Mnemonic Hauntings: Photography as Art of the Missing
Silvia R. Tandeciarz
“Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: They haunt us (135).” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003).
There are many ways that photography has been used in the past to resist oppression. Between 1976 and 1983 the Argentine military regime was responsible for around 30,000 undocumented cases of kidnapping, torture, and murder. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared were one of the most well-known humans rights activists who used photography to represent the trauma of dictatorship. The Mothers of the Disappeared would march at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires every Thursday afternoon carrying photographs of loved ones disappeared. These photographs functioned as proof of existence. They emphasized that the the individuals who had gone missing needed to be accounted for, and that there were still people waiting for their return, questions unanswered. This method of performance protest forced the casual witness to recognize the crimes that had occurred and appreciate the power of reflection to provoke social change. The Mothers of the Disappeared used a photographic referent to provide irrefutable proof that the individual represented was once living. In doing so, the photographs became the haunting of the missing and set the stage for social justice action in the future.
“The relation of photography and language is a principal site of struggle for value and power in contemporary representations of reality (141).”
Another major example of the way that photography has been used to reveal the truth of historical events in Argentina was the Buena Memoria by Brodsky. Brodsky takes an ordinary class photograph and transforms it through language. He juxtaposes a group of young adults with high ambitions and a promising future (visual) with the violence that occurred to them as a result of the military regime (discourse). He makes transparent the repressive mechanisms that the ruling elite used against the public. Similarly to the Mothers of the Disappeared, he provoked reflection in his audience. A class portrait is a representation of a pivotal moment in public life that almost everyone can relate to. Brodsky picked such a moment as a means to socialize this memory, and direct the audience to their own personal history. A history which was most likely marked by abuses of the state. This installation reminds the public of the basic human rights that were denied to the citizens of Argentina by the Junta. By facilitating the recollection of these memories, the Buena Memoria becomes a haunting for those who felt the terror being inflicted by the state and the state itself. This sets the state for a new future.