On Design, Evidence, and X-Ray Vision in “Contradesaparecido” in Writing with Light, Issue 1

From the Series: Review Forum on Writing with Light Magazine's Issue No. 1: Photography & Forensics

“Contradesaparecido” in Writing with Light’s print issue No. 1. Courtesy of Craig Campbell.

I want to start with a note of appreciation to the Writing With Light Collective on an extraordinary first issue. The space will be instrumental for all of us who are thinking with and through images. Thank you for building it. Drinking in the content of the first issue of Writing With Light rebooted is a jolting reminder of how thirsty the field has been for a thoughtful space dedicated to the combination of photography and ethnography.

This new iteration of the project adds an element—design—such that its tagline now reads “Photography-Ethnography-Design.” The third element in the series is an often-unmarked dimension of photo-essays and its formal inclusion is a welcome one. Issue 1 is issued as both a PDF and a tabloid sized newspaper, and this review focuses on the relationship between form and content in the latter. There is something about the subject matter, the materiality of the forensic activism to locate the disappeared, that lends itself to a format that needs to be grappled with, physically flopped and folded. Inevitably there is some fumbling with the pages as the reader tracks back and forth, not unlike the non-linear progress a visitor makes through an exhibition space, and that feels more apropos to the content of Issue 1 than fingertips’ smooth scroll.

Unlike a newspaper however, the design of Issue 1 is uncluttered. And unlike the tabloid, the content is anti-sensational. With its ample white spaces, the crispness of the design gives an evidentiary aura to the pages’ contents. To what extent this was a conscious effort on the part of the collective to have form and content echo one another is not clear, but regardless of intent, the effect begs important questions, such as: What is being proven in these pages? It is not that radical right wing authoritarian regimes and their paramilitary henchman in Argentina, Guatemala, and Spain killed and disappeared people. We already know that. It is something more subtle about the perseverance of family members, the labor of forensic anthropologists, and how photo-ethnographers working on and with these multi-decade struggles for truth, recognition, and dignity can contribute to those processes while also theorizing them.

The special issue offers three photo-ethnographic efforts to transmit the devastating specificity of the tragedy of disappearance—murder that is suspected but lingers unconfirmed. Cutting against the grain is not the right metaphor for this work. The families, their allies in the human rights community, and the forensic anthropologists would be better understood as swimming against the flood of linear time and the demands of that hegemonic temporal mode to simply move on. Photography, of course, is one of the great disrupters of linear time. Although the three projects featured in the inaugural issue harness it differently, each finds novel ways to transport us to another zone, after the flood has receded, and to lead us on a visual journey that allows us to slow down and consider the lives lost and the loved ones left in limbo.

While the crisp and clean, quasi-evidentiary design of Issue 1 makes sense in the context of the forensic theme, the work it documents is anything but crisp and clean. This is difficult, emotionally and politically charged work that continues. In Colombia, where forensic anthropology has a more dynamic job market than academic anthropology, an established, socio-politically committed photographer who has been documenting the search for mass graves went into exile a few months ago after the threats she had been receiving for years escalated. In thinking about form and content, I work through the final photo-essay of Issue 1, “Contradesaparecido.”

The first picture hits hard. It is the headshot of a two-year old, Eduardo Raúl Germano. The picture sits below the title “Contradesaparacido.” By this point in Issue 1 we know the theme well and immediately grasp the fact that this innocent boy is destined to be brutally killed. On the next page, we see high-school-aged Eduardo and dressed in red with friends and flashing the “V” sign with his left hand. By the third image in the sequence, we get confirmation that this is not a simple family album exercise. The image is of a type-written note that Eduardo’s family received saying that “they” took him to prison and “probably killed him on December 26, 1976.” We then see a copy of the official complaint lodged with the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in Argentina, a poster featuring a cropped version of the V photo two pages earlier, but this time poster sized and held in a metal frame for carrying at protests for the “detained-disappeared.” The photo-essay turns to a negative image (as in a film negative) of the Fisherton neighborhood where Guillermo, Eduardo’s brother, identifies as the place where he was likely killed.

