, Stephen Webre, W. George Lovell and Jorge Luján Muñoz, among others. CIRMA’s Historical Archive was founded in 1997 and includes materials dating from the 19th century until the present. Specializing in contemporary Guatemala, the Historical Archive has played a critical role in preserving Guatemala’s historical memory.
The Fototeca, CIRMA´s Photo Archive, was created in 1979, inspired in the beginning by the efforts of Mitchell Denburg. The single most important collection of photographic material in Guatemala, the Fototeca covers different ethnic, social and political groups from 1850 until the present. In the photos, researchers can find expressions of cultural traditions, daily life, art, architecture, political events and natural disasters. The archives provide a rich record of Guatemala history and with more than a million images is one of the most important photographic collections to be found in Central America.
CIRMA is currently working to systematically organize and increase access to all of the documents and photographs as well as promoting the best practices in preservation among Guatemalans. Although it's currently under renovation, on Feb. 21st, 2014, the Fototeca opens its doors to the Cold War Camera to host a digital exhibition and reception.
Anaís García Salazar is Coordinator of the Fototeca at CiRMA.
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.
Posted December 19, 2013
Many of the photographs are utterly quotidian and banal. All taken in Peru’s Andean highlands in the mid-1950s in the Quechua-speaking community of Vicos, they include close ups of home interiors: ersatz wood shelves clinging to crumbling adobe walls spilling over with scavenged bottles and rusty tins; stacks of baskets and charred ceramic cooking vessels; wool ponchos and skirts; storage rooms full of harvested potatoes. They also capture people eating, working in fields, chewing coca leaves, socializing, and holding babies. And, in rarer cases, the lens trains on more intimate moments, such as a family’s mournful preparation of the dead. The collection was the result of nearly twelve months of fieldwork undertaken by the photographer John Collier, Jr. Together with camera work on the Navaho nation, among Canadian fisherfolk, and for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Collier rose to prominence as a major force in twentieth century photo documentation; he is widely credited with carving out the field of visual anthropology.
Collier’s work in the Peruvian highlands fell under the auspices of the Vicos Project (or Cornell Peru-Project [CPP]) an almost 15-year development and modernization spearheaded by anthropologists from Cornell University. The project’s history is infamous for its unique origins. While looking for a suitable field site to be a part of a 5 country comparative modernization study, Cornell fell into an opportunity to assume the lease and the role of patrón for the poorly producing Vicos hacienda and transformed it and its peasant workforce into a so-termed ethnographic “laboratory” for the study of culture change. Project architects touted the novelty of their ethnographic laboratory whereby positive culture change could be glimpsed through the input of three key “variables” – education, western medicine, and intensive agriculture. Over the course of his tenure at Vicos, assisted by his wife Mary, Collier snapped over 10,000 stills photos and shot several hours of 16 mm film. The bulk of the material has never been released.
Although the original goals of the CPP were broadly aimed at improving social science methods and fostering the emerging field of applied anthropology, it was soon impossible to avoid entanglement with the intellectual politics of the Cold War. A central concern of the early Cold War ‘behavioral sciences’ was to identify ways so-termed “backward peoples” in the global south could be quickly and efficiently modernized in advance of Soviet development projects and the spread of communism. While modernization included standard aspects of development – improved health, articulation with market economies, and infrastructure, among others – it also focused on a search for deep-seated ideological “values” seen as essential to capitalist-oriented modernization. Researchers worked in far-flung corners of the globe in varied modernizing contexts to understand how such qualities as freedom, autonomy, and creativity could emerge among the as-yet undeveloped. Winning “hearts and minds” first required developing selves.
