Other Americans

by Lois Parkinson Zamora

Other Americas by Sebastiao Salgado. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. 111 pages, $35.00.

Bearing Witness by Gertrude Blom. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 149 pages.

Los Todos Santeros by Hans Namuth. London: Dirk Nishen Publishing, 1989. 127 pages.

Los Ambulances: The Itinerant Photographers of Guatemala, photographs by Ann Parker, Text by Avon Neal. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982. 149 pages, $14.95.

Granddaughters of Corn: Portraits of Guatemalan Women by Marilyn Anderson and Johnathan Garlock. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1988. 124 pages, $19.95.

Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny by Jean-Marie Simon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987. 256 pages, $19.95.

The "other" has recently moved from the margins to the center of literary critical consciousness. In the study of non-Western, non-first world literatures and literary cultures, critics have become increasingly sensitive to the various kinds of "centric discourse" (ego-, ethno-, Euro-, logo-, phallo-) that condition our critical perspective and distort our readings of texts. Ten years ago, the cultural and expressive domain of the other was virtually unexplored by literary critics, but is now explicitly acknowledged in our critical vocabulary, and in our interpretive methods and concerns. It is high time.

The current discussion of how to approach alterity without appropriating it, how to stand outside {or at least, beside) one’s own inevitable "centrisms"- in short, how to let the other speak for herself - has been advanced by the increasingly interdisciplinary orientation of critical theory. Anthropology, structural linguistics, ethnography, have suggested models for the relativizing of Western values and achievements, and for conceiving of the other not as an object of knowledge but as a subject in discourse, a partner in dialogue. Instead of representing the other in one's own terms, one may hope to establish a dialogue, that is, a situation where the cultural utterances of the other can be perceived and acknowledged as other, as different from our own and yet also related to our own in the dialogic framework we may have succeeded in establishing.

In short, literary critics, like anthropologists and ethnographers are recognizing that we do not speak from some timeless point beyond relations of interest and power. Our language, as well as the language of the texts we read, is ideologically grounded and impelled. Surely the same is true of the photographic "language" of the six books I am reviewing here.

These photographers attempt in their different ways to establish a meaningful dialogue with the other. They have all chosen to photograph the people of cultures other than their own, and each exhibits a conscious intention to give voice to their otherness. Not surprisingly, some of them are more successful than others.
In discussing these collections of visual art, I will use literary terms - voice, dialogue, utterance, language — because they seem metaphorically appropriate to the expressive potential of photography. But I should also recognize that it is more complicated to capture otherness with a camera than with a pen, for the camera is an unmasked intruder into the worlds recorded in these books as a pen need not be. The photographer who enters a Guatemalan village or a Mexican rain forest with his/her photographic equipment must inevitably seem at first to be an exotic invader: his/her technological invasion upsets, at least initially, any possibility of a natural or balanced dialogue. The camera itself becomes an awkward other in the dialogic scenario, increasing the distance of the photographer from the culture and the people whom he/she wishes to engage. The nature and duration of the distance will depend (as we see in the books under review here) on the intentions and personality of the photographer, a well as on the situation of their subjects.

In assessing these books, then, I will be asking myself what structural and structuring significance the camera and the photographer have on their subjects, and how otherness may be obscured, as well as revealed, by their presence. Of course, the camera always mediates between reality and its photographic embodiment, but in collections such as these under review, it may be particularly important to examine the extent and nature of that mediation. This initial question will lead, I hope, to useful observations about the photographs as works of art.

Sebastiao Salgado

I will begin with the photographer who seems to be least successful in his attempt to create a dialogue with his subjects. Other Americas contains Sebastian Salgado's photographs taken in a number of Latin American countries. Salgado, a Brazilian living in Paris, has also photographed Africa extensively, and like those photographs, these are stark, black and white, highly aestheticized visions of deprivation. I have said that these collections contain photo- graphs of cultures other than the photographer's own, and though Salgado is a Latin American photographing Latin Americans, my generalization nonetheless applies. Salgado takes photographs of (as Alan Riding puts it in his introduction to the volume) "the world of the powerless, of those who from the barren sierras and deserts of Latin America watch as their nations change without them. And it is this world, held together by birth, family, and death, and by myth, faith, and fatalism, that Sebastiao Salgado has penetrated." The people in Salgado's photos would hardly recognize their lives in such schematic terms, and I suspect they would also wonder what happened to the vital span between birth and death. Salgado repeatedly photographs bodies laid out for bleak burial in bleak landscapes. And when his subjects are not corpses, they seem nonetheless frozen in their misery and sadness. This is an elegiac record of a world pronounced dead by the photographer.