The image is left as a negative, an x-ray-like effect that gestures to the methodic search, which is overlayed with another image of a street corner marked with street signs and the numbers of the blocks in question. The overlaid images are an “X” that marks the spot of the traumatic event. Then another document, this one the fruit of research by the Rosario Memory Museum, indicates that the remains of a person killed on 12/26/1976 were stored in a specific lot of a cemetery marked with the infamous initials NN (no name). Then comes the layering of two images, the provincial police headquarters with its imposing façade of Roman columns in black and white over a color image of the interior of a cell of peeling paint and concrete in a secretive detention center that the police controlled. Then comes the third overlay of images, this time that of the cemetery that housed Eduardo’s remains as an NN in black and white, with the long bones of his legs and arms, now brittle and broken, arrayed vertically as evidence, part of the exhumation carried out by Argentina’s Forensic Anthropology Team. The sequence ends with an image of the gravestone where Eduardo was inhumed next to his family imposed on top of a story in El Diario, a disposable marker of linear time. The article recounts the story that we’ve just glimpsed and identifies him in the headline as a “militante.” It quotes the family’s communique that says, “After 38 years of struggle for the truth it has come out in an irrefutable form” [author's translation].

In only thirteen pages, the photo-essay takes us on the journey from disappeared to reappeared, from cradle to grave. The simplicity of design helps this story, which starts as a pre-school portrait but becomes more layered as it moves through bureaucracies of death. Photos of documents and institutions are presented in straightforward evidentiary style over an off-white background. Images of buildings are similarly dry, deadpan architectural shots that elide the photographer’s gaze. By super-imposing images on top of each, Gustavo Germano (Eduardo’s brother) and graphic designer Vanina de Monte, who created this photo-essay, cut cross-sections into opaque bureaucracies. The photos’ captions are laconic, understated signals of all the effort by numerous people and organizations that went into getting to the “happy” ending of Eduardo’s inhumation next to his brother and parents. The sequencing is meticulous and generative, the x-ray effect of the negative print is a portal in the photo-essay that gives the viewer the ability to connect and see through otherwise opaque police institutions but ultimately to Eduardo’s bones. What the x-ray is revealing is not the sickness of the individual but that of the society that allowed the practice of disappearance to happen, over and over again.

The design of the sequence in the printed version of Writing With Light, Issue 1, does not get in the way of this powerful project and its careful sequencing. The images don’t bleed to the paper’s edge but take us one centimeter away, giving a simple frame for the story to unfold with large, impactful visuals—such as the opening image of the portrait of two-year old Eduardo, likely enlarged many times from its original pocket size. The photographic journey is punctuated by a smart, well written text by Jordana Blejmar and Natalia Fortuny (translated by María Fernández Pello and Lee Douglas). They aptly invoke Didi-Huberman’s notion of the “bark of history,” which elsewhere Blejmar (2022) explicates as “everything that the murderers left behind because they considered these remains too superfluous and too innocent to function as evidence of their crimes.”

If I have one criticism of this extraordinary work, it is that the balance of images tilts in favor of following the bark of history at the expense of the particulars of Eduardo’s life. The promise of counter-disappearing someone surely is also about celebrating the person’s life. We see only a baby photo and another image of Eduardo at seventeen-years-old who—dressed in red and flashing the V for victory sign—we are to understand that he is a member of the left (the Montoneros, we learn in Blejmar and Fortuny’s text). The family album feel with which the photo-essay starts is truncated too quickly for the viewer to get a decent sketch of who Eduardo was. While I can easily imagine very valid personal reasons for this editorial decision, this viewer would have appreciated learning a bit more about Eduardo as a boy and young man, his quirks and hobbies—the specificities of a life beyond political militancy, before delving into the thirty-eight-year journey through the purgatory of uncertainty.