Documenting Death: Children & Mothers of the Disappeared

By Joan Seeman Robinson

Richard Lewis’s photographs of The CoMadres, or the Mothers of the Disappeared, were shown at Diverse Works in February. The exhibition was closed due to the fire which destroyed the building; it will be remounted at Diverse Works' new site this fall.

One of the earliest uses to which photography was put was to document the deceased. The postmortem portrait made it possible for ordinary people, those who could never have afforded to have family portraits painted, to capture the likeness of the recently dead. It must have been then, as it is now, astonishing to hold a life-like replica of a loved one in the hand, to marvel at its composure - mouths closed (often faintly smiling), eyes shut as if in a state of sleep, hair freshly arranged and often still wet from combing, beards trimmed, bodies scrubbed and freshly scented. It's nearly impossible except with a fierce effort of the imagination, to comprehend that they’re dead. And why is this? Partly because they're composed to look alive. Because so rarely do we ever see the dead, and when we do...? Americans lust for artificial preservation and customarily have open-coffin viewings. The idea of death is unacceptable in modem culture. Life is now medically attenuated to grotesquely artificial lengths inorder to avoid the trauma of the final departure.

The dead are also photographed to document atrocities. Most of us have never looked at the amazing archives of the victims of political assassinations in Central America, for example. These images were made by anonymous photographers, for the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission which uses them to record body counts of political killings before the dead are carried off to dump sites. They also provide evidence of death for the families of children who have disappeared. Fifteen such images of the desaparecidos were shown at Diverse Works last February alongside Richard Lewis's photographic portraits of the Mothers of the Disappeared, or the CoMadres as they are called in El Salvador. Lewis obtained them from the office of the CoMadres located in the archdiocese of San Salvador, and brought them back for this purpose - to create a wordless, non-didactic contest for the photographs of the Mothers.

The victims are young, mutilated, and almost unrecognizable. Clearly none of them could have survived the calculated viciousness of their attackers. Unlike the repose so artfully suggested in commemora­tive portraits - partly for the survivors so that they could believe that the deceased died in peace - these are agonized termina­tions. Fired on at close range, they've lost parts of their heads. They’re often mutilat­ed, necks are slashed, bruises are inevi­dence. Why not clean kills, tidy eradica­tions, if the intention was to eliminate opponents? Each proof of death resounds with the evidence of torture and disfigurement in order to demonstrate that suffering was intended and even prolonged. And even in black and white, the tarry blood is viscous, fetid stench is sensed, the maggots are near. These are warnings to the survivors to remain at bay. They're meant to terrorize, to neutralize opposition. These kinds of documents are not made to prolong family memories but to help bring them to a conclusion. They are for the survivors who live daily with their own kind of terminal condition: their lives were crippled when their children were killed.

In 1986 Lewis photographed fifty of these women. He extended a three-day visit to a conference of the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers in San Salvador to a two-week participation in relief work with the CoMadres. Lewis's own political posi­tion is anti-interventionist. Long interest­ed in Latin American culture and anexperienced traveler in Central America, he returned to observe the continuing effects of what he regards as "the United States' corrupt and unjustifiable foreign policy. I intended to meet the CoMadres and to document their tragedy, tenacity, courage and strength."' A formality of his first visit to their office involved going through the Book of the Missing, a spiral-bound photo album, while sitting in their presence. The Mothers sat in a circle as each one gave a testimonial. Lewis responded saying that he wanted to talk to them at length about their experiences. Subsequently he worked alongside them and attempted to depict them as unique individuals in various dress and in different locations.

Using a camera attached flash he made half-length closeups. The women gleam against dark backgrounds; the details of their physical condition - polite expressions and tired eyes, modest clothing (some are in the dress of the Mothers - dark gowns and white headscarves), are brought to the fore. They're alert and willing participants in the documentary process. In the installation one visits each of them in sequence and they look directly at us. We know who they must be because adjacent to each is a smaller photograph of the head of a “desaparecido.” This in turn seems to heighten the pallor of the starkly lighted women’s faces.

