An Interview with Wendy Watriss

by Olive Hershey

Wendy Watriss is a Houston-based photojournalist and writer. She has done work on health problems caused for Vietnam War veterans by Agent Orange, on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., on refugees from drought in West African Sahel, and on Black cowboys in Texas. From 1984 to the present Watriss has engaged in photodocumentary work in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras for Village Voice, Mother Jones, and MS magazines. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, and her work has been widely exhibited and published. She is co-founder of a public foundation for social change in Texas, the Live Oak Fund for Change.

Olive Hershey’s conversation with Wendy Watriss took place Wednesday, July 19, 1989.

Q: Would you tell me something about what you think photojournalism is?

A: It’s a way of bringing events and realities and things about what people are and what they’re doing from different parts of the world – basically recording for people who don’t have the time, the will or the ability – or the interest, really, to see those things. So I think that photojournalism is a tool of communication. There’s been so much discussion about what is record and what is truth, and I don’t want to get into that. I hesitate to say that it’s a record. What it is is one person’s visual observation of what is happening. But the wonderful ting about a camera and film is that they are so transportable, and so easy to work with, and then it’s so accessible once the product tis there. So it’s a wonderful form of communication because you don’t need language, in a sense, because it’s a universal language. People read it, certainly, in different ways so its never a totally universal language, but it can communicate very directly.

Q: When you went to Central America did you have a hard and fast idea of what you wanted?

A: In all the trips to Central America I had assignments because I had to find a wy to pay my own day down there. Actually, I would like to go down and have what I call the luxury – my own psychological luxury – of just photographing what I saw and what I wanted.

Q: Who were you working for?

A: the first time I went down to do a slide presentation and a series of black and white photographs for a consortium of progressive liberal unions on the west coast. We were trying to present an alternative vision to the official AFL-CIO position on U.S. policy in Central America. So they were taking a small delegation of local union officials down there from California and Oregon. What they wanted to look at was what the electoral process was and how it was coming together in Nicaragua in 1984, the union situation there, and how the people were living.

Q: That seems an extraordinary project for a group of union people to do.

A: Yes. It was fascinating because there were Blacks and Filipinos and Hispanics as well as whites, many of whom came from what we would consider the less privileged sectors of our society and had never left the U.S. before and had never seen reality in a developing country. They were appalled and shocked at the condition of poverty and what people were having to put up with.

Q: How many of them were there?

A: There were about fifteen.

Q: How long were you there?

A: I was there three weeks. The rest were there for a week.

Q: And that was when?

A: 1984. A month, maybe a month and a half before the elections. And then when I came back I was so – I mean what it did was basically deepen my anger about U.S. foreign policy. And I wanted to go down with somebody I trusted who I thought was a good writer and actually cover the elections. And I knew a writer in California named Mark Cooper who’d done a lot of work in Central America, was in Chile during Allende’s tenure, in fact was translator for Allende. Mark and I had done some work together in Cuba. So I called Mark up enraged at the media coverage of pre-election events in Nicaragua and said “Let’s try to get down.” So we did. We got an assignment from The Village Voice. And McClains and L.A. Weekly, and so we went out to cover the election.

Actually my work there was pretty free. We covered the campaigns, and I photographed all the various parties. You know, the Sandinistas came into power and said they were going to hold elections, and then they began to procrastinate. And we [the U.S.] tried to bully them into it. So they held elections in 1984. There were either six or seven other parties running, three to the left and three to the right. And the party most closely aligned with the Contras pulled out of the election maybe a month or so before the elections. Later they claimed that they had been ready to participate in the elections but the C.I.A. had said, “Don’t participate.” You tend to think that’s right, in the sense that I think that the Americans had put a lot of pressure on them not to participate. The strongest potential party to the right did not participate, which made it easier to discredit the election.

Q: Where did you go on that trip?

A: We went to Managua and Matagalpa, and, in the north, Jinatega, which was fairly near were there was a lot of Contra fighting, Leon and Masaya.

Q: Sounds like you could have been in trouble.

A: Not really, because the Contras weren’t attacking at that point in the central and southern parts of the country and they weren’t attacking major town. We were out in the country at a couple of places where there had been contra attacks two days earlier. It was have been a fluke if we had encountered something.

Q: Did you find it pretty challenging to get around, to get people to trust you, to get the pictures that you wanted?