The Vicos Project typified this approach, yet in unimaginable and sometimes bizarre ways. Researchers searched for indicators of subtle change by employing everything from projective experiments (Rorschach and thematic apperception tests) to surveys and interviews. They also plumbed more peculiar sources, including psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, examination of letters literate Vicosinos wrote to migrant family members, elicitation of sexual frustrations, and manners of greeting. Collier’s role in the project was two-fold. He served as project documentarian tasked with capturing aspects of the project’s activities that would best convey to a wide audience the goals of the CPP. Perpetually money-challenged, Collier welcomed popular commissions. And indeed, stories about Vicos –complete with photographs and film – were produced in a number of “middlebrow” venues shaping the Cold War at home such as Saturday Review, Reader’s Digest, and eventually a film by CBS News hosted by Charles Kuralt. Collier’s other work was more scientific. Along with a Peruvian anthropology students and a Quechua translator, Collier blanketed the community, inventorying every eighth house in Vicos with his camera (then a community of just over 2,000). In two months, more than 80 households were photographed –every single wall, including storage rooms. 2,000 frames of 2 ¼ by 2¼ inch film were produced. The endpoint of such painstaking work was to establish a visual baseline on which peasant modernization could be plotted. Plans were made to return and photograph the same houses every few years never materialized.
Key to unlocking this set of photographs requires asking what it is researchers hoped to see in the images, both the original set and the subsequently planned future shots. How did they anticipate diagnosing change culture and modernization by analyzing the ways indigenous peasants displayed household items, played with and fed their children or buried their dead? Distinct from most mid-century photographic “salvage ethnography,” whereby the goal was to capture and freeze in print traditional cultures ahead of development, Collier’s goal was to produce photos that were future-looking. If outward appearances and behaviors did not always signal the formation of new values, could photographs reveal a more concealed changing self much the same way a Rorschach was used? In one sense, these photographs offer a stunning visual record of the indigenous highlands in the 1950s. They also help recover an outlook of Cold War thinking and the production of knowledge that turned the modernization of “backwards people” into contests of Cold War competition.
Jason Pribilsky is an associate professor of anthropology at Whitman College where he teaches courses in medical anthropology, science studies, and Latin American indigenous politics. He is the author of the ethnography, La Chulla Vida: Migration, Family, and Gender in the Ecuadorian Andes and New York City.
Posted December 9, 2013
Largely forgotten now, Solentiname – the place, the name -- has for decades resonated with revolutionary idealism. It was here that in the mid-sixties, motivated by the promises of the precepts of Liberation Theology, Ernesto Cardenal, together with a group of likeminded artists and poets established a Utopian community to resist the Somoza dictatorship, which was an important ally for the United States in Central America throughout the Cold War era. An archipelago of 36 tropical islands located towards the southeastern shores of Lake Nicaragua, remote and independent from the rest of the country, with its own school of primitivista painting and sculpture, Solentiname represented a “safe heaven” for Latin American revolutionaries, artists and intellectuals in the years leading up to the Sandinista revolution of 1978-79.
Following his visit to the islands, in solidarity with Cardenal and the Sandinista cause, Julio Cortázar would write: “I remembered that I had first shot Ernesto's mass, the children playing in palm groves exactly like those in the paintings, children and palm groves and cows against a violent blue sky and a lake only a bit more violently green, or was it the other way around?” -- Apocalypse in Solentiname, 1976.Through snapshots, Cortázar images the pastoral community as an in-between space, indeed a Utopia, where that “primal vision of the world” depicted by local artisans in lush primitivist canvases could radiate despite, and even if under threat. Fittingly, the short story would later be published in a collection of texts titled Nicaragua tan violentamente dulce (1984) – Nicaragua, so violently sweet. Through these mementos of latent yet unrelenting danger, i.e. the political violence and instability of Nicaragua, the author’s eye travels beyond to Buenos Aires, then El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala … São Paulo? he asks. Crossed by violence present, and past in Latin America, such memories collapse.
Apocalypse waited. Only one year later, following an attack on the Somocista National Guard headquarters in nearby San Carlos, as part of a nation-wide Sandinista armed campaign, Solentiname suffered violent retaliation. “La contemplación nos llevo a la revolución” [contemplation led us to the revolution] Cardenal would comment that same November; “Solentiname tenia una belleza paradisíaca, pero está visto que en Nicaragua no es posible ningún paraíso todavía.” [Solentiname had paradisiacal beauty, but, as is seen, no paradise is possible yet in Nicaragua.] Within months of the victory of July 1979, with the support of the U.S. a considerable counter-revolutionary army was formed from the remainder of the Somocista National Guard, and by 1981 Nicaragua was at war yet again.