Salgado's subjects could hardly share his sentimentality either. They are, after all, in the midst of their own lives. They do not view themselves from beyond some apocalyptic end, as Salgado seems to be doing. Nor could they share his external, first-world perspective. Alan Riding's phrase, "their nations changing without them," accurately describes Salgado's implied perspective: that of outsider with a larger world view than his subjects’. His camera angles are rarely straight on but rather sharply below or above the subject; the surroundings of the human figures are rarely in focus; the light is often low, portentous. These techniques are apparently intended to heighten the elemental importance of Salgado's subject matter, but they tend instead to visual grandiloquence, and have the additional effect of distancing the world of the photographs from the viewer. Of course the subjects of these photos are undeniably distant from us, the consumers of their images, and it is important to recognize that fact. Dialogue with the other requires the recognition of difference, but this recognition must be a starting point, not a conclusion. Here, it impedes the dialogue rather than encourages it. There is too much of the white man's burden, too much patronizing in these images, too many of the hierarchical assumptions that have made Westerners insensitive to cultural otherness.

An anecdote in Salgado's preface reflects the difficulties of establishing relations with the other, even in one's own geographical territory, and suggests Salgado's failure to do so with his camera. In a village, Salgado tells us, a man asks him to "tell the people in heaven of his good behavior in this vale of tears, for he was absolutely sure I was an emissary of the divinities sent to his village to photograph and describe." Salgado ends his preface on this note, with no evidence to refute my own suspicion that the photographer believes it himself.

Gertrude Blom

Bearing Witness and Los Todos Santeros present images of indigenous communities taken by European-born photographers. The photographers themselves have come to belong to the communities they photograph, Gertrude Blom to the Chiapas region of Mexico on the Guatemalan border, Hans Namuth to the Guatemalan village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, in the province of Huehuetenango. Both Blom and Namuth are accepted by the inhabitants of their chosen regions as recorders, historians, demographers. Their work is avowedly anthropological in this sense: both recognize that their photographs will serve as records of disappearing cultures and ways of life, though this was not the original intention of either, and both would wish it otherwise.

In 1940, a young Swiss woman, Gertrude Duby, left Europe to join other refugees-social democrats, pacifists, communists, Jews - in Mexico. There she worked as a journalist, taking pictures to supplement her stories. (Unlike the young Manuel Alvarez Bravo, whom she met almost immediately in Mexico City, she did not consider herself a serious photographer.) In 1943, she went to Chiapas to write about the Lacandon Maya, and there met and eventually married the Danish cartographer and archeologist, Franz Blom. Since settling in Chiapas in the mid-forties, Gertrude Blom has been an inspired recorder of the Lacandon's way of life, and she has engaged in permanent battle to save the Lacandon rain forest from the lumber industry, and from homesteaders (themselves victims of Mexico's over-population and inequitable land tenure system.) Now eighty-eight years old, she still presides over her center for the study of the Lacandon in San Cristobal de las Casas, and maintains close contact with her people. This extraordinary life has recently been the subject of a PBS documentary, La reina de la selva, made by the Houston documentary film- maker, Robert S. Cozens.

Blom's black and white photographs seem to be visions from a primeval world of legend or myth. Many of her photos separately, and certainly the collection as a whole, create a mood that is lyrical, harmonious, spiritual. Selected from thousands of photos taken between 1943 and 1978, these shots show small groups of Lacandon, Tzotzil and Tzeltal. They walk along a deserted path, pole a dugout canoe through still water, kneel before a plaster statue with a European face, their own faces also reflecting transcendence but of another kind. Sometimes Blom's subjects look at the camera, more often not: the viewer feels that the photographer is one of/with the community, an invisible agent of our entry into it. Her knowledge of
her subjects, and her sensitivity - her affinity - to their culture is clear in these images, and gives us the strong sense that we are seeing this world from the inside, rather than though the eyes of someone from elsewhere.

Blom also photographs the landscape. Here, her perspective is intrusive and intentionally polemical. We see huge mahogany trees felled and numbered, the rain forest shrouded in smoke. This is photography that grows out of social action, not photography as social action. These photos communicate a social and cultural consciousness (and conscience) that go beyond the image as such. The title of her collection is well chosen: she bears witness in both a moral and historical sense, and her images are haunting testimony to her commitment. Through Blom's images, the Lacandon speak for themselves.