Why were these works – two series from different sources but literally linked by blood tines - shown in a fine arts contest? Susan Sontag has pointed out that shocking images "will seem different on a contact sheet, in a gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police file, in a photographic magazine, in a general news magazine, in a book, on a living room wall."2 Isn't this precisely where we'd expect such appalling and volatile material to be defused. Aren't we expected to attend to aesthetic considerations, which would in the process mute our reactions to the brutality before us.

Not even in war-time photojournalism have such images been shown. From the Second World War to Vietnam, both mili­tary censorship and the photographers' self-censorship staunched any direct focus on mutilation, especially of faces. The general public never sees them. (How pale by comparison now seem the tabloid shots of "disasters" Andy Warhol used for his silkscreen paintings in the early 60's.) Such records are for specialists; they're used in medical training and by morticians, and by insurance companies in court cases. Police photograph crime scenes; the Nazis photographed the work of SS butchers. The armed forces photograph battles and war crimes, combat infantrymen carry cam­eras even into free-fire zones - and in the modern state they're used as a standard means of surveillance and control.

In El Salvador and elsewhere they docu­ment torture and assassination in order to provide, along with testimonials and wit­ness accounts, substantiation of the abuses of human rights. Forensic physicians assist in this process, using the photographs to prove murder. And families need them--these most hideous of all the visions they will ever have of their children, in order to marshall their moral outrage in defense of their memories.

In a gallery setting they're askew and they throw us off balance. It's difficult to maintain any equilibrium or even to speak when faced with such material. Something like language is urgently needed in order to reclaim the familiar, but words are abso­lutely inadequate to bridge this sense of inequality - between us, and death, and the survivors' permanent loss. There is mystery attached to images of the dead. Whether they're serenely intact or with faces blown away, we feel that if we look harder, intently enough, something beyond the visible will be revealed. But there's such a differ­ence between those just “passed away" (to where?) and those who've been slaughtered. Then we ask, "Why! “and "By whom!" while looking at bodies and thinking, "Is that really all there is?" But these waves of reactions follow that first plummet into silence that Roland Barthes says is caused by "the traumatic image";

...truly traumatic images are rare, for in photography the trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene 'really' happened. The photographer had to be there. That becomes the photograph about which there is nothing to say.

And the photographer of such images? He or she's in a war zone, going after the kill, tracking the stalkers, in these kinds of cases performing anonymously. Social documentarists like Lewis enter the loop to bring this ugly core out into the world.

Richard Lewis’s presentation is ostensibly simple but strategically complex. At Diverse Works he not only secured a new audience for a cause he’s concerned about, but he's staking a claim for the enlargement of the parameters of socially concerned photography. A.D. Coleman wrote recently that "the photodocument now finds itself hard put to re-enter the academic and postmodernist circles." One fault in the genre, he says, " that by pretending to objectivity it either avoids political responsibility for its effects or denies its own hid­den agenda, or both."' But Lewis has set up several fronts on which he's defining this territory.

First he's lifted the photographic evi­dence, the forensic identity image, and placed it in a new setting where it func­tions discursively with the larger portrait of the family survivor. The Mothers survive, alive, responding intently to the photographer. But they're estranged from the dead. The evidentiary photographs are proof of murder, supporting the case prepared by the Human Rights Commission. And they support the case prepared by Lewis, who wants us to undergo the encounter he had with the CoMadres and their Book of the Missing in San Salvador. He's arranged the living in life-size next to the dead, who exist now only as pages in a notebook, and placed these "pages" at the level of their hands and ours, as if on a tabletop. Then to see them, we must re-enact Lewis's visit, step up close and bend over, and move back to find ourselves facing the Mothers. And do this over and over again, fifteen times. Without text or subtext or any other directorial manipulation, he’s converted a vacant exhibition environment into a chamber for the witnessing of massacre. Even here in Houston, his installation announces, we can experience some degree of the pathos surrounding these lives. He had "a great respect for the subject matter," and "wanted people seeing these images to ask questions about what is occurring." Part of that process involved sending his prints to the Washington D.C., office of the CoMadres, which has published them.

