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Photojournalism in War Zones

Documentary photographer and Journalism School Associate Professor Donna DeCesare discusses photojournalism and the legacies of violence in El Salvador's civil war with exhibitions intern Joey Kolker. DeCesare is a co-organizer of the April 2008 conference Image, Memory, and the Paradox of Peace. Also, a selection of 30 of DeCesare's photographs form the section El Salvador Inside Out in the Harry Ransom Center's exhibition Inside El Salvador. The photographs trace the stories of two individuals and their relationship to the war and its legacies.

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DECESARE: Well, I think the story behind the exhibition and the conference, how it came about, really begins with the acquisition by the Ransom Center of these historic photographs from El Salvador from the early period of the conflict in El Salvador the early 1980s. It was a set of photographs that documented some of the worst human rights abuses that occurred in El Salvador during the conflict, but also were influential in raising consciousness in this country at the time and in the debates that constantly were before Congress about whether to renew aid to El Salvador or not. So even though the photographs didn't change how Congress voted, they were pointed to by various advocates who were involved in that conversation. So I think they were very important historically and it seemed to myself and the other folks who were involved in organizing the conference—Ginny Burnett from the History Department and Latin American Studies, and Karen Engle from the Rapoport Center—that this was an ideal time, taking advantage of the fact that we had the photographs, to look back. It's been more than a decade, it's a decade and a half since the conflict ended, so there's enough time for us to have a kind of historical perspective on sort of the differences between war and peace and what are still the challenges that are facing El Salvador in the aftermath of the signing of the peace accords. And so, and you know, the fact that it happened to be fifteen years, it's kind of like all of these things sort of came together.

KOLKER: Right. Speaking to something you started to mention about public perception in the United States of the conflict, spending time and living in El Salvador during parts of the civil war, did you notice any disconnects between the reality that you were witnessing and documenting, and the portrayal of the conflict in the U.S. media at the time?

DECESARE: I think that one of the most—the most significant differences I would say is the level at which this conflict affected the lives of ordinary people. I mean, the victims in this conflict were mainly civilians, who had nothing to do with the larger political, geopolitical questions. The other thing is that the Salvadoran guerrilla movement was portrayed often in our media—in some of our media—at least, and by the government, as being kind of a pro-Cuban, Soviet, you know, it was the Cold War, and so things got framed in the Cold War rubric. When you actually got there and were on the ground, you realized that most of the people—even if they were involved in the insurgency—were not motivated by wanting to become Russians, or like Russians. There were no Russians—I never met a Russian, or even a Cuban the whole time I was in El Salvador. It was very much a homegrown, grassroots rebellion. People were fighting for the kinds of things that people in our civil rights movement were fighting for, and that's what I felt was really important to try to convey in my photographs, to give folks a sense of what was at stake, what were the things that people really were fighting for and who were the people who were really becoming victimized by the situation, and so what should the appropriate U.S. role be. I think that was, I was always wanting to investigate, how was our tax money being spent. I visited an army training camp that the U.S. helped fund and was very proud of this training camp; there were U.S. advisers there. There were young boys that were 13 years old who had been conscripted. Anyone who was over adolescent age had just been inducted. So these were the kind of things I thought people in the U.S. should know about, too.

KOLKER: Parallel to that question, about how civilians got sucked into the conflict, and suffered in the conflict, and especially young civilians, I'm wondering, you've also documented the ongoing youth violence in Los Angeles and El Salvador between gang members who were often victims of violence or who came from families who had suffered during the civil war. How do you think this current situation with youth gangs speaks to the question of how to end these cycles of violence?

DECESARE: Well, first I want to point out something, which is that you know in the aftermath of conflict there are always challenges. You've got a traumatized population, and of course today we know a lot more. There's been so much more, in recent years, work done on the emotional effects of violence and trauma on people that we didn't do during the Second World War, for example, or you know, we only thought about it a little; the people who worked with Vietnam veterans talked about post-traumatic stress syndrome. But now we realize that the civilian populations are affected, too, very gravely. But apart from all of that aspect, this was a situation where huge numbers of people were displaced, and when they were displaced from the countrysides to the cities, that creates a breakdown of community, it creates a breakdown of social networks, and many of those refugees eventually headed to the United States; they left their country as well.

