The blood of a student
October 28, 2005
Over the past several weeks, thousands of people have visited
New York City’s International Center of Photography (ICP)
for the restaging of an exhibition that the museum presented two
decades ago, but which has taken on fresh urgency in the shadow
of the ongoing war in Iraq.
"El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers" was first
shown at the center in 1984, at the height of the bloody struggle
in El Salvador that pitted a popular insurgency against a US-backed
regime that ruled through savage military repression and death
Twenty-one years later, the impact of these stark black and
white images are just as powerful and upsetting. In a number of
cases, they depict the victims of this repression—students,
workers, peasants—whose horrifically mutilated corpses were
left in public view as a warning against anyone who dared oppose
the regime and the oligarchy that it defended.
The photographs were assembled by photojournalists Susan Meiselas
and Henry Mattison, with 30 photographers contributing their work,
including John Hoagland, Eugene Richards, Eli Reed and James Nachtwey.
Hoagland, who took photos for Newsweek magazine was one
of three contributors who died in El Salvador, gunned down by
US-trained government troops.
In explaining the need for the exhibition when it first opened,
Meiselas said, "[We] were living there and believed that
the larger context of the war needed to be felt by Americans considering
the growing involvement of the US."
Cornell Capa, the photojournalist and brother of famed war
photographer Robert Capa, who founded the center, said in 1984,
that the photos represented an "urgent eyewitness to a civil
war occurring practically in our backyard.... These photographs,
charged with horror and emotion, are a visual plea to stop the
bloodshed and inhumanity."
The decision to reprise the exhibition came after the entire
collection was recently donated to the ICP. More importantly,
however, it also constituted a renewed "plea to stop the
bloodshed and inhumanity" as Washington once again engages
in massacres and torture, this time in Iraq.
In the introduction to the photographs, the center states:
"The lessons of El Salvador are newly relevant, with both
critics and proponents of the Bush administration drawing parallels
between the US role in El Salvador in the early 1980s and the
current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though photojournalism
is a vastly changed field—with new technologies, new outlets,
and many new constraints—the commitment of these photographers
working over 20 years ago to engage their fellow citizens can
serve as a reference point for photographers working today in
the Middle East."
Indeed, the Pentagon is reportedly working on a so-called "Salvadoran
option" in Iraq. The plan, first reported in Newsweek
last January, calls for the constitution of death squads to carry
out the assassination of members of the Iraqi resistance and massacres
of their supporters.
Since then, there has emerged substantial evidence that the
"Salvadoran option" is being implemented. The number
of death squad-style killings has grown steadily. While frequently
attributed to "sectarian violence," there is every indication
that they are the work of specially trained units drawn from the
Shiite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga.
The New York Times Magazine reported last May
that James Steele, who as a Special Forces Army colonel led the
US Military Advisory Group in El Salvador from 1984 to 1986, had
been sent to Iraq to train a unit known as the "Wolf Brigade"
or Special Police Commandos in the same methods.
The belief that the "Salvadoran option" will provide
a viable solution to the quagmire in Iraq is another of Washington’s
delusional fantasies. The supposed "success" in El Salvador
consisted of bleeding the country white, with over 75,000 killed—approximately
2 percent of the population. In the end, the first Bush administration
had to call in the United Nations to negotiate a settlement. The
country remains devastated nearly 15 years after the end of the
There is little that has come out of the Iraq war to compare
with the collection of photographs displayed in the exhibition
on El Salvador. The best known photographs confronting the American
people with the atrocities carried out in their name were taken
by the perpetrators themselves at Abu Ghraib. While scenes of
car bombings in Baghdad are regularly presented in the press and
on TV, seldom are we shown the victims of US bombing raids, roadblock
killings and the kind of full-scale military sieges laid to cities
The "constraints" that the exhibition introduction
refers to include those of the immense violence wracking the entire
country, the US military’s own severe restrictions—and
in some cases murderous attacks—and the unwillingness of
the media itself to expose the war crimes in Iraq.
The exhibition at the International Center of Photography takes
a chronological form, with photographs placed on the walls of
two large rooms spanning the three-year period from the opening
of the revolutionary crisis in El Salvador in 1979 to the unleashing
of intense urban repression and then the onset of full-scale guerrilla
It begins with scenes of everyday life: a shanty neighborhood
in San Salvador known as "la Fosa"—the Grave—where
a small baby stands in the hand of his father to the amusement
of a scrum of local children; a naked baby watching a hog being
brought to market in the town of Sonsonate; an old peasant tending
coffee beans drying in the sun; and a woman dancing to guitars
at a beach restaurant in La Libertad.
A few of the photographs also point to another form of everyday
life, that of the wealthy, residing in comparatively opulent houses
surrounded by fences and guarded by shotgun-toting security guards.
The next set of photos points to the popular movement that
arose against the dictatorship, and the bloodbath that was unleashed
to suppress it. A group of students are shown leafleting in a
poor district of the capital. Another picture depicts the blood
of a student, shot to death for handing out political leaflets.
