(The Nation, November 14, 2005)
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A photograph by Eugene Richards, currently on display at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in Manhattan, captures a subdued moment in the life of a US military "adviser" stationed abroad. The man--white, in his 30s, with an elongated mustache--is sprawled out in bed reading a book. A pistol lies on the mattress. Pinups from Playboy and Hustler cover the walls. A rifle rests upright. It could be a scene from present-day Iraq or Afghanistan, except for one detail: A hefty dictionary perched on his shelf is not in Arabic or Pashto but in Spanish. The year is 1983, and the country is El Salvador.
Richards's work is a centerpiece of "El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers," a show that brings together five dozen images produced by international correspondents stationed there between 1979 and 1983. The photographs first appeared in a book that Susan Meiselas, Harry Mattison, Fae Rubenstein and Carolyn Forché assembled in 1983, in an effort to raise public consciousness about the Salvadoran conflict, then in its bloodiest phase; an exhibition of the pictures subsequently toured the country for two years, stopping at museums, churches, libraries and universities. The collection was recently donated in its entirety to the ICP and will be on display there until November 27.
The Salvadoran civil war, which raged for a dozen years before a negotiated settlement was reached in 1992, now seems to belong to a distant past, but it was a conflict that claimed 75,000 lives in El Salvador and cost the US taxpayer more than $4 billion. The show works powerfully on the mind and the heart because it brings back a flood of memories from those years.
Before us are stark black-and-white images of the martyrs and victims whose deaths did so much to launch a grassroots movement against US intervention in El Salvador, and to expose the savagery of the Salvadoran military: the three American nuns and a lay worker--Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan--whose bodies were tossed into a shallow grave; Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down by a sharpshooter while saying mass in San Salvador; and the hundreds of civilians killed at El Mozote in 1981 by the American-trained Atlacatl Battalion, one of the most infamous massacres in Latin American history.
Many of these photographs received considerable attention when they were originally published in journals ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Paris Match, and down through the years they have lost none of their ability to shock and incite. There is Alain Keler's image of a teenager killed in the capital by the National Guard after a street theater performance critical of the government: The young man lies in his coffin, on top of which someone has scrawled: "I love you, I will not forget you, I will tell my daughter about you when she grows up and can understand"; there is Susan Meiselas's picture of three white handprints emblazoned on the red wooden door of a slain peasant organizer in Chalatenango province: The mano blanco was the macabre signature of the death squads. And there is Michel Philippot's depiction of left-wing activists being tossed face-down into the back of a military pickup truck, stacked like wood, guarded by grim-faced soldiers with machine guns.
Some of the lesser-known photographs are equally stirring. In one remarkable shot by Mattison, taken in Usulután in 1981, we see fifteen campesinos, men and women alike, building a barricade across the Pan American Highway. We see only their backs and their hands outstretched in furious labor as they overturn a massive white pickup truck--an image that somehow seems to encapsulate the entire history of campesino rebellion in Latin America. The show isn't all darkness, mayhem and agitation, however: In Christian Poveda's "Portraits of Guerrillas," taken in Chalatenango in 1981, we glimpse six young male fighters posing with their weapons, in various states of pride and unease, looking like soldiers from the Mexican Revolution. And Keler's, Meiselas's and Mattison's shots of weddings, fiestas and chupaderos are a reminder that life in El Salvador proceeded apace despite the disruptions and violence of civil war.
"There was a sense of urgency," Meiselas said a few weeks ago, reflecting on the circumstances that prompted her group to assemble the book and the traveling exhibition in 1983. "One felt at that time that documenting it, being a witness, was the only justified act one could do. There was a belief that you could sort of 'call out' from Central America and it would give presence to something that was so distant for the public here."
"El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers" takes on new meaning in the shadow of the US war in Iraq. Newsweek reported in January that the Pentagon was considering a "Salvador option" in Iraq, in which Special Forces teams "would advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads...to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers." The US public has largely forgotten the Salvador conflict, but it appears that the Pentagon has not. In this context the show at the ICP is many things: a powerful testimonial to the stoicism and resilience of Salvadorans, whose postwar tribulations are still poorly understood by Americans; a homage to a group of politically conscious photographers who risked their safety to bring us these images (three of the photographers in the show died while reporting from Central America); and a haunting, incontrovertible reminder that the "Salvador option" leads directly to the charnel house.