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Photography and social change in the Central American civil wars

By Erina Duganne


Many hope, even count on, photography to function as an agent of social change. In his 1998 book, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises, communications scholar David Perlmutter argues, however, that while photographs “may stir controversy, accolades, and emotion,” they “achieve absolutely nothing.”

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Camera Lens, by Jkimxpolygons. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In my current research project, I examine the difficult question of what contribution photography has made to social change through an examination of images documenting events from the Central American civil wars — El Salvador and Nicaragua, more specifically — that circulated in the United States in the 1980s. Rather than measure the influence of these photographs in terms of narrowly conceived causal relationships concerning issues of policy, I argue that to understand what these images did and did not achieve, they need to be situated in terms of their broader social, political, and cultural effects — effects that varied according to the ever shifting relations of their ongoing reproduction and reception. Below are three platforms across which photographs from the wars in Central America circulated and recirculated in the United States in the 1980s.

(1)   In the early 1980s, the US government adopted a dual policy of military support in Central America. In El Salvador, they provided aid against the guerilla forces or FMLN while in Nicaragua they backed the contra war against the Sandinistas. Many Americans learned and formulated opinions about these policies through photographs that circulated in the news media. The cover of the 22 March 1982 issue of Time, for instance, featured a photograph of a gunship flying over El Salvador. Taken by US photojournalist Harry Mattison, the editors at Time used the photograph as part of their cover story questioning the use by the US government of aerial reconnaissance photographs of military installations in Nicaragua to establish a causal link between the leftist insurgents in El Salvador and Communist governments worldwide.

(2)   In addition to these reconnaissance photographs, the Reagan administration also turned to photography in an eight-page State Department white paper entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador, which was released to the American public on 23 February 1981. In this white paper, the US government included two sets of military intelligence photographs of captured weapons, which they believed would help them to further provide the American public with “irrefutable proof” of Communist involvement via Russia and Cuba in Central America, and thereby justify the escalation of US military and economic aid to the supposedly moderate Salvadoran government. The aforementioned article in Time also questioned the validity of the sources used in this document.

(3)   While photography played a prominent role in debates over the existence of a communist threat in Central America, beginning in 1983, a number of artists and photographers — Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, Group Material, Marta Bautis, Mel Rosenthal, among others — put photographs from the Central American conflicts, some of which had circulated directly in the aforementioned contexts and others which had not, to a different use. Rather than employ photographs to perpetuate or even question the accuracy of communist aggression in the region, these artists and photographers instead used the medium to examine the imperialist underpinning of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Central America as well as the longstanding geopolitical and historical implications of US involvement there. To this end, they produced the following: the 1983 photography book and exhibition El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which was edited by Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, and Fae Rubenstein and toured various US cities in 1984 and 1985; Group Material’s 1984 multi-media installation Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, on view at the P.S. Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, as part of the ad hoc protest organization Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America; and the exhibition The Nicaragua Media Project that toured various US cities in 1984 and 1985. Together these three photography books and art exhibitions provided, what I call, a “living” history for photographs from the Central American civil wars.

In his 1978 essay “Uses of Photography” that was anthologized in his 1980 book About Looking, cultural critic John Berger argues that for photographs to “exist in time,” they need to be placed in the “context of experience, social experience, social memory.” Using Berger’s definition of a “living” history as a model, my research project offers a novel way to think about how, within the contexts of these exhibitions and books, photographs from the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua functioned as dynamic, even affective objects, whose mobility and mutability could empower contemporary viewers to look beyond the so-called communist threat in the region that was perpetuated through the Reagan administration as well as the news media and begin to think more carefully about past histories of US imperialism and global human oppression in Central America.

Erina Duganne is Associate Professor of Art History at Texas State University where she teaches courses in American art, photography, and visual culture. She is the author of The Self in Black and White: Race and Subjectivity in Postwar American Photography (2010) as well as a co-editor and an essayist for Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (2007). She has also written about her current research project for the blog In the Darkroom.

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