Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 13.30.17It is rare to have a photographer speak back to you. I can’t say how thrilled I was to receive a carefully written email from the Argentinian Portuguese (thank you Ziyah Gafic!) photographer Joao Pina some months ago in response to my criticism of The New York Times Lens Blog piece about his project CONDOR.  The original piece, titled Exposing The Legacy Of Operation Condor, which appeared on June 24, 2014, in fact very obviously elided the deep American collaboration and support (financial, intelligence, political and possibly even in weaponry), for the operations that shattered the political and civic resistance landscape in a number of Latin American countries.

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In my original piece I had argued that:

An important photo project, but if you are going to speak about Operation Condor, you cannot, and must not, remain silent about the American collaboration and acquiescence in the campaign. It is important to remember that six nations were involved in this campaign, and they were American allies, not the least of which was Pinochet’s Chile. The US was well aware of the mass disappearances and killings that were taking place, and it did not merely stand aside, but also provided technical and other assistance to our allies while it was all taking place.

adding further that:

Photojournalists have to confront history and speak honestly. It is not enough to simply make strong photographs. It is not enough to compartmentalise history into conveniently acceptable and polite packages. I don’t know if Pina will say more in his own words and in his own pages, but I hope that he will see that the New York Times is not the place to offer the complete story of Operation Condor.

And in fact, Joao Pina has said a lot more, and very explicitly too. I learned this through an email I received from Joao Pina some weeks after I wrote my criticism, where he very carefully and with great civility, set me straight on the matter.

I am re-posting here, with his permission, his response to me that reveals how he has in fact spoken vividly about the collusions and support of the American intelligence, and political establishments for the Argentinian junta and other authoritarian regimes in the region. I think it is important to read the words of a photographer who clearly knows the region well, has invested a significant amount of time in this issue, and in some ways, is now personally vested in it. Furthermore, he also reveals the constant struggle of photographers who are not satisfied by merely being image makers, but who are imaginative and courageous enough to know that this is never just about photographs, but also about the soul, and about ideals that we are arguing and fighting for.

Explaining his efforts to ensure that his audiences understand the full involvement of the American’s in the history of modern Latin American politics, and their collusion in Project Condor in particular, Joao Pina writes:

…every time I have a word on this, I raise that question. As I did in the Moving Walls 21 opening ceremony in NY last January in which in front of hundreds of people, when I said I was very happy to be able to be in the US showing that work, precisely because of the US involvement in the issue that is until today very little discussed. One of the most incredible events was the assassination of Orlando Letelier in D.C. and although I ended up not using those images because I couldn’t get anything visually appealing there, it is one of the places that I had to visit and photograph when shooting Condor. Also, the school of the America’s in Panama has created such a big impact here.
As you say, that issue has been voiced but people who are both capable of voicing at an academic level like John Dinges and others who have studied extensively the Condor, so I don’t think I have to keep repeating it every time. Also, in my book there are several references to it, being the most interesting one the foreword written by Jon Lee Anderson in which he wrote a historical perspective regarding the issue and precisely explain the US involvement in which, in my opinion he does a brilliant job, explaining with all the evidence raised by Jack Anderson in 1979, and quoting Harry Shlaudeman informing his boss back then Henry Kissinger about what was going on. After that, to me the involvement it’s so obvious and so explained, that I didn’t spend much more time thinking that I had to explain it. But I have absolutely no doubts nor problems in raising that question publicly over and over again.
Although I understand your point on the importance of the US involvement, it is really interesting also to study and understand the involvement of the soviets and the Chinese in the Condor years. Not only for supporting actively some groups against the dictatorships, by providing money, military training, weapons, but also for the double standards of having great trading relationships with the dictatorships themselves… The same with France, that sent military advisors that had tortured people in Algeria, down to South America to create the “french school” that has thought the military in the best torture techniques. We must agree that like in other places were the cold war hit hard, there was an enormous hypocritical sense from everyone in power. That is one of the things that to these days doesn’t cease to amaze me.
Also a very important text in the book is the one by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, in which he draws the parallel between Condor back in the 70’s and what is going on in our current days, with the drone war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc… and other very interesting cases. Although its words that haven’t been written by myself, I clearly wanted those issues to be addressed, and that is the reason why I invited Anderson and Garzón to write. In the and, and along with all the archive images and documents that I use, this book ends up not being so much about my photography, but way more important is the body of work as a whole. With the participation of several local photographers, important archive documents, and other details. My goal with this body of work isn’t to address all the issues or trying to make the “final” book about the issue, I am not that pretentious. Is more to address how specific people’s lives have been affected by this, without wanting to tell the “truth”. It’s more about “my truth”, my experience, what I have heard, and my conclusions about those facts, it’s more of an intimate document (and that is the main reason to the book size and materials that I have chosen) about a very complex issue.
In a short response to Joao Pina’s response, I wrote to explain the perspectives from where I criticise American and European publications, pointing out that:
…for someone like me – a post-colonial child raised seeing and experiencing so much of the continued legacies of colonialism and imperialism in South Asia, the question of the centrality of issues as a neoliberalism, capitalism, and violent imperialism that facilitate all this, are key. Furthermore, the crass evasions that are always evident in publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic Magazine or Time Magazine, are something that I refuse to accept and allow to let pass because for me it isn’t mere ‘oversight’ or ‘lack of space’, but part of a determined project and ideological strategy to erase American imperialism and violent involvement in other nations which is source of so much instability, inequality, injustice, resentment and backwardness across the world. As an American I feel that it is my highest responsibility to speak against the crimes of my state particularly when it leads to so many innocent lives lost and destroyed. And Argentina of course is such an important case in point. So my rather strident and critical readings of sites like Lens Blog, or Time Lightbox etc. I hear you when you say that you are not in a position to control what the newspaper like The New  York Times leaves out, or doesn’t ask. That is a fair argument. As my posts articulated, i hoped that you as a writer and a thinker are speaking different.
Pina goes on to counter my argument by stating that:
I read you arguments, and although in general lines I agree with most of them, I don’t totally agree that publications such as The New York Times, only give a one-sided version of history. Yes, for sure they didn’t mention the american involvement on the Condor in the article, but honor should be made to Larry Rother, the reporter who did this story. He is in my opinion one of the most knowledgeable foreign reporters on latin america, and he lived himself trough the Condor years in the region. He has written about the US involvement and knowledge of operation condor in the NYT before, we have spoken often and extensively about this over the years and I am pretty sure he doesn’t have any hidden agenda.
I don’t have neither the political background on american politics to know all the involvement they have had in the past in other countries faiths, but I am pretty sure, as any relatively well-informed person, that American foreign politics (and other empires for that sake) have been killing people in many countries around the globe for at least the last 60 years. I admire your fight, and I think it is a great thing to do, but at the moment I don’t think I have the energy nor the real interest to keep linking the US to all their actions around the globe. Of course the US was involved in Operation Condor, the school of the Americas, Kissinger and his boys, etc… but the main reason and perpetrators of this crimes were South American military-governments themselves, who were not only inspired by US fuelled paranoia, but also by war-crime Nazis living in the region, the so-called French School, of military people who had just fought the war in Algeria, coming down to South America to teach them interrogation techniques, etc… basically I am against human rights abuses all over the World. Naturally I feel those crimes being fuelled or perpetrated by western democracies are even a more terrible example to humanity. But honestly, I don’t think I am that naive, to think that Americans, French, Brits, or many of the so-called western democracies, don’t violate human rights every day within their own territories, so what would stop them to do it abroad as well?