Hans Namuth

In the personal essay of remembrance that introduces Los Todos Santeros, the German-born photographer Hans Namuth describes his first visit to the Guatemalan village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan in 1947, in the company of his Guatemalan wife and brother-in-law. He went to that village because of an American scholar, Maud Oakes, who was living there at the time. She had written studies of the people, the Mam Maya, and was considered by the Todos Santeros (the residents of Todos Santos) to be a shaman. Namuth acknowledges the gift of insight that Oakes's books gave him: "twenty-nine years after meeting Maud Oakes for the first lime, I set out to write, with black and white photographs, a visual sequel to her study." In his introduction, Namuth includes small reproductions of photographs taken on his first visit in 1947, but the collection itself is comprised of photographs taken in visits to Todos Santos in 1978, ’79,'80, '81, and ’87. In his introduction, he also includes photographs of himself in his improvised, open-air studio, photographing sealed subjects and surrounded by spectators - curious family and friends. The photographer, unabashedly "other" in this village, writes that he hopes to photograph all of its inhabitants, one by one, couple by couple, family by family.
The faces in Namuth's portraits are young and old, somber and laughing, bold and shy, but in these portraits, what dominates everything are the eyes. Namuth writes that he appreciates the "mysterious and unsaid" in the Todo Santeros, and one immediately feels the locus of this ineffability in his subjects' eyes. Almost all of them look directly at the camera (at the photographer), as if wishing to make a statement about themselves, and also to say something beyond themselves. Namuth captures the idiosyncrasies of the individual personality and the dynamics of family and community relations. A gesture, a glance, a detail of dress can suggest both private and public truths.

In the series of photographs that comprises section V of this collection, Namuth asked his sitters to bring along an object of value: one young man brings his horse, a girl her pig on a leash, others bring musical instruments, a picture of Christ and the Bible, a loom, a stack of dog-eared paperbacks. Namuth manages to convey volumes of information in a simple object: the visual derail inauspiciously, almost off-handedly, becomes an icon, a talisman, the symbol of a life. Here the photographer seems intuitively to have posed the question of how the Todos Santeros orient themselves in the world of symbols which is their culture. The Todos Sanretos offer their thoughtful responses, and gladly accept the photographic record that Namuth returns to them.

To the extent that they embody a collective portrait of Todos Santos, Namuth's photographs nave an instrumental function in the culture where they were taken. Clearly they tell the culture something about itself. Though we constantly feel Namuth's presence (and the structuring eye of his camera) in his photographs, we never feel that his subjects are co-opted on the contrary, the photographic medium, in concert with the personality of the photographer, facilitates the dialogue. The Todos Santeros collaborate with Hans Namuth in recording their communal self.

Ann Parker

The dialogic relation created by Namuth becomes especially clear when one contrasts his collection to Los Ambulantes by Ann Parker. This collection resembles Namuth’s in presenting groups of indigenous Guatemalan people who self-consciously pose for the camera. But in this case, the camera belongs to the itinerant photographers – los ambulantes - who set up their studios on the plazas and sidewalks of villages. Parker photographs over the shoulder of the ambulante, showing her (their) subjects standing stiffly in front of brightly painted backdrops with hovering angels, fruits and flowers, or skylines, and streamers floating overhead with the words Jamas te olvidare, Para ti, or simply Recuerdo. Parker's subjects do not look directly at the camera but stare into the middle distance or cast their eyes down; they have dressed in their huipiles, rebozos, fajas, calzones for the occasion, and their discomfort is often apparent. Occasionally Parker also photographs the ambulante, posed with his camera in front of his own backdrop, his pose as artificial as that of his customers.

The static formality and stylization of Parker's photographs, is of course integral to the popular cultural mode she documents (Avon Neal's introduction further defines the ambulantes’ business practices, photographic technology, etc) Parker’s photographs are in color, as the ambulantes are not, but otherwise, they faithfully convey the form and feeling of this public art. Herein, perhaps lies the problem. Parker is too faithful to the ambulantes’ formulaic vision. She rarely establishes her own visual perspective or any palpable rapport with her subjects. Rather, she is an invisible, silent onlooker in the photographic dialogue between the ambulante and his customers. Parker might have become a participant in that dialogue by showing the human activity behind the photographic facade. Occasionally she does: one shot shows an ambulante waiting for customers, another shows three women giggling shyly in recognition over the print the ambulante has just made of them. But for the most part Parker chooses to stand in the shadow of the ambulante and thus to mask her otherness. Her failure to imagine and embody her cultural difference in her visual perspective results in her exclusion from the cultural conversation. Her photographs present no more than a vicarious experience of the other.

