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LIGHT AND DARK
IN ARGENTINA

by Ariadna Capasso
and Diana Korchak
 
"En Negro y Blanco," Mar. 9-Apr. 28, 2006, organized by Julio Menajovsky and Pablo Lasansky at the Consulate General of Argentina Art Gallery, 12 West 56th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019

Three men celebrate in stadium seats, arms outstretched, excitement on their faces. It is 1978 and Argentina has won the Soccer World Cup. Images like these travel the globe, the face of a triumphant Argentina. The success of the national team reflects the glory of the men at the peak of their power. They are the generals of the junta, "derechos y humanos" -- righteous and humane, as their own slogan boasted -- later to be tried publicly and found guilty of the most atrocious crimes.

In 2006, these are the faces of criminals. We cannot see this photograph without thinking of the underground torture chambers and the thousands of "disappeared" that characterized the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The regime shut down the legislative branch and abolished freedom of the press and freedom of speech. In this photograph, the generals’ cheers are a bitter echo of the screams of the tortured. Suddenly, the six white circles hovering above their heads in the photo -- stadium lights -- stand in for the haunting eyes of the "disappeared."

The exhibition "En Negro y Blanco," currently on view at the Consulate General of Argentina in New York, features 55 photographs from this period, images that address state terrorism -- in other words, what happens when a government turns against its own citizens. A related exhibition opened on Mar. 23 in Buenos Aires at the Palais de Glace-Salas Nacionales de Cultura, and is scheduled to travel to Europe later this year

After the restoration of democracy in Argentina, it was thought that photographs documenting state repression during the 1976-83 period were either nonexistent or had vanished together with the "disappeared." But in 2003, photographers Pablo Cerolini and Alejandro Reynoso embarked on a search of the archives of two of Argentina’s most important newspapers, Clarín and Crónica, and were able to collect over 1,500 photographs recording the political violence in Argentina. They invited four editors to help assemble a book of the photographs: Jorge Durán and Dani Yako from Clarín, and independent photojournalists Daniel García and Pablo Lasansky.

The editors selected 153 images for the publication, a third of which are now exhibited at the consulate. This show marks the first time that the photos have been presented outside of a newspaper context, as large-format prints in an art exhibition. Lasansky notes that many of the old negatives and prints needed substantial restoration.

The exhibition title, "En Negro y Blanco," refers to times of darkness and injustice in opposition to times of openness and the search for truth. The national willingness to face the crimes of the dictatorship has developed slowly, led by local human rights organizations and the 2003 election of pro-human-rights President Néstor Kirchner. As a sign of changing times, the exhibition and accompanying book are sponsored by Argentina’s Ministry of Culture, with profits earmarked for the association Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, which searches for the more than 600 children stolen from their parents during the dictatorship, and to ARGRA (Asociación de Reporteros Gráficos de la República Argentina) to fund similar research projects. This year, March 24 was declared a national holiday and a day of remembrance.

The New York exhibition consists of two rooms of photographs arranged in rough chronological order. The works in the first section are from newspaper archives and depict newsworthy events of the type that might appear in a daily paper, such as the image of economy minister Martínez de Hoz giving a speech, or of a helicopter hovering over the government headquarters, moments before President Isabel Perón was kidnapped and put under house arrest in 1976.

The second part of the show consists of images from personal archives as well as the type of press photography that gained popularity as the dictatorship neared its end in the 1980s, when, with a newly found sense of hope, a group of photojournalists launched the agency Reporteros Gráficos in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson and Magnum. These photos, explains Pablo Lasansky, are spontaneous and take a more personal and idiosyncratic approach to recording public events.

The exhibition includes a photograph by Lasansky from 1982 that shows a soldier standing over a young man on his hands and knees against a wall. The photo was taken during the first big protest march organized against the military government. The soldier aims his weapon at the demonstrator and shouts, his shadow ominously covering the man and looming over him on the wall. The man looks straight at the weapon trained at him, as if in defiance. In the background, another person calmly sips his coffee behind the window of a restaurant, completely oblivious to the reality around him. The photograph captures the multiple realities that simultaneously exist in times of crisis, as well as pointing to the rupture of the system.

A photograph from earlier years is also enlightening. From a terrace or balcony we look down on an old man who placidly waits to cross the street, shopping bag in hand, perhaps on his way to get bread. Meanwhile, solders crouch in doorways, their weapons held ready for action. The gates and blinds of the building’s windows and doors are shut tight. The date is Sept. 17, 1976. This image illustrates the way that "normality" is skewed in times of violence and repression, and how people accept the unacceptable. At this time, there is no open defiance but the one implied by the photographer’s action.

In the catalogue essay, Eduardo Longoni employs the metaphor of life as a fast-running movie that photographers try to capture with a sequence of stills, each informing the next. A picture by Carlos Pesce illustrates how the continuum works. A black-and-white photo shows a corpse lying bloody in the street, with a woman crying in pain being comforted by a man in a suit carrying a book. The image chills the blood. The caption explains that this man is Leonardo Bettanin, a political activist who would be assassinated three years later at the hands of the celebrating generals. In the photo, which was taken in 1974, he comforts a woman following a violently repressed public demonstration. The shot both seizes a moment of fleeting life and also foretells the ensuing bloodshed.

According to Lasansky, the editors wanted a photo book that would let the photographs speak for themselves and provide a purely visual history of the times. Curiously, in the context of Argentine government propaganda in the ‘70s, when the leftist Montoneros escalated their campaign of political violence, the image of a corpse on the street was proof of the subversive threat. Today, when 100,000 people can gather in the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires in a rally to repudiate the 1976 military coup, the same image condemns the dictatorship. In both instances, the image is proof -- in one case of a danger to society, in the other of state terrorism. The context is what determines the proof.

"En Negro y Blanco" is about blindness and seeing, about truth and its evasion. We are made to wonder, how could these atrocities happen? Who repudiates these acts and who accepts them? Do people first allow what they later reject? Together, the photographs weave an answer. Lasansky remembers how he took the 1982 image. "This was the first big march of protest against the military government," he recalls. "I was working for the news agency Noticias Argentinas at the time. It wasn’t a fully organized demonstration with people walking together. It was spontaneous and chaotic, and so the military wasn’t as prepared to repress en masse. I spent all day walking around, shooting pictures. The trick was to shoot and then move on, not to stick around for too long."

In any given conflict, some photographers acquiesce and "do their job," portraying the big acts, the big speeches; some resist, stealing prohibited snapshots on the run.


ARIADNA CAPASSO is an artist, critic and curator in New York City, and DIANA KORCHAK teaches Spanish language and composition at the University of Denver.