A: Well, logistically, it’s challenging in all those countries, it’s hard to get around because there aren’t a lot of cars and gasoline. We did for one week in Managua find a freelance car rental person and did rent a car. But he didn’t want to go up into the northern parts so we rose buses and hitch-hiked on trucks, which was a lot of fun. We spent one of the most interesting nights of that first trip up in Matagalpa. This was covering the Sandinista campaign before the elections: how they were going house to house and talking to people about what they stood for. They had very nice brochures, and I had actually some nice pictures of them on dirt floors with practically no electric light except for my flash, talking to people about what their campaign meant and what they believed in politically and what they hoped to do for them. They had very frank discussions because they also asked the people what their complaints were and what they needed, and there were some fairly heated discussions, quite critical. It was time when there was a shortage of beans, for example, and the roads were difficulty to pass, and it was hard to get produce down from the vialled to the bigger towns. And there was inflation, so that was bad.

So we got back to Matagalpa very late that night, having made no arrangements to sleep anywhere, and of course the two or three hotels we found were totally booked. So we spent about three or four hours going door to door. We even went to the police station. There was no room any place so I said to Mark, “I suggest that we go to the hospital. You know they’ll put us in an office or they’ll put us on the floor.” So we went into the old hospital in Matagalpa. We slept on the concrete floor – they did give us a blanket, and we spent the night listening to the moaning of patients, and then the weirdest thing happened. About 4:30 in the morning I heard this combination of singing and lamentation and crying from the door of the hospital. And it kept on and on and stopped and then kept on it was this quite beautiful old woman. And she would stand up and then she would sort of get down on all fours. She was just wailing, you know, to anybody who’d listen. She did nothing but wail for the next three hours.

Her children had been killed in a Contra attack. She came from a mountain area were there was a lot of fighting, and the stress of living in that area and having her children die drove her crazy. She would come every night to the hospital. At that time there was only on psychiatric hospital in the county, in Managua, and the hospital in Matagalpa was simply waiting to get an army truck or something with one place in it so they could send her to Managua to get psychiatric help. She was just, you know…and by about nine o’clock she would leave. I don’t know where. I mean, I guess they knew where she was. They were feeding her. She would disappear into the countryside and then come back at night.

Q: That’s a story.

A: Yes.

Q: A litany of grief.

A: You could make out bits and pieces, I mean, of syllables but they were not coherent sentences.
And then the next week we talked to several Sandinistas who were running ministries. One was domestic economy and the other agriculture. Mark knew Rosario Murillo, the poet, you know, Ortega’s wife. We stayed at the Cultural House that puts up artists and writers. We had lunch and mark interviewed her, and I photographed.

She is a very attractive woman and is in fact distantly related,, I think, to Sandino, Rosario loves children, I think she’s had children since I was there, and at that time she had five. So there were at least hour squiggling, squirming, very young children at the table. And she apologized for the fact that there were no people bringing food in, serving. Then she told this wonderful story about how when they moved into the house maybe two or three years earlier. I think the previous family had left, and when they left they left cars in the garage, clothes in the closets, servants in the house. The servants were very upset because Ortega never felt comfortable being served, so he would always go out to the kitchen to get the food. This upset them greatly, and they felt that the proper kind of relationship between servants and the family was not being encouraged. So they left.

It’s just difficult; everyday living is difficult unless you’re middle class or upper class and have a car and access to black market gasoline. But certainly in terms of rights women are much better off, and there’s better maternal and prenatal care.

Now, you know I haven’t been down to Nicaragua in the last four years; the whole quality of life has deteriorated because of the war, and European countries have cut way back on their aid and investment also because of pressure from us. There is The National Endowment for Democracy; which is a travesty because it’s funded partly by the U.S. taxpayer. I mean its part of government and not part of government. Part of its funding comes directly out of Congress, and part from private sources, and, I would assume, foundation sources. It is essentially a very conservative organization that is a non-profit, tax-exempt, yet it has funneled money into partisan political contests, ot only in Nicaragua but in countries all over the world.

For me the interesting things happen by being in another culture; I mean color has a different meaning in that culture; physical structures are different. Ally our visual senses are assaulted in good and bad ways – in new ways, so everything is much more heightened. Now some photographers work entirely differently. They great Czech photographer, Sudek, you know, photographed in and around his studio for much of his life. I think for many photojournalists it’s that contact with novelty and freshness and things we don’t know that stimulates visual ideas and visual energy.

