Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Donna DeCesare is an author, documentary photographer and educator known for her groundbreaking coverage of the spread of US gangs in Central America. Her photographs and testimonies from children in Guatemala and Colombia who are former child soldiers, survivors of abuse or the stigma of HIV have assisted UNICEF in developing protocols for photographing children at risk. Donna De Cesare, is a consultant to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Ms. De Cesare’s honors, include top awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Dorothea Lange Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Mother Jones Award for Social Documentary Photography, several Open Society Foundations grants and fellowships as well as a Fulbright Fellowship. Her photography has been exhibited internationally in venues such as Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France; Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City; the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou, China; the Museo Tecleño in El Salvador; the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, Germany; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Her newly published book Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs is both a memoir and a visual history of her experiences in Central America and Los Angeles.
SB. You spent decades documenting the effects of war and gang violence on youth in Central America. What did you discover? What happens when war ends?
DDC. Children are resilient but they also need social support to navigate physical or emotional traumas. There is so much violence not only in war but also in its aftermath. The destructive force impacts all who go through it for the rest of their lives. Many of the teenagers that I met when I was doing this work told me they knew they were going to die before they were 20 years old. They felt an overwhelming fatalism. If you feel you’re destined to die, then you have no stake in anything. If you are treated cruelly it is more likely that you will respond to others with the same level, or perhaps even more intense levels of cruelty. What helps people overcome that? In my book I ask a question: “What determines whether suffering is turned toward cruelty, or toward resistance and resilience?”
There is no easy answer, but I’ve learned that is unlikely to happen unless you see examples of people who have done that in your own community. And you need encouragement, folks who won’t give up on you. Sometimes even that is not enough. In the places where I worked, kids are so abandoned and they face terrifying situations.. Fear so easily becomes corrosive. It takes real courage to remain compassionate in such circumstances.
SB. Why has it been important to tell these stories?
DDC. These stories are important for many reasons. I started out wanting people in the United States to understand the impact and consequences of those counter insurgency wars that we waged by proxy in the 1980s—all the brutality that we ignored or covered up in the name of fighting the “cold war.” But as I worked on the U.S. side of the story and got closer to the young people that I was documenting, I realized they needed this history too and that many of the photographs that I would give them were like family album photographs.
Photographers often give people they work with photographs as a way to say thank you but I started to see this as creating an alternate history—one that could serve their need to understand what had happened to them. So many times they would say to me, “My parents won’t talk to me about the war. I don’t know why there was a war in El Salvador or Guatemala. Why are Central Americans such violent people?” (Because that was the stereotype that others would tell them about themselves.) As I worked I saw in personal histories the outlines of a collective history. The audience in my mind’s eye was no longer primarily a U.S. audience or a U.S. immigrant audience. As my involvement in efforts to raise issues of gang awareness in Central America grew, I knew that I wanted to leave a historical record so that we could all see the history that connects us--where we had been and what had gone wrong.
SB. Is your role as journalist simply to be an observer?
DDC. Journalists who cut themselves off from their emotions do so at their own peril. When I look back on my own history and the things I witnessed, and reflect on the intuitive feelings that drew me time and time again back to Latin America, I don’t think it would have been possible, or even desirable, to do this work if I wasn’t searching for something greater than facts. If I didn’t see my own family story paralleled in the places I visited, I doubt I could have made any of these photographs.
Having said that, I also think that we can stretch to understand differences and points of view that we don’t hold ourselves. It’s difficult and a necessary part of our growth as storytellers to do that. It’s also one of our great responsibilities as journalists. I see journalism and photography as a bridge – as a way to cross from one reality to another – that can alter your perception but it can also alter perceptions both ways. I found that in the work I did on the streets with young people. I was often challenged to change the way I thought about them as I learned more about their lives. And my presence and attention not only changed the way they thought about me but sometimes it also changed the way they thought about themselves too.
SB. Your images create a sense of intimacy with your subjects. What kind of relationships you developed with them? How does this help your work?
DDC. I always seek to develop horizontal relationships of trust. When I was getting to meet these young people, of course they first thought I was a cop. Somebody with a camera wants to take their picture? "Oh my God, it’s probably the police.” That’s the last thing they wanted.
How do you prove who you are? I could show them documents--my press ID, or pictures I’d taken in magazines like Newsweek with my byline, I could show them photographs I made during the wars they experienced first hand. But I also showed them who I was through my actions and interest.
I often felt when I was doing this work that I was the only adult that these kids had conversations with. They would get a different perspective from someone who wasn’t judging them, someone who was present, documenting them and accepting them. At the same time I could show them a point of view that was different from the way they were seeing things. You never know when that kind of an interaction actually touches something in someone and maybe can help change a life path. And that’s something that I always was trying to do – model a kind of behavior—honesty, courage, compassion that would help people trust me, but also provide them new points of reference and permit them space to explore their own thoughts more deeply with a sense of self reflection.
SB. Has your work touch the life of the people you photographed in some way?
DDC. My photographs may not change the world, they may not stop gang violence, but the relationships I built have brought changes to some and comfort to others … Sadly sometimes all I could offer a grieving mother or brother or sister was a photograph to remember a son or daughter or sibling lost to gang violence. But I also work assisting NGOs and engaging in public forums about these issues. On the individual level I also describe in my book some of the relationships that helped transform lives. In the first chapter I tell the story of a young woman—a former child soldier who became my housekeeper in El Salvador. I never wanted a “maid” but I could not rent a home without one and had decided I’d rather find a person I trusted than let the landlady choose for me. I went to ask some nuns if they knew someone in need of a job and that is how Adela and I first met. She is now educated and living in Montreal. Another young man Carlos Perez who had been involved with gangs in Guatemala became a successful diaspora artist. I attended his graduation from the academy of fine art in Vienna in 2009. I tell his story more fully on my website Destiny’s Children. http://www.destinyschildren.org And this May in 2013 I'm attending the graduation of a young woman who was involved with gangs when we first met. I’m so proud of her achievement. She is earning an MSW from the University of Maryland.
