“The photographer wants to say something and to intervene with his camera; this is the drama of photography. You decide, to help or not to help and to take the photo. I decided to be a photographer, to be a spectator. There’s a moment in which one abandons the camera and is no longer a photographer—one can participate. But as a photographer, your participation is with the camera.”
“We became a movement. We moved this land.”
—Oscar Navarro, “La Ciudad de los Fotógrafos” (The City of Photographers)
Documentary photography has the power to move and inspire us and, at best, create meaningful social change. In Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), photographers took to the streets to do just that, using their cameras as weapons at a time of intense political repression. Members of this group, known as the Association of Independent Photographers (AFI), included famous Chilean street photographers such as Claudio Pérez, Paz Errázuriz, Marcelo Montecinos, Claudio Castro and brothers Alejandro and Álvaro Hoppe.
Until the end of April, the Maison de L’Amerique Latine in Paris is featuring work of the Hoppe brothers and Claudio Pérez, among other artists, as part of a broader exhibition on Chilean photography from 1980 until 2015. The diversity of work on display—with regards to both subject and form—is a testament to the richness of Chilean art and experience. Seeing the kitsch, erotic work of Zaida González and realizing it lies not far from photographs depicting the religious rituals of the South’s indigenous Mapuche peoples, we find a surprising unity amidst the impressive breadth.
Yet among all the work displayed, it is the work from some members of the aforementioned AFI that stands out. As the exhibition’s curator Patrice Loubon recounts, “At the time of its creation during the dictatorship, the AFI was unparalleled in both Latin America and France—uniting so many photographers in such a [politically involved] way.” The formation of this unique group was a direct result of the censorship, harassment, detention and torture photographers in Chile experienced regularly beginning in the early ’70s.
By 1981, these photographers harnessed the power of the collective as a means of obtaining legitimacy and some semblance of protection. They began by sending their work abroad to avoid censorship, but ultimately began their own clandestine publication titled Puntas de Vista (Points of View). This journal, which featured their photographic work alongside detailed accounts of the repression suffered by photojournalists, contributed to a crucial archive of human rights abuses and served as a sharp criticism of the regime.
Take, for instance, the work of the Hoppe Brothers and Claudio Pérez. Their black and white photographs reveal what is often overlooked by the foreign viewer: the intense divisions within Chilean society against a backdrop of political repression. In a darkened room at the end of the exhibit, the Hoppe brothers get to the heart of this strange reality. In one photograph, a woman gazes lazily at a storefront full of televisions while a homeless man lays on a park bench behind her. On either side of this photo, protesters are being violently beaten and dragged away, their fate unknown. Nearby, a presumably well-off family attends a show at a beautiful theater in Santiago while, again, on either side of the photograph are other images depicting repression. Photographs of everyday people, demonstrating both for and against Pinochet during the 1989 plebiscite, line the walls.
These stark moments of contrast—between repression and entertainment, between those for and against Pinochet—give the viewer a glimpse into the realities of the dictatorship. Pinochet’s coup d’etat not only signalled the overthrowing of the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America; it also ushered in an era of colossal shifts in the Chilean economy, namely the import of neo-liberal economics. The free market economy which replaced Allende’s socialist regime remains, to this day, the central legacy and point of contention among Chileans when discussing the Pinochet era. The consumerism which flooded the Chilean economy came with grave political sacrifices, something which was not overlooked by these photographers.
In fact, amidst even the most seemingly benign images, there lurks the reality of violence which permeated everyday life in Chile—a violence with which these photographers were intimately familiar. Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, a 19-year old Chilean photographer who was living in exile in the United States, was burned alive by Chilean security forces in front of his good friend Álvaro Hoppe. His funeral attracted thousands of protesters, protests which were documented by the AFI photographers and are also on display at the exhibit.
This work provides the viewers with a richer and more nuanced understanding of what it meant to be a Chilean during this difficult time. But ultimately, they serve as rallying cry, a testament to the courage of the protesters and photographers who put their lives at risk every time they took to the streets.
These photographs tell a story of a struggle, one which the Chilean people are still reconciling with to this day—and which visitors to this exhibit can glimpse and begin to understand. Overall, we are reminded once more of the power of the photographic image to denounce injustice and, sometimes, move us to action.
Editors’ Note: The exhibition “Faces Cachées: Photographie Chilienne 1980-2015” will be showing until April 30 at Paris’ Maison de L’Amerique Latine. The exhibition is free and well worth a visit.
Below, we have included a Youtube link to the documentary “La Ciudad de los Fotógrafos,” which was projected at the museum in March. We hope this can serve as a springboard to learning more about this fascinating time in photojournalistic (and Chilean) history.