Throughout the 1980s numerous politically engaged photographers, human rights activists, writers, artists and volunteers from the U.S and Europe traveled to Nicaragua; amongst them, there was consensus that the U.S.-supported Contra war had provoked a humanitarian crisis. How these witnesses portrayed the conflict to the outside world had tremendous impact on the extensive 10-year hostilities and on the delayed, and highly controversial peace process that concluded with the 1990 elections. By then Solentiname was at best a legend. Few photographs of its history survive. In one instance, while traveling through war-torn Nicaragua with the U.S. based organization Witness for Peace, Canadian photographer Larry Towell arrived in Solentiname in 1984. This work from the post-revolutionary years stands in direct contrast to that of Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta, whose earlier photographs show the idyllic life that the fishermen and peasants in Solentiname enjoyed despite the hardships and oppressiveness of the regime. The Solentiname he “found” in the 80s was a lost paradise, contaminated by the surrounding rampant violence – a documentary stance foretold by Cortázar’s redeeming yet eventually overpowered revolutionary prose.
Ileana Selejan is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and an Adjunct Lecturer at Parsons, The New School for Design. With a current research focus on the representation of conflict in Nicaragua and Latin America, she is interested in case study based, transnational approaches to studying contemporary art and photography.
Posted August 12, 2013
In June 1982, Group Material, a collective of young activist artists based in New York City, organized ¡Luchar! An Exhibition for the People of Central America in collaboration with the community center Taller Latinoamericano and several other New York City-based cultural organization--Casa Nicaragua, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, and Committee in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, among others--that occupied the second floor of 19 West 21st Street in Manhattan where the exhibition was also held. Intended to make a critical political statement about U.S. government policies in Central America as well as to initiate solidarity with Central American artists working in exile, the exhibition included a constellation of objects ranging from FDR/FMLN demonstration banners, posters by the Cuban political organization OSPAAL, and paintings by Nicaraguan school children to works by such contemporary artists as Martha Rosler, Anne Pitrone, and Daniel Flores Ascencio.
To introduce the exhibition, Group Material selected two photographs by the Ecuadorian photographer Bolivar Arellano, which he had taken in El Salvador, only months before, while working for the Associated Press. Mounted prominently next to the exhibition’s title, the images depict the bodies of four Dutch journalists who had been murdered in El Salvador in March of that same year. In the first image, the bodies of the deceased journalists--Jacobus Andries Koster, 46 years old; Johannes Willemsen, 42; Hans ter Laan, 25, and Jan Kuiper, just shy of 40--are stacked by twos, head to toe, on morgue refrigerator drawers. Taken in San Salvador, some 30 miles south of where they had been killed, the photograph initially functions primarily as information. It provides historical evidence of state-sponsored atrocities in El Salvador that the Reagan administration continued to deny in their effort to link the oppositional movement in El Salvador as Soviet-inspired. According to the Salvadorian government, a report, which at the time the Reagan administration found no evidence to “contradict,” the journalists had been accidentally killed in cross fire between the Salvadorian guerrillas and a group of government soldiers on a routine patrol. The Dutch government, however, vehemently denied this official account, insisting instead that the journalists had been deliberately killed by the government soldiers who had trailed them to an interview with the Salvadorian guerrilla leaders. In addition to spurring protests against U.S. policies in Central America across Europe, the controversy over these murders also caused several members of Congress to publicly question whether the United States should continue providing foreign aid to El Salvador’s government if they continued to commit such human rights violations.
