By Donna De Cesare. Foreword by Fred Ritchin. Translation by Javier Auyero
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2013. Hardbound. 184 pp., 105 duotone illustrations, 11x10".
Unsettled/Desasosiego By Donna De Cesare. Foreword by Fred Ritchin. Translation by Javier Auyero Published by University Of Texas Press, 2013.
Donna de Cesare's Unsettled is a book of traditional 'concerned' photography. It features images that show civil war, gang war and the aftermath of war in El Salvador, Guatemala and Los Angeles. In Unsettled, De Cesare joins the dots, showing the effect that US foreign policy has had on Central American nations and the impact the resulting violence and trauma has had on a generation of children.
Unsettled begins with stories of violence and death. In Fred Ritchin's introductory essay, we hear how De Cesare meets a 16 year old boy in Los Angeles. The boy asks what she is doing. She says she is making a book. He says she can take his picture, so she does. He asks when the book will be published. In 3 or four years, she replies. "Shit! I won't be alive by then," says the boy. "…of course you'll be alive by then," replies De Cesare.
De Cesare is then given '…a math lesson with his body that I will never forget.' RIP tattoos for fallen homeboys and homegirls are shown and a list of names of family and friends are rattled off. "None of them made it to twenty," says the boy. "What makes you think I'm gonna."
Unsettled is a book that provides an antidote to this attitude. It is a humanizing book that does not objectify or exploit but rather provides a context of where the lives portrayed have come from. And where they could possibly go.
Civil War is the first section of the book. In the accompanying text, De Cesare describes the torture and massacre of civilians by the El Salvadorean military, the forced conscription of children into the army and the trauma that violence has on people. We see pictures of civilians fleeing a barrio bombed by government troops; their eyes are averted, their hands waving pieces of white fabric in surrender. The fear and resignation are worn heavily on their faces with a child holding her forehead and silently weeping holding the bottom foreground.
What do they have to fear? An earlier picture shows Rufina Amaya standing on the site of the El Mozote massacre - 'one of the worst massacres in Latin American history' - in which hundreds of children were killed by the US-backed military. Amaya's children were among those murdered and her face registers this not with overt grief, but with a tightness around the eyes and forehead, registering anger at the corruption, injustice and deceit of it all.
The next section is Gang War, and starts with the story of Franklin Torres, a young El Salvadorean from a wealthy coffee-producing area of the country, an area that provided support to anti-government FLMN insurgents. Due to the violence, Torres and his family moved to Los Angeles where he eventually became a gang member, drug dealer and heroin addict with HIV/AIDS.
Torres died but he provided an entry point to the gangs for De Cesare, and the destructive mix of trauma, alcoholism, prejudice and broken families which helped them to flourish. The pictures here hit all the gang spots. A girl gets tattooed, a boy throws gang signs, there are drugs and arrests. There is beauty in the picture of Esperanza and her pet pigeon. Who we don't see is Esperanza's 16-year-old brother Jiovani who has lost the use of his legs and 'is terrified that no girl could ever love him,' but this is part of De Cesare's sensitivity to knowing when not to photograph.
Central America After War is the final section. It shows how gang violence has come to Central America. One picture shows a young couple lying on a bed with their baby in the man's arms. He is thoughtful and sad, he wants to leave his gang but is worried that he will not be able to work because of his gang tattoos.
Punishments are shown, arrests are made and there are beatings, bodies and funerals. But there is also a small element of hope in the book as De Cesare describes how both her own and other people's attempts to reintegrate gangs into civil society. De Cesare has led theatre and photographic workshops, mixing teenagers from the barrios with those from wealthier areas.
The book ends with a quote from Bryan, one of the workshop members. "Just because I come from a barrio with a bad reputation," he says, "doesn't mean I share that bad reputation. Youth are not a plague. We can change the world."
Colin Pantall is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com