The Eloquent T-Shirt
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.