I look at my Central America work as very beginning work. If you look at the layers and levels in how you react to something creatively, I was reacting at a very simple visual level there, even though in my mind I had a very sophisticated understanding of what was happening there. But it was literary understanding, intellectual understanding, which had not translated itself, really, into effective visual terms. I didn’t have a visual story I could do an illustrated magazine piece. But with many of the images I don’t feel that I really got into those deeper layers of creative expression.

I have worked most in the western part of Salvador photographing. There’s a project started by a wonderfully interesting woman our age near Santa Ana, the first woman in their family to become a professional – certainly to become a doctor. She’s getting money from individuals, churches, and then some development funds. And she’s not a sentimental do-gooder or a politically active person. She has a genuine feeling about people, about what is fair and just, and an uncanny ability to communication with campesinos.

Q: What about Ortega? Did you talk with him?

A: Well, we did eventually. It was very funny because after the elections we put in a request to talk with him. It’s a little like waiting for Fidel, waiting for Ortega. Because first his assistant sail, “Well, maybe you’ll have to wait for an answer,” so we waited, and then he called and said “It’ll have to be tomorrow afternoon.” So we waited, and that was impossible. So we actually changed out place reservations, which is a very risky thing to do in Nicaragua because you never know if you can get another one. So he did this for four days, and we thought we’d never get be able to get back.

All of a sudden the phone rang in the Casa de Cultura at 8:30 a.m. “Soldiers coming. Be ready in 15 minutes.” Of course we sit out on the sidewalk for another two hours. Then a man comes in his car and takes us to a government house a little bit outside Managua where we cool our heels for another hour and a half. It’s a completely surrealist kind of scene: all of a sudden two soldiers come to the back of the house and say “Follow us to the front door.” An open keep drives up, and it’s Ortega driving the car. He says, “Get in,” so Mark is in back and I’m in the front seat. No doors, no windows. I mean the three of us – Ortega, mark, and myself. I mean, anybody could have assassinated us any minute. We drove around for about an hour and a half; he was talking, showing us Managua. This was also the period a week or ten days after the elections, and we [the U.S.] had started sending spy planes, reconnaissance places across Nicaragua. We had already been sending reconnaissance places, but these were low-flying ones called the Pajara Negro, and you could hear then. There’d be these sonic booms at eight o’clock in the morning, everything would shake like an earthquake, and you’d know the plane had come across. Remember, this was the time when Reagan accused them of having MIG’s delivered. It turned out that was total nonsense, but Nicaragua was getting ready, there were tanks in the streets. They were getting ready for what they thought would be an air strike or something. And so the planes were used as harassment, and the tension kept building up.

Q: People were really frightened.

A: Students were going off in labor brigades. There was a big ceremony where they were supposed to go off to the north to pick coffee, but they were told they were going to have to stay in Managua because they might have to defend the barrios and become civil defense units. There was training for these kids in what to do in case of an air raid. People were scared. And there were these young kids upon top of tanks, kids that looked no older than sixteens on these old Russian tanks.

Q: Where were any Russians in Nicaragua?

A: Not that I saw, but I’m sure there are – and why shouldn’t there be? And I saw Cuban doctors and constructions workers and so forth. But the East European and Soviet advisors tend to stay pretty much out of sight.

Q: How was the medial situation? Had we begun the embargo when you were there?

A: They hadn’t started the embargo when I was there but they needed medicine. It wasn’t as bad as it is now—they needed antibiotics and some everyday medical supplies, but the clinics were working. In fact, they were just about to open anew hospital in Matagalpa. Ithink the Dutch and the Swiss helped build it. There were clinics for basic medi­cal care where there had been absolutely no medical care before.

Q: When you were in the country did you visit cooperative farms and see some of that? How was that? Looked pretty good?

A: Yes. One of the things I was really shocked about in Nicaragua was the terrible lack of infrastructure in rural areas. I saw several farms appropriated by the government from wealthy landowners, and even on these farms the rich owners had left terrible housing, mud huts, cement block structures. No facilities at all. No fences or roads. My conclusion was that the landowning class had simply raped the country and took all the money out.

Q: When you went down there were you already strongly opposed to American policy in Central America?

A: Yes. I had already formed my opinions. Everything l saw reconfirmed them. Yes.

Q: Most Americans don't seem to give very much of a damn about Central or South America.

A: Or anything outside their house. Certainly outside the United States. I think there was a poll a couple of years ago that most Americans weren't even aware of the difference between Nicaragua and Salvador or where they were. No, most people don’t know and most people don’t care.