So we had this immigration flow into the United States of refugees fleeing the violence in their country. Well, they get to Los Angeles—many of them came to Los Angeles—and they encountered new forms of violence, which were American forms of violence, the gang situation in Los Angeles. So the gangs that are in El Salvador—although there are many local reasons for that violence taking hold and those forms of youth organizations taking hold—in a sense also was because of U.S. policies that then deported young people from LA back to El Salvador. Those gangs started in LA; they did not exist in El Salvador during the war. So I think you have to think of this on multiple levels. This is not a scenario that happens in every conflict all over the world; I would say there are certain patterns, though, that we should think about. This gang situation is a very specific thing that happened in particular in Central America, but in the aftermath of conflict, there has to be a way of addressing the issues of injustice and impunity and violence, and one of the problems I think that El Salvador faces is that those questions still have not been fully resolved. The human rights abuses that occurred during the war have not really been fully addressed in a sense through the judicial process. Many of the people who committed those abuses were amnestied under the peace accords. And in the new society, the ability of the police to really investigate criminal activity and actually bring people to trial is hampered as well. So there's still a significant level of impunity. And when you don't have a functioning system that people have faith in, in the community, you get retaliatory acts of violence, and that's what has happened in this gang situation. A young person gets murdered, the murder, "Oh, he's a gang member." So nobody bothers to do a homicide investigation and arrest the perpetrators. So the rumor goes out who it was, and a rival gang takes retribution. And you see this in our country too, in our immigrant communities, but especially in El Salvador, I think that's one of the things that does fuel this situation, and specifically on a human rights level.

And of course there are many social factors—institutional and structural marginalization and patterns of violence that are causing young people to seek their identity, or some kind of group solidarity, through gangs. So the reasons are complex; it's not a simple matter. But I think that a lot of what the initial fuel for this was unhealed emotional trauma from the war. Many of the early gang members that I met in Los Angeles were former child soldiers, or they had witnessed human rights abuses, and the same is true of young people who joined gangs in El Salvador. And they're also young people in many cases who have parents who live in the U.S., and they're being raised by relatives who don't really care for them.

That was a big that happened in the aftermath of World War II. Many people, you know the able-bodied men, and sometimes the women, would come to the United States thinking, I'll get a decent job, I'll send the money home so my kid can go to school, and of course, that didn't always happen that way, because the relatives left in charge perhaps didn't really care about this child, and the child felt a sense of abandonment by their parent. So gangs provided some other place to find solace and a way that they could share these emotional traumas. I remember once, a young man said to me, "In the gang, it's the only place we can cry and show our feelings." They have to act tough, showing a tough face to the rest of the world. But among themselves it's a kind of fraternity of pain and suffering, in fact, and that was part of the bond. So, does this situation have a kind of message about cycles of violence? I think the message is that these situations are complex and just signing a peace accord doesn't just fix everything, right? That you have to address many of these other social problems that exist as well. And certainly the question of impunity is very, very important here, I think.

KOLKER: Right. Well, to shift back to the exhibition and the question of reporting on the conflict in the 1980s, I'm wondering if you think there are any insights or lessons learned from reporting on the war in El Salvador that are relevant for photojournalists covering today's wars, and perhaps for the continuing violence and impunity in El Salvador.

DECESARE: I think one of the key things—I mean, there are many things that are different. We have different technology, the role of the journalist is different too. I mean, if you look at Iraq, it's much more dangerous. I could report on both sides of the war [in El Salvador], and it was dangerous, I'm not saying it wasn't, but it was possible. I don't think it's really as possible to do that [in Iraq]. Of course, this is a situation where the United States—but even if any Westerner, even a European photographer or reporter would face problems interacting certainly with the insurgency in Iraq, but also just with ordinary people. They could be kidnapped; journalists are considered targets by actors in civil conflicts today, in a way that they were not quite in the same way before. There were always some risks, but it was less. So I don't think there's some easy, oh you apply the lessons from one thing to another.

But I would say that one of the things that I learned is it's really important for journalists and the press to maintain interest in a place after the conflict ends. Because the aftermath, the rebuilding is absolutely—that's the critical time, and that's the time when generally the press shifts its focus to the next dramatic conflict, instead of continuing to report on the rebuilding process, and what's working and what's not working. I think El Salvador suffered from that tremendously. Many of the people who were in El Salvador—Bosnia was happening after this—they sort of moved from Central America and then they went to the next war. And so, I mean, the thing I decided to do when I came back to the United States after living in El Salvador, was to focus on the immigrant community, and that's how I discovered some of these things. But I think that it was a valuable lesson for me at least, and I think it's one that I try to share with my students who are journalists, that it's really good to think more in terms of depth. When you have expertise in an area, to sort of continue with the story, and not just to move from the drama moment—you could call it "Act One." You need to do the follow-up, Act Two and Act Three, what happens after. And one of the things that we see clearly, and that we know very much now, because of the work of psychologists who work with victims of violence and people who have suffered all kinds of traumatic events, not just war but also criminal—you know, crime, and also natural disasters, is that the traumatic impact emotionally is every bit as much something that needs to be addressed as a physical injury is. You see an amputee, and you say, "Yeah, that person is disabled in some way." But when someone has an emotional impairment as the result, we've given a lot less attention to that. It's kind of stigmatized, no one wants to talk about it. Post-9/11, especially in the United States, part of that taboo has begun to change. But we really need, I think as journalists to pay attention to that, and to do follow-up stories that report on that angle afterwards. And I think that that is one of the strong lessons from El Salvador, the need for that kind of reporting