One night in Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy approached photographer Donna De Cesare, saying, “Lady, put me in your book—you can take my picture.” De Cesare recalls the memory of this encounter in Fred Ritchin’s foreword to her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego (University of Texas Press).
The boy did not let up. De Cesare continued her story: “ ‘Am I going to be in your book?’ he asked. ‘I can’t promise that,’ I replied. ‘To make a book takes a lot of pictures and a long time,’ I explained. I told him I couldn’t say for sure, but my best guess was that it would be about three years if all went well. ‘Shit! I won’t be alive by then,’ he responded dejectedly.”
The boy went on to explain that all his homies died before they reached twenty. They were gangbangers. Life on the streets was short, ugly, and violent. The boy didn’t believe he was going to be any different. He, who was never named, is like countless who have come before him, the children lost to a war that has no beginning and no ending because it is played in the shadows, between the borders, and across the Americas. Here are the victims of the War on Drugs: the children.
Donna De Cesare has graciously agreed to discuss her work here. She will speaking at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., on September 11 in conjunction with the War/Photography exhibition currently on view, which. originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and came to D.C. from The Annenberg Space for Photography in LA. After D.C., it will end its tour at the Brooklyn Museum (Oct 29-Feb).
I am particularly interested in the way in which the photographer uses the camera as both a means to connection as well as a means to create distance between the self and the subject. Please talk about how you relate to the use of the camera in your work documenting the victims of the drug war over the past two decades.
What I love most about photographing is precisely the way it can engage a relationship. Looking with the camera is similar to listening attentively. I strive for the same comfort level and connection. I want to be as emotionally close as I can so that I can convey as accurately as possible the feelings I receive from the photographic subject/protagonist.
When I’m working I move between moments of “just looking” to moments of “just listening.” This is the part of the work I find most rewarding. When you achieve great trust with a subject, it begins to approximate the sensation of looking in a mirror. You see the other person looking back at you and recognize their difference, but you move in concert. Some photographers refer to it as a dance. This empathic connection may be charged, but it is also fragile. If a person becomes fearful or distrustful he/she will retreat leaving you with a mask.
There are other situations in which the camera creates distance. It can be a kind of emotional shield. I’m thinking here particularly of the photographs I make at crime scenes or during moments of chaos or commotion. These are complex unfolding situations. The photographer must anticipate and remain attuned to the dynamic interplay of action and reaction within a group.
Pulling back not only allows me to see the overall but sometimes it may also help me examine my own looking as I make ethical choices in the moment. This creates a kind of third eye –not objective, but a looking that is at some remove from the subjective curiosity or intuition of “first person” or the intimacy of “first person” to “second person” exchange.
I need this meta-perspective to negotiate the suffering I witness. It is a vital component of my search for an enlarged sense of truth or meaning in the situations I witness.
The photographer becomes both witness and interpreter of the stories they learn, making the photograph both evidence/proof, as well as a constructed narrative of its own. Please talk about the inherent tension between the act of documenting a subject as difficult as the children who have been victimized by the culture of drugs, gangs, and violence, as well as the way in which the photograph itself becomes a frame by which you can share these stories with people from all walks of life.
Documenting this story challenged me on so many levels. I am always striving for a horizontal relationship with the protagonists of the stories I tell—one that is open, non-judgmental, empathic and which does not deprive subjects of their own agency. At the same time I am conscious that as an adult interacting with children and young people I have power and responsibility as well as a different perspective.
I learned quickly that many things I might take for granted are absent or alien or seemingly impossible for children enveloped by a reality of violence, drugs and gangs. I often felt angry, frustrated, and impotent to make a difference of any kind as I worked. But in the give and take of relationships a safe space develops which may permit some solace and growth for all involved. I try then to convey that enlarged perspective through my photographs.
A photograph can be a forensic record—it records what is visually evident. But I think it is also always a tool of imagination. In freezing the frame it speaks the language of metaphor as well as the language of fact. My mission is to distill what I learn by “being there” in order to enlarge understanding. I aim to reach people who would never choose to enter the places I visit. But I am also always thinking of my subjects. What might they learn if my images could help them recognize their own story, in the photographs of other children who would otherwise be their “enemies?”
When creating Unsettled/Desasosiego, you appear charged with a tremendous task, going through both your own life experiences as well as those you have met over the years, in order to distill a narrative thread that extends beyond time and space to tell the story of the Drug War. Please talk about the most empowering challenge you faced as a photographer and an author to reflect upon your work, and the larger story itself?
When I sat down to write the book I had already produced a website and I had lived with many of these images and stories for a decade or longer. In piecing together the narratives, which form the website Destiny’s Children, I worked consciously with the layers of these testimonies. My approach there was to follow individual life stories of four young people I’d come to know over a period of years. Each story is emblematic as well as idiosyncratic. All make evident how quickly poverty, trauma and misguided social policy contribute to the stigma and marginalization that so many youth face.
Two young people are engulfed by the violence and suffer tragic ends. Despite occasional setbacks, the other two are able to muster inner strength. Each forges a path that defies the expectations of a cynical and selfish social order. I included a timeline with pivotal moments of upheaval in a history binding the US and Latin America. I added hypertext links in the stories, so that the reader could drill down discovering context for the issues that emerge at different points in the protagonists’ lives.