Three large splotches stain a stone floor at its juncture with
an adobe wall. Again there is the crowd of children, but looking
somber, reflective, frightened.
Another photograph shows a dozen
flag-draped coffins lined up outside a church. The victims were
young members of a street theater, mowed down by the National
Guard in October 1979 for a performance critical of the government.
Another shot shows the face of one of the slain youth seen through
a small glass window in the coffin. Over it is written an inscription
in chalk—"I love you, I will never forget you, I will
tell my daughter about you when she grows up and can understand."
Some of the images are quite familiar from the period. These
include Michel Philippot’s photo of black-booted National
Guard troops straddling the bodies of suspected leftists thrown
one on top of another in a wooden-slatted truck bed and Susan
Meiselas’s photographs of the unearthed corpses of three
American nuns and a lay worker murdered by the military in December
1980. While the killings shocked the American public, they were
dismissed by then secretary of state Alexander Haig, who joked
about and slandered the dead, describing them as "pistol-packing
nuns" and falsely asserting that they had run a roadblock.
There are also photographs of the massive outpouring for the
March 1980 funeral of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated
as he performed mass in a plot organized by one the CIA’s
key "assets" in El Salvador, the psychopathic killer
Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. Attacked by the military using
snipers and explosives, the funeral turned into chaos, with 39
killed and over 200 wounded.
Accompanying these photos are excerpts from the sermon Romero
delivered the day before his death, calling on troops to stop
killing the people. "The campesinos you kill are your
own brothers and sisters," he declared. "In the name
of God ... I beg you, I beseech you, I order you: stop the repression."
Other photographs are difficult to look at. These include particularly
those taken by Hoagland, who provided the most unflinching portrayal
of the death and suffering inflicted by the US-backed military.
One depicts the bodies of two young girls murdered by a death
squad, their hands tied behind their backs, left hanging over
a low wall by the highway to the airport. Another shows the grisly
desolation of El Playon, a volcanic lava bed that served
as a well-known dumping ground for the mangled corpses of the
disappeared. Five bodies of young men wearing only their underwear,
their torsos split open, lie amid skulls and bleached bones of
Beside these photographs is the text, written by poet Carolyn
Forché and presumably taken from an interview:
"When someone joins a death squad, he is in for life.
If you quit, you might talk, and no one wants to be fingered later
for these crimes. The first time such a man goes out on an operation,
he is tested by the others. They tell him he must rape the victim
in front of them, then cut off certain pieces of the body. They
want to see if he has the stomach for this. After that, he is
as guilty as the others and he is in. ..
"Why isn’t it enough to kill a victim? Why must each
"The death squad members must all be guilty of
every murder, so one rapes, another strikes blows, another uses
the machete, and so on until it would be impossible to determine
which action had caused the death, and the squad members are protected
from each other by mutual guilt. Also, when mere death no longer
instills fear in the population, the stakes must be raised. The
people must be made to see that not only will they de, but die
slowly and brutally."
The exhibition also includes photographs of the combatants.
In one, the guerrillas are seen organizing a dance at a clandestine
base in the countryside. Another shows a wounded government army
soldier being carried by three of his comrades, all of them appearing
to be no more than 16 years old.
Accompanying the photographs is a searing 12-minute video dealing
with the El Mozote massacre of December 1981 in which as many
as 900 men women and children were slain by troops of the elite,
US-trained Atlacatl Brigade. The video is narrated by the massacre’s
sole survivor, Rufina Amaya. Her testimony, given over images
of bodies and of child-sized skeletons unearthed by an Argentine
forensic team a decade later, is chilling and tragic.
She saw her husband, a 29-year-old woodcutter, shot and beheaded
by the soldiers and had her four children, the youngest eight
months old, taken from her and slaughtered. The soldiers took
the younger women and girls, some no more than 10, to a nearby
hill where they raped and then killed them.
Rufina was able to hide behind a bush after being marched out
with one of the last group of women to be shot. From her hiding
place she could hear the screams of children, including that of
her own son, crying out, "Mommy! Mommy! They’re hurting
us! Help us! They’re cutting us! They’re choking us!"
Also shown is then-undersecretary of state for Inter-American
Affairs Thomas Enders testifying before Congress that there existed
"no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically
massacred civilians." Two days after the mass killing at
El Mozote, the Reagan administration certified that the Salvadoran
government continued to make progress on human rights. The certification
was given to Congress, which in turn assured that US military
aid continued to flow, making the mass killing possible.
Included in the text accompanying the photographs is the inscription
written by Francisco Goya beside his sketches depicting the atrocities
of the Napoleonic war in Spain. "Yo la vi ... I saw
it, and this, and also this."
Through the images captured by these 30 photographers two decades
ago we too see the brutality of US militarism and the depravity
of the crimes that the American ruling elite is prepared to carry
out in order to defend its interests and global domination.
"El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers" continues
through November 27, 2005 at the International Center of Photography
(1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd St. in New York City).
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