At the same time that Arellano’s first photograph firmly situated ¡Luchar! within contemporary Cold War debates over the conflicts in Central America, his second image, which Group Material mounted directly below his first, functioned more interpersonally. Whereas in the first photograph, the stacked, laid out bodies elicit a more distanced public scrutiny, the second image’s close-up of the top two deceased journalists’s right hands, poignantly clasped together, arouses greater affect, the result of which is to humanize the explicit brutality on display in the first photograph and, in so doing, transform it into “something that,” as Edmundo Desnoes would write several years later in reference to Susan Meiselas’s photographs of the dead in Central America, “transcends horror and calls for solidarity and a future.” In other words, within ¡Luchar!, the dead bodies in Arellano’s photographs not only documented contemporary historical atrocities, more importantly, they activated on a personal as well as emotional level a larger global community against U.S. intervention in Central America. In so doing, they also became signposts for the mobilization efforts that would follow. Reappearing in Group Material’s 1984 installation, Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central American and Latin America that was created as part of a nationwide campaign called Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, Arellano’s photographs attest to a network of relationships between individuals such as exiled El Salvadorian artist Daniel Flores Ascencio, U.S. critic and activist Lucy Lippard, and Group Material’s Doug Ashford, who, among others, came together at the initiative of the newly established Institute for the Arts and Letters of El Salvador (INALSE) to organize more than 31 exhibitions and 50 events in New York City alone. Mostly forgotten today, these photographs bear witness to the solidarity activities of Artists Call as well as to the intricacies of visual culture and activist practices at the end of the Cold War.
Erina Duganne is Associate Professor of Art History at Texas State University, where she teaches courses in American art, photography, and visual culture. She is the author of The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography (2010) as well as a co-editor and an essayist for Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2007). Her current book-length project explores the circulation of photojournalistic images documenting events from the Central American civil wars beginning in the late 1970s and the ways in which these photographs were used to articulate, challenge as well as redescribe U.S. public memory during the last years of the Cold War.
Posted August 6, 2013
In 1953, the American-Hungarian photographer Cornell Capa travelled to Guatemala on assignment with Life magazine to document the socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. As a young army colonel, Árbenz had participated in a rebellion of junior officers in 1944 that helped overthrow the dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico, whose repressive regime had consolidated the United Fruit Company’s stranglehold over the country’s banana production and exportation. Árbenz went on to serve as Minister of Defence under Juan José Arévalo, whose government was the first to be elected democratically in twenty years, and ran for President in 1950. Upon assuming office in March 1951, Árbenz expanded on Arévalo’s vision of a “spiritual socialism,” which had granted universal suffrage to the majority Mayan population and initiated modest land reforms. In 1952, Árbenz launched an ambitious program of agrarian reform in collaboration with the Communist Labour Party that had been legalized the same year. He also issued the Decree 900, which curtailed the monopoly privileges of the United Fruit Company. Árbenz’s alliance with Guatemala’s Communists and his resolve to challenge United Fruit’s corporative powers were viewed with alarm by the United States. A year after Capa took his photographs of Guatemala, Árbenz was deposed by a CIA-engineered coup in a covert operation code-named PBSUCCESS, which precipitated an era of unprecedented violence in Guatemala. Over the next forty years, 100,000 people, the vast majority Mayan civilians, would die in a civil war waged between guerilla rebel groups and the military, which deployed scorched earth tactics of retaliation and genocidal repression.
In light of what is known today of the CIA’s involvement in toppling Árbenz’s government, and the institutionalization of military terror that followed, Capa’s 1953 billboard photograph resonates with historical pathos. Framed by barren untilled land, the billboard’s message points to the future dream of land rights for campesinos vanquished by the Cold War politics of US intervention. This photograph, which along with others Capa took in Guatemala is posted online in Google’s archiving of Life photographs, can be seen to encapsulate Capa’s humanitarian approach to photojournalism, in which he advocated for the role of the “concerned photographer” to “educate and change the world, not just record it.” The original context in which Capa’s Guatemala photographs were published tells a different story. In the photo essay from the October 12, 1953 issue of Life magazine entitled “The Red Outpost in Central America” they are held hostage to an anti-Communist sentiment.