Having done the website why do a book? One reason is that books slow you down and they offer a different tangible encounter. They also are not prey to the pace of changing technology. I designed my website first in html, then in flash and now just a few years later it would require expensive re-coding to make it accessible on tablets and smart phones. As physical objects books have presence, and if well made and cared for, longevity. I knew the book would need a different structure and narrative strategy, but it took me awhile to embrace a first person approach. Putting myself at the center felt awkward at best. And my worst fears involved the many pitfalls–from hubris to sentimentality—in which that choice of voice might become ensnared.
But I kept turning a recurring experience over in my mind. When I give talks about my work, someone in the audience invariably strays from the discussion to ask about me: Weren’t you scared? How did you get them to trust you? Was your life ever threatened? These are not the questions I wanted my work to provoke or engage. At first I found them irritating and at odds with my work’s intent. I was in part trying to reveal how stigmatizing our projections of such fears are for the young people in my photographs.
But as I sat with my discomfort, I realized I had to find a more effective way of highlighting the mechanism of prejudice and the unconscious ways it filters our perceptions and responses to people who don’t fit our norms. I hadn’t always known what I now know. I realized I could take the reader back to my beginning. By invoking the image of a younger less self-aware self, I could use memoir to chart my own path of discovery. The selection of personal anecdotes could move the reader from a small personal story to an insight and a larger collective history marking points of connection across time and space. It was at times painful to relive experiences as I wrote, but as I grew to trust my voice I began to enjoy the process and fell in love with writing again.
We have created a culture of complicity in the Drug War itself, that to me on the outside feels like an extension of the old myths of the frontier, the outlaw, the “cowboys and Indians” where the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad, and the world appropriated this narrative in order to protect the United States government. This could be a huge stretch on my part, so if I am off base, please feel free to reel me in, but what do you see as the reasoning for criminalizing the most disenfranchised populations in the Western hemisphere today?
Your mention of our frontier mythologies of “good guys” and “bad ones” is of course nowhere more evident than in Hollywood movies. And that is perhaps the only place such one-dimensional characters exist. Real human beings are always struggling with the nuances and moral complexities of our choices. But “outlaw” “cowboy” and “indian” myths immortalized in classic westerns nearly always vilified those who in some way resisted “civilizing” colonization. The brutal loss of life, theft of land and displacement suffered is presented as inevitable. I think we need to remember that slavery played a role in the push westward too and that Manifest Destiny was the zeitgeist of that age.
Some legacies die hard. Today the Drug War is colored by similar biases in the guise of “American Exceptionalism.” It has played a significant hegemonic role in US power relations with Latin America—although of late many South American countries are questioning and challenging its premise. One has only to look as far as Mexico to realize that increased militarization has resulted in increased corruption, mayhem and bloodshed with little tangible impact on the expansion of illegal drug markets.
And here at home there is overwhelming evidence that the Drug War is endless and unwinnable. With 5% of the world’s total population, the US has 25% of the world’s imprisoned population placing it at the top of the prison industrial complex. Moreover, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness demonstrates the racialized nature of this deplorable state of affairs—1 out of every 15 black males over age 18 and 1 of every 36 Latino males over the age of 18 is incarcerated in the U.S. compared with 1 of every 106 white males in that age group. As an Urban Institute study recently pointed out, when you factor race into the rapidly expanding chasm between the richest 1% of Americans and everyone else you are left with an inescapable conclusion: we live in a culture that has criminalized poverty at the same time that poverty has surged.
The culture of fear and selfishness dominating our country for well over a decade has hardened our hearts and crippled our minds. We once waged war on poverty. We now wage war on the poor. The real threat to our national values and freedom is these habits of mind and ways of seeing that make this seem inevitable. The children whose lives I’ve documented are caught in this drama. We have made our myopia their tragedy.
With the publication of Unsettled/Desasosiego, what do you hope to achieve by way of creating awareness and inspiring activism? What can we, as individuals, as a group, and as a society do to begin to address and unravel this incredibly complex problem that has claimed so many lives?
I published this book because first and foremost I wanted to restore to the children who are the protagonists in my images and stories the basic humanity and individuality that is denied them when they are seen as “child soldiers,” “gang members,” “migrants” or any other reductive category. Once we are able to connect to their stories, our tendency to dismiss or to excuse our complicity by focusing narrowly on some of their own ill-conceived choices melts away. We can then begin to take in the panoply of factors limiting their options. That is when we face some choices of our own.
We live in a culture that brands and markets products and causes alike. While gestures such as purchasing “fair trade coffee” or donating to relief efforts are certainly good starting points, for putting “your money where your mouth is,” the big issues clamoring for our attention require more.
The Drug War’s human repercussions are an issue “eco-system” where, youth violence prevention, gun safety, criminal justice reform, immigration reform and other concerns meet. Whether one finds direct hands-on work with youth most rewarding or is drawn to policy reform advocacy, there are many points of entry for individual and collective action at the local, national and international level.
In many ways I am cautiously hopeful. The public health paradigm of harm reduction pioneered by academics and activists in violence-affected communities in the 1990s has gained institutional currency even in places that were long resistant. There are indications that the next generation of leadership in Central America has learned the folly of relying exclusively on repression in their approach to gangs. And countries in Latin America have grown skeptical of the US prescription for battling drugs and organized crime. Uruguay’s recent decision to create the world’s first nationally controlled legal marijuana market is a crucial public health experiment to watch.
In this era of instant communication, constant distraction and expectations of quick results, it is easy to feel lost in the forest. Ultimately the message of my book is take your time– look, listen, make connections. Social movements for change need patience and commitment for the long haul. That is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the US Civil Rights Movement. Decide what you can do and commit to it with patience, heart, and faith in collective forward motion.