SB. Your work focuses on two very sensitive topics for American society - guns and immigration? Are they related in some way and how?
DDC. Guns and migration are related in a number of complex ways. Both topics touch on people’s fears and desire to protect what they cherish.
The ways that people define “protection” and experience threat plays a big role in the positions they take on “gun” control or on immigration reform. The idea that the danger comes from “outside” or from the “other” is both simplistic and false. It can lead to a hyper defensive siege mentally that actually harms open societies. And there is another level of irony. The networks that traffic people also traffic narcotics and weapons. These are businesses that are responding by and large to market forces, which are so celebrated in the United States. Their use of violence is part of their own system of “protection” for their illegal market driven activities.
Those who want to seal the border and or call for armed sharpshooters in every school, or who define freedom as the right to own a weapon to protect property and family tend to see the threat as existing somewhere else—somewhere- “out there.” But in my view the biggest threat to open societies is the closing of minds. In my work I try to contextualize and show the connections between violence outside and inside. The violence in US cities or rural communities is American violence and we must face that. In my work I try to be honest about the real and potential violence in the lives of the young people I photograph, but without “othering” them or creating a caste system of “good” and “bad” immigrants. There are behaviors that are harmful that are also survival responses in some contexts. We need to see these issues in less polarized and in more holistic and systemic ways.
SB. Some of your photographs appear to tame the gang members. Do you choose this approach in purpose and why?
DDC. Gang members are people. Some of them are very hardened by experiences of deprivation and suffering. But the way people respond to them partly creates the reality that the kids then project. I remember an occasion when I made a trip across country accompanying a high school teacher who had befriended a group of the kids that were involved in a gang. He was Native American and he was taking them to Oklahoma to visit a pow wow. We made a stop at the Grand Canyon. A tourist who didn’t seem to notice the bandanas and colors stopped one of the young men in the group and asked him if he knew how to fix her camera. This kid ran up to us afterwards, his face beaming, and said: “That lady just asked me if I could help her! And like, she wasn’t scared of me, man!” And I realized, that’s it! That mask of anger and defensiveness is because that inner child feels so rejected all the time that that’s what they have to wear to face the world. That mask is a form of self-protection and you have to read how threatened people feel and respect the limits they draw. But I made it my job to try to see beyond that mask whenever I earned trust.
SB. You teach photojournalism in the University of Texas at Austin. How has your work in Central America affected what you teach?
DDC. My way of working and the issues I’m drawn to influence my teaching in many ways. My emphasis is on relationship building and on research to aid the reporting process as well as consideration of context when thinking about how best to reach the public and which public you are most concerned with reaching. And I emphasize the importance of knowing history and of understanding culture. My favorite class combines visual journalism and Latin American Studies. We explore the ways Latin Americans experience issues of identity, poverty, environmental sustainability, historical memory or construct narratives of violence by looking at films and photography by Latin American documentarians. The students then engage in their own practice exploring similar issues making photographic or video work about issues in our local Latino communities. The process of combining critical thinking and creative practice really opens them up and challenges them.
SB. What are the 3 most important "not to do" things for photojournalists?
DDC. Don’t be afraid of your emotions, you can’t convey the emotions of others unless you understand your own and can deal with them. Don’t make promises you cannot keep—your word is the most precious thing you have. If you compromise it you will not be able to maintain relationships of trust. Don’t transgress your own ethical principles. It is important to develop your own personal code of ethics rather than simply following the expectations of others. Following your own moral compass and standing for the things you value is crucial to working with integrity.
SB. What is the story behind Unsettled/Desasosiego, your new book?
DDC. The photographs, taken between 1987 and 2009, capture both trauma and resilience during the decades of turmoil in Central America, the evolution and spread of gang culture from the streets of Los Angeles to the shanty towns of El Salvador, and the lives of disadvantaged children and teenagers trying to find their place in a world sunk in violence.
But the book is also my story and the text reveals lessons I learned in the process of witnessing and documenting. It is a memoir and a history, which invites us to view a devastating reality. I felt that this kind of intimate personal accounting accompanying images was the form I wanted to leave the work in for my students. It’s bilingual because my students are from all over the Americas and the lessons of the book will resonate for many of them.
And as a society we must remember, we have to pay attention. Although many of my photographs show people I documented 10 or 15 years ago the legacy of this violence influences violence that is happening every day, in all our cities, and in Latin America every day. The devastation of our youth is greater than before in many places. We must do something about it. I felt it was really important to show the scope of the devastation and to include one or two anecdotes showing that there are alternatives if we as a society choose them.
SB. What do you want to accomplish with Unsettled/Desasosiego?
DDC. When we go to war the consequences affect people for the rest of their lives. I really want people to see the connections between actions and consequences both individual and collective. With the book my goal is to provoke thought and conversation about how we can assist young people. Reducing violence requires a holistic approach. Gang violence can’t be mitigated with education alone or law enforcement alone or a handful of afterschool prevention programs. This issue needs a response that addresses violence using a public health model-- as something that we have to confront and prevent using all of the tools in our toolkit. We must show our young people that we value them. This and the importance of providing young people space for their voices and a sense of possibility are perhaps the most crucial messages of the book.