While Capa’s billboard image was not used by Life, the first page of the photo essay features a photograph he took of a leader of the Labour Party, who is the figure in the billboard standing with finger pointed beside the campesino. The photograph shows him surrounded by children in a rural setting, with the caption reading “beside a shack in which 28 peasants live, sore-eyed children look up to Communist Pellecer who tells parents, ‘I will see they get medical attention.’” The opening lines of the text inform the reader that:
In Guatemala, only two hours bombing time from the Panama Canal, this man in the checked shirt goes daily among the people, openly and diligently toiling to create a Communist state in Central America. He says boldly “I am a Communist.” His name is Carlos Manuel Pellecer (pronounced pay-yay-sayre).
On the two-page photo spread that follows, titled “A Comrade to Peasant and President,” the left side features a large portrait of Pellecer and a snapshot size image of him shaking hands with Árbenz. On the right side are five photographs that document Pellecer organizing campesinos in his quest to spread the gospel of Communism.
In comparison to Pellecer’s ubiquitous presence, Árbenz only appears in two photographs: in the first one shaking hands with Pellecer; in the second comfortably ensconced in his modern living room with his wealthy wife at his side. The reader learns that Árbenz is “an intense, humourless reformer,” who has “two pet programs: land reform and the elimination of foreign (i.e. US) monopolies,” and that “in each aim the Reds are his strongest backers.” And while the reader is told that Árbenz is “no Communist himself,” the text warns that “he looks upon the Reds as Guatemalans first and Reds second. He says he is using them; the evidence is at least as ample that they are using him.”
What is presented by way of evidence is a litany of the “dismal failures of revolutionary boondoggles,” with Capa’s photographs recording unfinished highways, empty hospitals lacking doctors, a half-built National Library, and a model town without inhabitants. A double-page spread titled “United Fruit as a Whipping Boy” contrasts the folly of entrusting social reform to Communist sympathizers with the company’s modernizing benevolence. In one photograph, neatly arrayed rows of workers’ housing provided by United Fruit are juxtaposed with grass-roofed “native shacks” on its expropriated lands. In another, a child stares pensively at the viewer from a crib, above which hangs a poster of Minnie Mouse. The caption reads: “worker’s sick, underfed baby gets well in the United Fruit Hospital.” The inference is inescapable. The United Fruit Company delivers on its promise of a better future for workers, while Communists pledge empty words to impoverished peasants, as witnessed by Pellecer surrounded by sore-eyed children.
The ideological slant of the photo essay’s text, which portrays Árbenz as a Communist pawn and informs the reader that United Fruit “talks about being forced out all together” because of his “obsessively nationalistic” policies, comes as no surprise. The photo essay, after all, was published in the same year that the Korean War ended and at the height of McCarthyism. What is more disturbing is how dramatically its ideological slant alters the humanitarian tenor of Capa’s photographs. By the time the reader reaches the end of the photo essay and encounters one of the most iconic photographs from his Guatemala series—of two barefooted men sipping from champagne glasses during the inauguration of a school—concerned photography had become the handmaiden of propaganda. Accompanied by a concluding text titled “Champagne for the Peons,” Capa’s image of humble campesinos has come to embody the sinister threat that Guatemala’s Communists pose to the natural (American) order of progress. In light of Capa’s advocacy for a photographic practice that “educates and changes the world,” there is more than a little irony, and historical pathos, in how a Cold War context has recast the subject matter of his photographs.
Dot Tuer is a writer, cultural historian, and Professor of Visual Culture at OCAD University. Her research areas includeCanadian and Latin American art, with a specialty in photography and new media, and colonial Latin American history with a focus on mestizaje as a site of intercultural exchange between European and indigenous cultures. In 2013 she received OCAD University’s Award for Distinguished Research, Scholarship and Creative Practice. (www.ocadu.ca/about_ocad/articles/headlines/20130528_dottuer_award.htm)
The photograph of two men sipping champagne is archived by Magnum with the following caption: Cornell Capa, Guatemala 1953. Barefoot peasants drink champagne at the dedication of a school built by the reformist government, which was supported by the Communists. Copyright: International Centre of Photography.