In the novel Del Corso’s Gallery, Philip Caputo wrote vividly about transforma­tions in photojournalism in recent wars, from Korea to Vietnam to Beirut. In guer­rilla wars all structures are scrambled and disguised, no sides can be identified and no fronts can be determined, subterfuge and surprise are the tactical principles, civilians and combatants are often indistinguishable, stalemates are standard, and attrition is a strategic plan, operating as an exhausting continuum. Del Corso, a combat photographer, ruminates, after moving to Beirut from Vietnam to continue his work:

Without the spectacle of war, the drama and the heroism, he felt as if he were working in a vacuum…If he had a conscious purpose it was to understand, and the woman lying in the street like some experimental animal seemed like one of the keys to the secret.3
Do keys to such secrets lie in images of the slaughtered? After seeing an exhibi­tion like this one we understand more of the reasons why the dead are photographed. Aren't all such images taken in wartime essentially political! Which side was the victim on and which side the perpetrator? And there are the moral questions: are these victims civilians rather than combat­ants, and were the killings justified under the existing "codes” that the military (and their opposition) always purport to follow?

But we must also ask ourselves how they are photographed. What makes an image "work,” and for what purposes and what audiences? What angle, what lighting, what degree of closeness or distance, clari­ty, blurring, graininess or glossiness of the print will make an image useful, or memorable... or saleable to the news services? Donald Kuspit, the art historian and critic, says there can no longer be anything romantic or ennobling about images of war dead. "There is a documentary approach generally applicable to the revelation of modern war" (my italics) which...

…involves the renunciation of any imaginative humanistic treatment through which war might be seen as the realm in which the tradegy of human existence is disclosed.

Seventy thousand civilians have been killed in El Salvador in the last eight years in a war which has been called "our Israel" or "our Ireland." A United States Army Colonel who supervised the training of American military advisors praised El Salvador for its "sunshine, beaches, fresh shrimp and pretty women."8 At the same time paramilitary groups trained by U.S. advisors are “disappearing" those who threaten their oligarchical and military control of the country. El Salvador is the most densely populated and one of the poorest nations in Central America. "La situacion," as it is called, cries out for "la solucion," but with the election of President Alfredo Christiani who is sup­ported by Roberto d'Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party which instituted the death squads (and whom former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White called a "pathological killer"), there are expected to be increases in the killings which already have been stepped up in the last two years. This is "a land where moral ambiguity and a propensity to homicide define the political landscape.'"

In 1987 a strategy for continental security was secretly adopted by the armies of four­teen Latin American countries and the United States, in which the commanders "opted for a permanent slate of control over civilian government, while still preserving democracy." This control included new norms for combat "that took into account the phenomenon of nonconventional warfare, including terrorism and subversion." This secret agreement is based on a new definition of subversion in which social mobilization in Latin America is believed by these military leaders to be directly related to international commu­nism. Therefore all organizations that promote better living conditions are regarded as “the enemy.”12 This summer the Senate Intelligence Committee charged the F.B.I., with improperly linking the names of 2,375 United Slates citizens and 1,330 groups with international terrorism because they were opposed to U.S. policy in Central America, and with passing that information on to the Salvadoran National Guard.

Over 1,000,000 Central Americans have fled their homes in the last decade in fear of violence and to escape political repres­sion; over 100,000 of them are Salvadorans who are now living in Houston.14 We might imagine some of these refugees looking over our shoulders this fall as we attend the reinstallation of Richard Lewis’s exhibition at Diverse Works. At the first show­ing, Amnesty International set up an infor­mation table at the suggestion of the direc­tors of Diverse Works and the encouragement of Richard Lewis, where they dis­tributed copies of then publication, El Salvador: “Death Squads” – A Government Strategy. At their monthly local meetings people sign up to write letters to protest extra-legal arrests, incarceration, tortures and executions. To quote Hanna Arendt, “The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to destroy its own chil­dren, when yesterday's executioner becomes today’s victim.” 15

I want to thank Ben DeSoto, Houston, Frank Blake, Amnesty International, Houston, and Anne Wallce, Amnesty International, Son Ignacio, Texas, for their advice and assistance.