Pina goes on to say that:
I did the Condor, to honor its victims. I don’t think I owe anything to anyone at this point and certainly I don’t have any moral commitment to pick a fight against the US actions. My commitment was to tell their story to the people who want to know it, and I spent nearly a decade working on this project, only stopping at the moment where I could say “I did all I could to cover this issue, the best possible way”. Honestly it’s not my fault if 99% of north-americans don’t give a shit about what their leaders to outside of their own turf, and if one person out of that 99%, goes outside of their own bubble, buys the book and learn about all this horrible events. After seeing that, stops to think about its own countries actions and goes to bed knowing a little more about how crazy this world is, my goal has been widely reached.
I am way more interested, in having a real impact on south american societies then to have it in the US. Simply, because this work, says way more in this part of the world. Recently, I was approached by other victims giving me more information, by history teachers that want to use my book in their classes,  and even a theatre director that wants to use my images in one of his plays. I believe photography can have an impact on the daily lives of people. But at this point, I have learned to give way less attention to what the Press impact can be and I am trying to explore different ways to cause an impact with those photographs outside of the “photo” or “media” industries.
It is clear that Pina understands what he is up against. As he himself pointed out in his email to me:
I completely agree with you…It is not enough to compartmentalize history into conveniently acceptable and polite packages.” and I believe one of the problems today, is that unlike what seems to have been the case for a long time, when the best photographers were really engaged, many time very well prepared intellectually. Today many times it seems that someone who wants to be an intellectual needs to become an “artist” and that our “photojournalism industry” is not at a time nor at a position where you should raise questions and voice your concerns. Basically, this industry is becoming a place where mediocrity seems to be the goal. When photo-editors in some very “high” positions often hate having their extremely biased points of views contradicted, and were politeness seems to be key. On the other end, the world has never been so impolite to people, and most of the mainstream media is struggling to keep alive, so as we all know the industry is cutting on people who think and raise questions, to employ people who are “yes sirs” and look to the other side when a though question is on the table. That leaves me without much hope in our business and ethical models at this point, but I am sure some interesting options will be rising soon.
I am sure that by voicing all these concerns I am not doing myself a favor (and pretty sure you should be in the same spot) and it might be a reason why it seems that I am getting less work every day.  But in the end, what is really important to me is to keep doing my work and follow my gut feelings about what is important to be told, no matter what editors and publishers think their “public” wants to read. I know that many times that can’t be achieved only by images, and that is the reason why I spend so much time trying to voice this issues with images but also with words (although I know, I am a much better image maker then trying to write), being in writing or in some conferences that I give here and there.
The link between photography and politics to me as is important as it seems to be to you, and I have absolutely no problems in voicing it. As you might know, I come from a very political family, and although doing active politics is nothing that has ever crossed my mind, I was raised very close to it. That is one of the reasons why I am so fascinated by historical memory, the effects that certain politics has on people, and I try to spend a lot of time thinking about it, and making images on subjects that are often very focused on the effects certain policies has on people.
I suspect that Pina’s isn’t an easy position to take. For one, it is similar to mine and our struggles – to do the work that we do, and to do it with the sensibilities and commitments we take serious, is near impossible to find support for. Few publications and / or editors take their work so seriously as to work with photographers who take their work very seriously. There aren’t people out there who see value in such engagement and commitment. Our’s is an industry that celebrates the quick and easy, the immediate and obvious, the comfortable and polite. Those who speak, and in that process, reveal an intellectual and moral independence and dissent, find themselves basically ignored.  It was dismaying to yet again hear a talented, intelligent and committed photojournalist say:
What only 4-5 years ago, wouldn’t be a problem, which was to get some steady work that would not only pay my bills, but give me enough funding to keep working on my personal stories, is now a huge struggle. I am curious on how you do it. You mention that you have been shunned by those publications. If those publications turn their back on you, how do you do it to make a living? I don’t think I’ve been shunned by any publication, but I know the few I still have the interest in working with, neither have budget or interest in most of my stories. There is something changing very rapidly in our profession, and for sure I am not smart enough to find new solutions to keep doing work like this, and I spend more time thinking what else in life could I work with to make a living, then out in the streets researching and shooting images.
For me personally, these are the voices that inspire me to continue my work. Their seriousness and their involvement in their projects – an involvement that goes beyond resume filling, awards gathering and magazine spreads, is what also reminds me of what it is that I set out to do. Perhaps the struggle to keep at it, to find ways of doing it, is a necessary part of what we have chosen.
Perhaps we have chosen the struggle itself.