The Life Magazine photo essay, “The Red Outpost in Central America” (October 12, 1953, pp. 169-177), can be viewed online.
Posted July 22, 2013
Who was the focus of Cold War photography?
An advertisement for a Graflex camera proclaims, “great news for photographers, the great new pacemaker graphics are here!” Boasting convenience, easier operation, and new features manufactured from materials tested during the war, the ad promises that the new cameras make it straightforward for photographers to get great pictures. Known for their speed, portability, and durability, these cameras were used by press photographers and dedicated amateurs. Similarly, an ad for a hand-held folding Kodak camera, the monitor six-20, tells readers it is light to carry and simple to use. Providing assurances that it would safeguard pictures from accidents such as double exposures and blurring, the ad copy draws attention to new developments in optics and mechanics achieved in wartime. With these improvements in technology, good quality cameras were not only readily available, but also good results were virtually guaranteed.
These two camera ads appeared in the American magazine Life in the late 1940s. A popular weekly news magazine, Life was heavily illustrated and renowned for telling stories with photographs. At the time, its circulation was higher than any other news magazine in the United States at over a million readers a week. The readership, which was predominantly white and middle-class, also comprised the main consumer market for personal cameras. The convergence of picture magazines such as Life and easy to use yet professional quality cameras signaled the growing importance of photographs in stories for and about this demographic. Owning one of these cameras was a license to chronicle the events of daily life, and reading picture stories complemented the activity of taking pictures. From photojournalists producing accounts of the political events of the day to amateurs taking photographs for their personal photo albums, photography came to define the way stories were told in the postwar US. What we should also note, however, is that both the cameras and the picture stories were aimed at an educated audience with financial means. When we think about who was featured in Cold War picture stories, we should also consider who was left out of the picture.
Posted July 17, 2013
The Prensa Latina news agency was established shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 at the instigation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine doctor who fought along side Fidel Castro to topple the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara conceived of the new agency as an international initiative to combat the Cold War bias of Western media and enlisted writers and intellectuals from Latin America and Europe. The founders of Prensa Latina included the Argentine writer and journalist Rudolfo Walsh; the Argentine journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti, who had covered Castro and Guevara’s guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba in 1958; and the Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez, of One Hundred Years of Solitude fame. Among the initial contributors were the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias, whose novel about the struggle and culture of the Mayan people, Hombres de maíz, is an enduring classic of Latin American literature. In this photograph from the Prensa Latina archives documenting the first heady days of the news agency’s existence, Asturias stands in the middle of a makeshift office. He is flanked by Masetti on his left and Walsh on his right, who is holding a cigarette behind his back.
The internationalism of Prensa Latina’s founding was quickly subsumed by the geopolitics of Cold War and Cuba’s national security interests, with the failed USA invasion of Cuba in Bay of Pigs landing of April 1960 followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear confrontation. When Castro uttered his famous dictum “within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing” in 1961, the news agency was already the official voice of the Cuban state, and its Argentine founders were trading pen and paper for armed struggle.
Masetti returned to Argentina, where he organized a rural guerrilla group, Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (Guerrilla Army of the People). He fought under the nom de guerre Segundo (the Second One), which alluded to his position as second in command to Che Guevara, who was primer comandante (First Commander) in organizing vanguard revolutionary forces (focos) in Latin America. In 1964, Masetti’s small group of guerrillas, which included a number of Cubans, was captured and killed in the jungles of the northeastern Argentine province of Salta. Masetti was not among them. His body has never been found and he is presumed murdered and “disappeared” by the Argentine military.
