Many times the strongest messages come from the power of an everyday object. This piece is an incidental photograph that could have been taken in any high school in the world. Well-aligned and smartly dressed students sit together, smiling, and wearing expressions that are full of hope for the future. The context and reason for this piece from Marcelo Brodsky, however, stands in stark contrast to the ebullient feeling communicated through the young faces in this simple photograph.
Of the 32 students in the picture, two were dead and one was ‘disappeared’ as a result of the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina between 1976 and 1982. Four of the students suffered prolonged trauma from this period, while others had moved away from Buenos Aires to other parts of Argentina; from Argentina to other parts of Latin America; or from Latin America to countries further afield. While the cohesion of high school classes is always beset with changes and possible tragedies, the scale of the impact of authoritarian rule on the young people of Argentina has been immeasurable.
My father was engaged in business for DuPont in Argentina during this same period. His slide collection shows a bucolic Buenos Aires with tree-lined boulevards, cafes, and bright sunny days without a soldier or a victim in sight. Because of his Latin American experiences, I have spent my whole academic career researching the politics of authoritarian rule, transitions to democracy and the patterns of human rights violations that emerge during these periods of profound political transformation. Like the photograph, the case of Argentina (and I would argue other cases of post-authoritarian politics) is one of deep issues that remain unresolved and the absence of closure. Public acknowledgement of past wrongs have been made, attempts at justice partially achieved, and the scars from the period are a visible reminder of the repressive policies that destroyed the social fabric of the country, the privatised violence to the point that families and friends stopped talking about politics, and the profound dislocations of human lives that have ruptured any sense of national identity.
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Marcelo Brodsky and hosting him for an afternoon discussion of his work in London. After two hours of stories about the period from Marcelo and audience members, an Argentine woman who left her country for Madrid in 1978 claimed that this occasion was the first time she had ever heard of any of the atrocities committed by the regime. At that time, we were shocked at her revelation, but over the years I have learned that like this photograph, the real story is not evident to all observers. Indeed, as the case of Argentina shows, that which is immediately observable can hide a much darker truth.