The compelling force of the photo-essay as a format is, among others, its ability to weave a complex social encounter through entangled visual and interpretative pathways that playfully construct ethnographic and artistic meaning. In this first issue of Writing with Light dedicated to the role of forensics in the search for, recovery, and reburial of the human remains of victims of enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions in Spain, Guatemala, and Argentina, the photo-essay transcends this initial intent to become, in and of itself, an object of memory. In her introductory piece, Lee Douglas prompts us to think about the affective and meaning-making possibilities that such a composition affords. As a powerful expression of a critical moment of inquiry into the past, the photo-essays of this issue form a layered ensemble through which to utter the complex histories of three conflict-affected communities.
Against what Susan Sontag once defined as the de-politized “restock[ing] of photographic information” that characterizes much media production and consumption of war and atrocity images (2003, 13), the visual and textual compositions of this collection evoke a different photographic and narrative engagement with the experience of violence. The photo-essays shy away from the self-explanatory use of images to take us into the social, cultural, and historical worlds that the act of photographing the search for, exhumation, and return of the remains of the forcibly disappeared unfold. They also unveil the ethical implications of the creative process itself. For Douglas, such a practice is a way of “undoing” the void that enforced disappearance forged at a particular moment in time. It is a way to challenge the dominant politics of concealment that surrounded the crimes in each setting, through the documentary representation of that which remains and that is reactivated by the labors of memory (Jelin 2003) of survivors, descendants, and creators themselves.
Reconstructing the identity of the disappeared in the aftermath of extreme violence is, for visual anthropologist Alejandro M. Flores Aguilar, a way to relate to the work of the living. In his reflexive account, photographs depict not only the emerging fragments of a relative in a mass grave but also the “endurance” of the community in the aftermath of repression. As the work of counter-forensics brings to light the crimes that the state committed and tried to justify, the endeavor of the visual ethnographer attempts to “restore the possibility of visualizing” and recording that violence in an effort to dignify the memory of those who lost a friend, a neighbor, or a family member. The work with survivors and descendants becomes for Flores Aguilar an imperative, as they reappropriate and re-signify the places that were once marked by the workings of state-sponsored violence, and they act to transform the way the community is remembered. Through ongoing collaboration, photography thus becomes a medium to re-engage with history and restore the community’s place in post-violence Guatemala.
In similar ways, in Spain, the work by Clemente Bernard and Álvaro Minguito shows the evidence of the encounter with a past that many wanted forgotten during and after Franco's dictatorship. The depiction of the unearthing and return of human remains confronts the viewer with the traces of the executions and the social and forensic language that has been developed in connection to the mass grave. Like in an album of sorts, the photographers’ images of landscapes intervened by forensic labor, shots of families on the lookout for clues and witnessing the event of the exhumation, and close-ups of the contents of the unmarked burial ground speak of a collective moment of change that ought to be recorded. In a sequence of black and white and color photographs, we see emerging fragments of dead bodies, re-enactments in empty mass graves, objects of the dead, details of the soil, and the family gaze that seeks to apprehend each instant. These images draw us closer to the intimacy and everydayness of a potent event that has subverted the silence around Franco’s crimes and has altered the way the country relates to its own past.
A counter-forensic vision thus involves the exposure of the “material witnesses” (Schuppli 2020) of violence that resist the state’s contempt as well as the unravelling of the sociohistorical itineraries that these traces follow. In the Argentinian case presented in the issue, a photograph of the detained disappeared becomes, for artists Gustavo Germano and Vanina de Monte, a point of departure in a long journey to understand what happened to Germano’s brother. Between private and public, such a quest for knowledge generates, as Jordana Blejmar and Natalia Fortuny observe of the work Contradesaparecido, a compilation that gathers “the marks his life made on this world.” Germano and de Monte’s visual chronicle, which takes, as the writers note, the shape of an interrupted family collection, narrates disappearance from the viewpoint of the relative that probes into the elusive places, documents, and repurposed images that evoke the trail of the dead. Contradesparecido, Blejmar and Fortuny tell us, is also a diary of a pursuit for answers and an index of the grievance that must have come from years of ongoing questioning and deceptive absence through the family-led inquiry into the crime.
As a material vestige generated in response to these histories of mass violence, the photo-essay introduces us to the kaleidoscopic realities that form the universe of state repression and enforced disappearance. Against official narratives that have sought to condone the crimes and keep a tight grip over their collective remembrance, the photo-essay amplifies a counter-story that challenges the post-conflict status quo of each country. Yet such counter-story might also be complicated by the very fact that some details about the experience of atrocity are hard to comprehend. Blejmar and Fortuny remind us, in relation to Germano and de Monte’s images, that “[e]verything that survived the Argentine state’s systematic plan of disappearance—streets, walls, a façade […]—offers its own testimony.” These remnants also, however, point at what Marianne Hirsch (2012 ), in her reading of family-related Holocaust photographs, once defined as the inability to assimilate some parts of one’s own tragic history. All photo-essays deal with this twofold implication of violent loss: despite the power of forensic reconstruction to narrativize significant aspects of the event of enforced disappearance, some elements of the story might still be difficult to grasp.
The photo-essay allows authors to delve into the paradoxes brough about by the complex mnemonic processes that take place in efforts to clarify and denounce state-led violence. They speak to us of the material presences as well as the gaps that continue to drive the search for the forcibly disappeared, depicting a novel counter-forensic regard that is entangled with emerging forms of historicity and affect in the three contexts. These photo-essays, to borrow the expression that Blejmar and Fortuny take from Huberman, “bark” at us and defy us to fathom the fabric of post-violence worlds, in which looming facts confront old fictions in often highly contested social domains. This first issue of Writing with Light stands as record of three post-conflict encounters with the missing, in which the work led by families, civil society groups, scientists, and other members of the portrayed communities engage in the transformation of the collective memory of mass atrocity. As a visual and narrative object of an extraordinary struggle, the photo-essay constitutes here a document against historical erasure, that demand us to consider closely the difficult experience of “undoing” enforced disappearance in the twenty-first century.
Hirsch, Marianne. 2012 . Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jelin, Elizabeth. 2003. State Repression and the Labors of Memory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Schuppli, Susan. 2020. Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.