Federico Perelmuter ’21 on Photography and Disappearance

Argentina’s latest civic-military dictatorship (sponsored by the United States, as were most Latin American dictatorships of the period) was in power from 1976 to 1983, and in those nine years managed to commit atrocities that defy the human capacity for understanding. Chief among them were state-sponsored disappearances, a methodology of repression that involved not murder or the end of the lives of victims, but their suspension in uncertainty and ignorance. A vast structure of clandestine detention centers (CDC) spread throughout the country and Argentina’s biggest cities; people were shipped there after being forcefully withdrawn from their homes or even the streets. A few possibilities existed for those held there: most were executed in flights of death and their bodies never found; some released; almost all were tortured brutally and held in disgusting conditions.[1]

         Following the disastrous Falklands War of 1982, and acknowledging their lack of power, the military leadership decided to call for democratic elections. The newly-elected president of Argentina, Raúl Alfonsín, assembled a truth commission (CONADEP) to investigate the disappearances that had been reported during the dictatorship. In its investigation, the full scale of the horror emerged and was painstakingly documented. Although it is estimated that around 30,000 people were disappeared by the dictatorship, the commission compiled case files, in its 10-month period of activity, for around 8,400 individuals (the number of known and catalogued victims is nowadays closer to 15,000).

The outdoor area of Ex-ESMA, a former Clandestine Detention Center transformed into an active memory site with archives and cultural centers.

My research this summer has explored the ways in which photographs of victims placed in the archive (fewer than 200) construct a unique notion of disappearance, one that cannot be understood through textual or videographic mediums. I spent a little over three weeks in the archives of CONADEP—but only 10 days of actual work, since trade unions are protesting the precipitous decreases of income and buying power product of Argentina’s never-ending economic crisis. This archive is inside the former Military Mechanics School (ESMA), an infamous CDC located smack in the middle of Buenos Aires in which thousands were held and murdered. After a somewhat challenging beginning, for the past five weeks I have read a (hopefully) representative cross-section of photographic theory, memory theory, and academic work done in Argentina that seeks to understand the ways in which the trauma of disappearance is (or can be) represented and understood artistically or visually. I have met with academics and partaken in some activist circles that pursue memory and justice.

Another image of the outdoor area of Ex-ESMA.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of my research has been the connections I have found with the Shoah. As a Jew who was traveled to Poland and studied the horrors of Nazi Germany in some detail, seeing the connections and similarities between these two forms of genocide—one political, the other racial—was profoundly moving and shocking. My drive to investigate the darkest days of Argentina’s history was initially born in the activist pursuit of justice and my work with the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM) archive at the Libraries. I firmly believe that academic study and divulgement are fundamental in the remembrance and prevention of evils such as these, since they keep these horrific events in the present instead of allowing them to recede into the past and become politically innocuous. Past and present horrors—in Western Europe, Latin America, or the US-Mexico Border—must be exposed and studied; we must unconditionally pursue justice and demand memory.

[1] For more information: www.independent.ie/world-news/latin-america/declassified-documents-reveal-grisly-methods-of-argentina-dictatorship-38166632.html, www.thebubble.com/brief-1976-1983-dictatorship-argentina, www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/opinion/the-long-shadow-of-argentinas-dictatorship.html

Written by Federico Perelmuter ’21, English major, philosophy minor

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19