Photography and Violence 1: How do you register all of these thoughts in that image?

Posted by on Jul 8, 2014 in Lorena Marrón | No Comments

Atrocity is going on all around us. The least we can do is acknowledge it.

Jay Prosser, Picturing Atrocity

 

When I moved to New York in 2011 I left my hometown, Acapulco, in flames. That year, according to the Citizen Council for Security, Justice and Peace, Acapulco became the second most violent city in the world[1], with an alarming murder rate of 143 persons for every 100,000. Acapulco, a seaside resort once described as paradise on Earth, turned into a living hell in which disfigured bodies were found daily and military jeeps had taken over the streets. This was just not the case of Acapulco but of various cities throughout the country which were caught in the middle of what we now refer as “Mexico’s drug war.”

With Mexico living a humanitarian crisis with a death toll equal to that of the Balkans and Iraq wars –an escalating violence that has not been seen in the country since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917)–[2] I became less concerned with art production within a tradition of modernist aesthetic self-reflection, and more and more captivated by artistic initiatives that examine the social and political climate of their times. More specifically, I am interested in the intersections between art and violence.

For the next couple of months I wish to pursue this interest further in the CCNY blog by focusing on photography. I plan to curate my entries not by surveying the theme of “Violence and Photography” through the past decades, but by addressing different themes and problematics that photographing violence, suffering or atrocity entail.

One first image: a necessary but impossible-to-look-at photography by American photographer Susan Meiselas (b. Baltimore, Maryland, 1948).

Caption: Susan Meiselas. Cuesta del Plomo, a well-known site of many assassinations near Managua carried out by the National Guard. People searched here daily for missing persons. July, 1978.

Caption: Susan Meiselas. Cuesta del Plomo, a well-known site of many assassinations near Managua carried out by the National Guard. People searched here daily for missing persons. July, 1978.

 

What lays outside the frame of this image, of what we can see in this image, is not less brutal than the image itself. In fact, one of Meiselas’ main concerns is the inadequacy of framing. One can see in her work, as well as in many photographs of violent murders, how relevant is the effort of “trying to fill” by narrating what happens “outside the frame.” She says:

“This was a known site of execution. I had often heard about such places. That body was left to terrorize everyone passing. It was at the top of a steep hill, so you can imagine the buses dragging themselves up, about a mile or so outside the capital of Managua. For a long time I’ve lived with the inadequacy of that frame to tell everything I knew, and I think a lot about what is outside the frame, what is beyond this body: parts of other bodies down the hill, right behind it, below in the trees, still caught in branches. Men and women were dismembered and never identified. I also think a lot about what else is outside of the frame, such as the families, and how they watched people being pulled out of their homes, sometimes never able to find their remains. That’s not in this photograph. I think of the man, not just a body on the hillside, being executed by someone who really thought they knew what he thought, not in fact killing him for what he had done. And that is also outside of the frame. How do you register all of these thoughts in that image?” (Susan Meiselas “Body on a Hillside” in Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis, London: Reaktion Books, 2012)

(To know more about the images that Meiselas took of Nicaragua under the last years of the Somoza Regime, visit Susan Meiselas website.)

 

 

[1] San Pedro Sula in Honduras was ranked the first.

[2] The last major conflict in Mexico before the current drug war was The Cristero War (1923-1929), which claimed the lives of ninety thousand people in three years.