Marilyn Anderson

Jean-Marie Simon, In Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, and Marilyn Anderson and Jonathan Garlock, In Granddaughters of Corn: Portraits of Guatemalan Women, inscribe themselves politically into their images of the Guatemalan people. Both collections are polemical in intent: both aim to educate a U.S. audience, via images and text, to the horrors of the political and military violence in Guatemala and to the U.S. complicity in that violence.

Both of these collect tons intersperse written text among their photographs, as if unwilling to rely on visual images alone to tell the story of the country that has suffered more violent abuses of human rights than any other country in the Western hemisphere - 100,000 political killings and 38,000 disappearances over the past twenty years, in a country of only 8.5 million. The text of Granddaughters of Corn describes atrocities visited upon innocent civilians by the military, and lists the women who disappeared between January, 1983, and August, 1986: their names run relentlessly along the bottom of every page. “Tania Elizabeth Herrera Rodrigez, 16, bilingual secretarial student, disappeared in Guatemala City, June 17; Thelma Judith Flores Lemus, 17, student, abducted by unidentified men. Zone 5, Guatemala City, June 12; Indira Sayonara Aguilar Garcia, disappeared in Guatemala City, June 24; Edna Concita Ramos Alvarado, disappeared in Guatemala City, June 26; she was pregnant at the time." So the grisly list goes on and on.

Black and white photographs of women and girls accompany the descriptions of rapes and murders. The women are shown weaving, standing in doorways and against mud walls, silting on a doorstep. They often look impassively at the camera, as if to say that the hidden war in their country is but one more injustice imposed upon their culture from outside, one more hardship to be suffered in silence.

Jean-Marie Simon

In her collection, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, Jean-Marie Simon also seeks to uncover Guatemala’s hidden war. Her photographs document actions, displacements, upheavals - in short, the movements of contemporary history - as none of the other collections under review here does. Whereas the photographs in the other collections have a quiet, timeless quality, Simon's are photojournalistic in their intention to show current historical and cultural process. Their natural color, straight-on perspective, and arrested action shots lend credibility to Simon's “coverage." Her human subjects are presented as caught in a succession of destructive historical events that they can neither direct nor control.

Simon foregrounds the horror of the desaparecidos. She writes:

The term desaparecido (literally ‘disappeared,’ referring to government kidnappings) acquired its grammatical versatility as both a verb and participle (‘to be disappeared,’ ‘he was disappeared’) in Guatemala almost a decade before the term was exported to Chile and Argentina. As a result, there is hardly a Guatemalan alive who cannot name at least a dozen friends, relatives, or colleagues killed or 'disappeared' over the past decade.

Like Anderson and Garlock's list of names and dates in Granddaughters of Corn, Simon's reference to the insidious verbiage of totalitarianism implies that this story needs more explanation than visual images alone can provide. Simon goes beyond Anderson and Garlock, however, in presenting a political history of the disastrous violence in Guatemala during the last three decades.

Simon, who has been a consultant to Amnesty International and Americas Watch in Guatemala since 1980, begins her account with the Overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. President Arbenz had instituted important land reform legislation in 1952, and encouraged the formation of labor unions. These democratic reforms were threatening to U.S. business interests, especially to the United Fruit Company, which had enjoyed tax-exempt export privileges on U.S. banana monopoly since 1901, and controlled one-tenth of the Guatemalan
economy through exclusive rights on the Guatemalan railroad and telegraph systems. United Fruit Company was then Guatemala’s largest landowner, with some 555,000 acres of land. The land reform legislation required the expropriation of all idle lands exceeding 223 acres, though cultivated land was not affected and the owners of expropriated land were to be reimbursed with government bonds. President Arbenz offered United Fruit $1.2 million in compensation, but the company wanted $l6 million. Ms. Simon writes that the company then “enlisted the aid of two close contacts, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, C.I.A. director Allen Dulles, and the U.S. Slate Department embarked on a destabilization campaign and propaganda blitz to convince the public that President Arbenz was a Soviet sympathizer.” In June, 1954, the Guatemalan Army and business leaders, backed by the C.I.A, look control of the government. Simon continues,

The next President, hand-picked by the United States, was Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a furniture salesman in Tegucigalpa since his exile there in 1952, after having plotted to overthrow President Arbenz. Castillo Armas was flown in Guatemala in the U.S. Ambassador’s plane and the coup marked the beginning of systematic repression in Guatemala.