Rodolfo Walsh, like Masetti, returned to Argentina from Cuba in the early 1960s. While working at Prensa Latina he decoded secret United States cables that outlined plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion. By the early 1970s, he was working as the head of intelligence for the Montoneros, an urban guerrilla group that, at the time, was the largest armed-struggle organization in Latin America. On March 25, 1977, one year and one day after the Argentine military seized power in a coup d’état and launched a reign of state terror against the Montoneros and other revolutionary groups, Walsh was kidnapped from a Buenos Aires street. A day earlier on the anniversary of the coup, he had published an open letter to the military junta, denouncing the atrocities perpetrated by the military against the Argentine people—a letter deemed by Gabriel García Marquez a masterpiece of committed journalism. After being kidnapped, he was “disappeared” by the Argentine military, and the whereabouts of his body remain unknown.
Three years before Walsh was kidnapped, Miguel Asturias died in exile in Spain in 1974. His own denunciation of dictatorship in his novel El Señor Presidente, published in 1946, and his support of the socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 and overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1954, resulted in his banishment from his native country. Several years before Asturias’s death, his first-born son, Rodrigo, became a founding member of the Guatemalan guerrilla group ORPA, Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas (Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms). Rodrigo Asturias took as his nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom, a character from his father’s novel Hombres de maíz. After the peace process in the 1990s, he returned to civilian politics. He ran as a candidate for congress in the 2003 Guatemalan election, and died two years later in Guatemala City.
As a singular image, the photograph of Asturias, Masetti and Walsh from the Prensa Latina archives reveals nothing of the complex histories of its subjects, yet there is still something arresting about its casual composition. In the meeting of two generations of writers, Asturias appears to be contemplating a question by Mesetti and Walsh, who stare intently at him. There is a sadness in Asturias’s eyes, a slight weariness in his stance, that is at odds with the youthful tautness of his interlocutors. It is as if, like a literary oracle, or Janus-like figure, he is seeing the future through the burden of past dictatorships and repression, while the sentinels at his side stand on guard for a revolutionary present. In this disjuncture between what Asturias has already lived and the destinies that await Mesetti and Walsh lies the historical resonance of the photograph. As a documentary trace of the Cold War era, it records a moment in time when the anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles of the Cold War era conjoined the past, present, and future of Latin America in literature and ideology, theory and praxis.
Posted July 9, 2013
Juan Guzmán, a German-born photographer who came to Mexico as a Spanish Civil War refugee in 1939, took a number of photographs of the artist Frida Kahlo in the early 1950s. In this one, Kahlo is accompanied by her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who is at work on a large-scale painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Measuring 40 feet in length and 10 feet in height, the painting was commissioned by the museum’s director, Carlos Chávez, for a state-sponsored exhibition of Mexican art in Paris. Guzmán’s photograph documents the central narrative of the painting, which features martyred workers, a menacing mushroom cloud, American soldiers firing into the abyss of battle, and Kahlo collecting signatures for the Stockholm Appeal, a petition initiated by the French Communist physicist Frédéric Joliot Curie in 1950 calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. What the photograph occludes from view is a section to the left of the crucified workers, in which towering portraits of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung proffer peace in the form of pen and petition to Uncle Sam and two figures representing France and Britain.
When Guzmán framed his portrait of Kahlo against the partial backdrop of Rivera’s painting he could not have known that his photograph would become the only documentary record of Rivera’s mural-sized work, which went missing after a controversy erupted over its political message. Although Rivera wrote, somewhat disingenuously, in his autobiography My Art, My Life, that his intention was to “show the movement for peace which could end the threat of a third World War,” the association of this threat with the geopolitics of the Korean War (1950-53) was unavoidable. The benevolent gestures of Mao and Stalin placed adjacent to American soldiers pointing their guns into an atomic landscape also made clear who the aggressor threatening world peace was: the United States. For the Mexican state, the offence that the painting’s political stance posed to its European allies overrode Rivera’s stature as Mexico’s most famous artist. Before the painting was finished, Chávez ordered it removed from the museum and excluded from the exhibition.