Q: What about women in Nicaragua? How are they doing?

A: They’re doing much better than in previous times. However, you are still dealing with the Latin culture. And while women have positions and work and education that they didn’t have access to before, their lives are very difficult. That is, they have most of the domestic chores – child rearing, child caring, you know – cleaning house, making food. I mean, men still don’t participate that well… Then you have problems of living in a society where all the logistics are difficult. It’s difficult to get around. You can wait for a bus for an hour and a half because there’s not enough gas to keep the buses running.

Q: If you’re a photojournalist and go someplace without preconceived ideas, are you making story in your mind?

A: I think very few photojournalists go with no preconceived idea, I mean even if they say that they don’t, I think in the back of their minds they have an intellectual or philosophical or visual structure. But it may change when they confront reality.

Q: What does emotion have to do with this?

A: …I’m not sure…I think that my mind was so loaded with information. I was thinking about data and information and not just responding visually. And I felt very emotionally strongly all of the time. But I didn’t allow that to find its personal form of expression. For me I think that can be a problem visually and photographically. I’m somebody who tends to read a lot, to load my mind with information about things that interest me; I want to try to figure things out. Photography isn’t about figuring things out, really, at all. It’s about visual communication at the simplest level, particularly if you’re a documentary photographer. You strive for images that have a lot of depth and therefore are going to resonate through several layers of knowledge and emotion. But in its essence it’s such a simple form of communication compared to writing and music. It’s a reductive form of communication.

Q: Then I keep thinking of what you said about the first versus the second or third time you went to a place and having had time to experience those visual images in a different, certainly more profound way, it’s sort of like – I always have a chance to rewrite, and you don’t, necessarily.

A: That’s right. Unless you keep going down again and again. And I think at this point if I went down again it would be to try to explore my own personal visual response to the place rather than trying to tell a story or illustrate something. But I’m torn between five or six other projects that I want to get started. And the other thing is that there is marvelous photography on Central America, and I don’t know if I have anything more to contribute to Central America with my own work. Certainly, I have an abiding interest, and I certainly work at it a lot. The other thing is that what I’d like to do is the kind of thing that would take months of living down there, and I’m not sure right now that’s what I want to do.

Q: Talk about those things you want to do.

A: Actually I get superstitious but I’ll tell you. The two that are most bugging me are one, a project on prison. The other is concerns the decay of our urban landscape. I don’t think people realize the extent to which this has happened.

But I would love to go back for a while. One of the things I found enormously moving was the few days I spend at one of the refugee resettlement areas in El Salvador. Just the will of the people to overcome what they had gone through, losing everything, being bombed out of their homes, living as real victims – and then forcing the government and the economic and the political establishment to let them back on their own lands. They had to rebuild from scratch, with all the memories of having lived in tunnels, then rebuilding their lives on the same land, and at the same time having to endure soldiers coming in at night and pretending they were guerillas, seeing if they would support them. There’s no easy quick wat to translate that kind of experience into photography. It’s being there.

She grew up in a provincial capital, of middle-income middle-class family with some education. She’s not a peasant campesino. But she really knows how to work with them, and she knows how to talk with them straight and they trust her. And she’s disciplined about the way she works and very courageous, not in an obvious way. She went to medical school in Mexico, and part of the residency training was to go out and do social services, and it turned out she went into a village in a very poor area where there was a lot of land reforms conflict. She was horrified by what she saw there, the poverty of the campesinos. Her like was threatened, and when she finally went back to Salvador she started working at the hospital at Santa Anna but became immediately aware of the terrible need for her in the countryside. So she started to work with some communities on the outskirts of town, and then people heard about her in outlying villages and came to see her. Then she started taking a train, she would be away three or four days. She had this funny hat that she’d stick out the window of the train and the train would go through these mountainous villages and she would wave her hat, and the people would know she was on the train.

Q: The time you’d have to spend in Central America to cover that kind of story reminds me of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – that kind of depth.

A: Yes. Going in for two or three days or even a month wouldn’t do it.

Q: You’d have to be there a year.

A: Yes. You would. I don’t know that the work that would come out would be necessarily profound. But I loved being in El Salvador. I love the shapes and the colors, liveliness of the peoples, their emotional response to life.

Olive Hersey published a volume of her poetry, Floating Face Up, in 1984. Her novel Truck Dance was published by Harper and Row earlier this year. She teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Houston.