Simon describes the process by which the Guatemalan army consolidated its absolute power in the name of democracy, justifying its repressions at necessary preparation for the establishment of democratic institutions. Simon writes, "For example, in December, 1984, when confronted with allegations of continuing army violence m the Guatemalan highlands, then head-of-state, General Mejia Victores, replied, 'Isn't the killing of three hundred, five hundred Indians worth it to save the country?’” General Jose Ephrain Rios Montt, who preceded Mejia Victores is quoted as saying, "We are not killing Indians we are killing Communists.”

Simon explains the rural counter-insurgency program developed in the early ‘80s to "kill Communists”: “By incorporating one million peasants into a civil patrol system - unarmed, unremunerated patrol duty required of all rural males - and corralling some seventy thousand internal refugees into 'model' villages (permanent containment areas under military control), the Guatemalan military has ensured its domination over every facet of daily life." Simon also addresses the training of military recruits - often very young men from the same Indian communities that they will later patrol. She interviews a young recruit who explains that as an Indian, he felt inferior. But the army gave him a sense of power: "You leave the Cuartel [barracks] feeling very macho. You begin to insult people, and you are taught never to take any shit from civilians." This boy has learned that he will either be abused, or abuse. He has chosen the latter.

Much of the political violence has centered in Guatemala's rural highlands, or altiplano, where the country's Indian population is concentrated. After Bolivia, Guatemala has the highest concentration of indigenous peoples in Latin America: fifty-five percent of the country's population are descendants of the Maya, and belong to twenty-two language and ethnic groups. Simon writes of the disastrous consequences of the army presence in the altiplano.

Where there is a military presence, religious rites and local festivals have been curtailed if not prohibited, and Guatemala’s Indians are more impoverished now then ten years ago. Precious work time is forfeited for civil patrol duty, and many villagers are requires to betray their neighbors by becoming army informants in order to put food on their own families’ tables, or simply to save their lives. Present-day counterinsurgency has probably done as much to alter Indian life as the Spanish Conquest and its aftermath did in four centuries, and one cannot help but wonder if the culture that the Mayans have sustained since the sixteenth century will endure even fifty more years.

Simon constantly points to U.S. involvement in Guatemala’s civil war. Beyond her damning historical account, she documents current U.S. military and business support of the military regime. One photo shows a former U.S. military attache, Colonel George Maynes, observing a civil patrol rally in Nebaj Quiche; the text accompanying the photograph describes his relationship to the local civil patrol commander.

In another section of text, Simon quotes members of the American Chamber of Commerce: those interviewed enthusiastically support the government death squads as necessary to combat Communist infiltration into the country. (More than three hundred companies with U.S. interests operate in Guatemala, so there is much money at stake, and much investment in maintaining the entrenched system of economic privilege.) Simon reports that since 1954, Guatemala's “AmCham” has played an active role in lobbying to influence U.S. congressional policy; their rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of the Guatemalan right-wing. Indeed, concludes Simon, many Guatemalan right-wingers are themselves active AmCham members.

Simon's text is consistently informative, infuriating, disheartening. Her photographs are as incisive as her text. Again and again, Simon shows us how violence becomes, domesticated, how life continues under state-of-seige conditions, albeit tragically. We see army camouflage uniforms everywhere, worn by Presidents and peasant recruits and we see the un-uniformed members of the EGP (the Guerilla Army of the Poor) running through a field with sticks instead of guns. Government soldiers direct an Indian festival. A cadet in a class at the Military Academy holds up a beautifully embroidered huipil, the blouse worn by Indian women, as if to confirm his knowledge of the enemy. The current civilian President, Vinicio Cerezo, ties his necktie in front of his bathroom mirror, his pistol in a holster under his arm, his wife proudly looking on. We also see the nude body of a young woman lying on a morgue table in Guatemala City, her hands cut off at the wrists and placed on her chest, her face mutilated. The accompanying text attests her innocence.

Simon’s sympathies are with the victims of this violence, and she expresses her dilemma movingly. She also captures the furtive outlines of their victimizers. Her photographs thus present a double image of the other: the Guatemalan people whose lives and culture are threatened by political violence, and the external agents of that violence. In that second image of otherness, Simon shows us ourselves.

Lois Parkinson Zamora is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Houston. Her book, Writing the Apocalypse: Historical VIsiion in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction, was published in April.

Top