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Indexicality and Victimhood

In 2000 the Comision Provincial por la Memoria received, from the intelligence services of the Province of Buenos Aires, a number of boxes full of revealing, not to mention terrifying, documents. Inside were photographs taken clandestinely by intelligence agents between 1936 and 1998 that showed the faces of activists and civilians, popular manifestations, social protests and objects found at local branches of political organizations. After being captured on camera, the identification (ID) photos of the supposed “terrorists” were investigated and classified, before being placed on the map of the Province of Rosario by the intelligence services accompanied by arrows linking one to the other so as to compose an exhaustive “Map of Subversion.” The exhibit shows how photography was used as a tool of surveillance and persecution by both authoritarian and democratic governments in Argentina. It also indicates that, during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, bureaucratic techniques of identification made an important contribution to an organized plan of terror that involved torture, abductions and eventual disappearances of thousands of people. Such a bureaucracy of terror is also evident in the photos taken in the concentration camp ESMA, made public thanks to the former disappeared Victor Basterra, in which illegal prisoners, visibly damaged by torture, were photographed head on and in profile, in a direct imitation of the procedure for taking ID photographs.6 These images lend credence to Susan Sontag’s suggestion that using the camera can be an act of aggression comparable to rape or assassination.7

Both during and after the dictatorship, photography also became a key element in the memory strategies employed by relatives of the victims. In the context of state terror in Argentina, photos of the disappeared functioned as a catalyst for memory, their materiality even more significant given the forced disappearance of the bodies. Families of the victims still keep them as material treasures in their wallets, on their desks or on the walls of their homes, silent witnesses to the daily bustle and everyday activities of those left behind. As “objects of exchange” and “memory texts,” passing from one generation to the next, photographs function as powerful tools of transmission and effective circulators of small pieces of memory.8 They are, as Sontag put it, compressed forms of remembering, like a maxim or quotation.9 Enlarged, hanging around necks or on big signs, black-and-white ID pictures are also exposed in the public sphere by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo during commemorative marches or published in the newspaper Pagina/12 on the occasion of significant anniversaries.10 The ID photos of the disappeared used in these acts depict bodies involuntarily exposed to the violence of the state machine. They prove how individuals were and are enumerated and controlled both before and after the dictatorship. The public installation of these pictures in the streets and their appearance in the media identify the subjects not only as citizens but also as victims of the very state that should have protected them.

Charles Pierce has proposed that photographs function both as icon (based on a physical similarity between the sign and the referent represented) and as index (based on a relationship of contiguity, of cause and effect, like a trace or a footprint). They are, above all, evidence, showing not just that something has happened but also that it happened in a certain way.11 This potential of photographs is crucial when referring to pictures of the disappeared because the military attempted to produce complete oblivion, something that Gerard Wajcman described in reference to the Final Solution, a “perfect crime”—that is, disappearing not only the bodies of victims but also the written and documentary traces of that elimination: “un acte blanc, entierement sans memoire. Oubli superieur. L’Oubli absolu.”12 Photographs of the disappeared undermine the plans carried out by the military and make visible what was supposed to stay out of sight.

The public exhibition of these photographs by human rights organizations and by relatives of the victims both during the dictatorship and also in the first decades of democracy served several purposes. The images comprised a visual request that the state make the victims appear, a demand expressed by the slogan “aparicion con vida.” When this request proved futile, the photographs contributed to a visual collective memory of the absent: they became what historian Vicky Goldberg has called “secular icons” of memory.13 Goldberg explains that secular icons are images with strong symbolic content that present universally recognized themes. They synthesize complex phenomena and produce an emotional impact attributable to their authenticity and symbolic power. Such characteristics were especially important for the photographs of the disappeared given the context of impunity and pardon in the 1990s. Within this framework, the photographs gave the victims a human image, a name and a face.14 Their iconic nature also allowed them to be instrumental in the international condemnation of similar crimes of uncertain death around the world, becoming universally recognized images and transnational symbols of the clandestine violations of human rights. At the same time, these photographs kept their personal and emotional value for the families of the disappeared. They were, as Ana Longoni puts it, part of an act of mutual recognition among the relatives who, by showing these pictures in public, were saying, “this is my son, this is my daughter.”15

Although incredibly brave during the dictatorship and very powerful during the first decades after the return of democracy, forty years after the coup it is worth asking whether the public exhibition of the black-and-white portraits is now the most effective way to commemorate the lives and struggles of the disappeared in today’s memoryscapes. Filmmaker and son of a disappeared mother, Nicolas Prividera, has said, for example, that he was never convinced by the grey images of the ID photos which were enlarged and used as posters. It is true that the photos are popular among the relatives because, among other reasons, they are the only kind of image they all possess. However, in these portraits, the photographed subject “looks grumpy or expressionless, qualities necessary for depicting a Victim.”16 The predominance of the figure of the victim in the strategies of memory of the immediate post-dictatorship was necessary during the neoliberal 1990s, when human rights organizations had to confront a “politics of oblivion” that pardoned those responsible for the crimes. However, the expansion of this memory of victimhood has over time also betrayed the way in which many disappeared militants wanted to be remembered in public, namely as revolutionaries. Moreover, Nelly Richard has argued that unlike family photos, in which we witness a subject tied to a biographical and familial composition, ID photos isolate the identity of the photographed person by erasing family and personal relationships and placing the subject in the register of the impersonal.17 The singularity of each life is thus erased in favour of the iconic image of the ubiquitous victim.

With her images, Lucila Quieto offers an alternative visual memory of the disappeared, artistically intervening in her family photographs but also in archival images of the 1970s and in the traces of the past in the present to replace a memory of victimhood for a memory of agency, a memento mori for a memento vita. By proposing unconventional uses of these images in her artworks, Quieto redefines memory but also reconceptualizes photography. Her images are both indexes of reality and a vehicle that reinvents the past, capturing not only what was and is no longer but also what should have been were the disappeared alive, a move that places them firmly within the corpus of playful memories.

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