Ever prone to fabulation, Rivera describes in My Art, My Life how Chávez’s decision precipitated a national scandal, replete with state troupers purloining the painting from the museum to a secret location, and fierce denunciations by Rivera resulting in the painting’s return to the artist. Whether Chávez sought to “disappear” the painting at the time of its making is a matter of dispute. How the painting went missing in the aftermath of the scandal remains cloaked in mystery. Although Rivera states in his autobiography that China acquired the painting, he does not explain how or why this transpired, and his claim was never taken seriously. Rumours that it ended up in Moscow seemed more probable, as Rivera had travelled there in the mid-1950s. Half a century later, a Chinese art expert, Xing Xiaosheng, rekindled speculation that its final destination was indeed China, stating in an interview published in the Mexican newspaper Reforma in 2004 that Rivera made a secret Cold War-era visit to China (presumably during the six-month period he spent in Russia in 1955-56) to give the painting to Mao, who subsequently ordered it destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Despite inquiries made by Mexico to Russia and China concerning the whereabouts of the painting, its fate is still unknown. Whether the painting was destroyed in China or still languishes, as some believe, in a dusty storage room in Moscow, what is certain is that the only extant documentation of Rivera’s monumental homage to Cold War tensions remains encapsulated in Guzmán’s photograph. That what we see in the photograph is a partial view of the painting begs the question of whether Guzmán, too, was caught up in the intrigue of Cold War politics, for he portrays Kahlo and Rivera without the iconic portraits of Stalin and Mao--whose personality cult underpinned the artists’ Communist convictions--towering above them.
Posted June 24, 2013
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.
Posted June 17, 2013
Against the backdrop of the trial that found former dictator and U.S. Cold War ally, Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide, this singular photograph by Daniel Hernández-Salazar was emblazoned across sites in Guatemala City. “There was a genocide,” it proclaims. The trial, which concluded in May 2013, found Ríos Montt responsible for the massacre of 1,771 people of the Ixil Mayan community and the forced displacement of 29,000 during his short term of office between 1982 and 1983.
Hernández-Salazar’s Angel of Memory first took shape in the Guatemalan photographer’s mind in July 1997. He was working with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation, when a bullet-perforated shoulder blade emerged from one of the clandestine mass graves being exhumed at a site at which nine peasants had been murdered by the Guatemalan military. In 1997, the country was just emerging from the official end, a year previously, of a brutal civil war, with its roots in the U.S.–backed coup that toppled the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1954. Hernández-Salazar enlarged and printed the wounded wing-like shoulder blades on the body of a young mestizo man, creating a photo-montage of four angels that dramatize the proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
A year later, on 24 April 1998, the final report of the Recovery of Historical Memory, Guatemala: Nunca Más /Never Again was published, detailing 55,000 human rights violations that had taken place during the civil war. The Angels appeared on the front cover. Two days later, one of the report’s chief instigators, Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death. The thousands who took to the streets of Guatemala City in the silent demonstrations to mark Gerardi’s murder did so bearing posters of Hernández-Salazar’s photo-montage emblazoned with the words “Guatemala: Nunca Más”.
If the Angels took flight in 1998, their peregrinations have not ceased since. In April 1999, three dozen poster-size reproductions of the fourth angel that shouts out through cupped hands appeared across Guatemala’s capital, imploring the nation’s citizens to acknowledge and remember the injustices of the past: “Para que todos lo sepan” / “So that all shall know”. Nor has the flight been restricted to Guatemala. Hernández-Salazar has travelled with his angel to create photo-interventions that insert Guatemala’s violent past in key memory sites around the globe: from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, and elsewhere in Latin America, including the headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and Tlatelolco, the site of the student massacre of 1968 in Mexico City.
Hailed as a landmark case, one that could potentially open the door to further prosecutions, just ten days after the original ruling, on 20 May 2013 Guatemala’s top constitutional court overturned the Ríos Montt genocide conviction. It annulled everything that had happened in the trial since 19 April when Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defence lawyer. At the time of writing, the case continues. And Daniel Hernández-Salazar’s angel continues to travel, proclaiming “Sí hubo genocidio.”