Ariel Dorfman: The haunting power of a small photograph

From the Amnesty Lecture, given by the Chilean playwright in Edinburgh

Share
Related Topics

We have grown strangely used to them over the last 25 years, the women with a small photo of a man pinned to their dark dress, the extended tribe of those whose loved ones, from Chile to Kurdistan, from Argentina to Ethiopia, from Guatemala to Guinea, have been abducted in the night and never heard of again.

Mothers and daughters, wives and sisters, demanding to know the true fate of their men, demanding that they be returned to their families alive. They have become a habitual presence, these faraway women on the television screen asking at least for a body to bury, that they be allowed to start mourning their dead.

The misfortune of women who search for information about their missing husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, lovers, is as haplessly old as the wars and slaughter-houses with which we humans have disgraced ourselves throughout our history. What is specifically new about the iconic representation of woe is not the repression or the pain, but the form of spectacle these demonstrations have taken, how the performance of that pain is only conceivable in the context of present-day globalisation.

As far as I can tell, the first time photos were displayed as a means of responding to the state terror that uses disappearance as a form of control and punishment was in June 1977 when a group of Chilean women whose relatives had been arrested by General Pinochet's secret police in the years after the 1973 coup, decided to go on a hunger strike to force the military and judicial authorities to acknowledge those detentions.

I am not sure if the organisers immediately realised how influential and far-reaching the image they had created was to become in their own struggle, and they certainly could not have anticipated the ways in which it would be adopted by people with similar dilemmas all over the globe.

What probably mattered most to them was that the exhibition of those photos fiercely expressed the core of their tragedy. The central drama of those women was, after all, that they had no body to contradict the denial of responsibility by the authorities, no way of countering the refusal of the judges to accept writs of habeas corpus because, to put it bluntly, there was no corpus. No body. Dead or alive.

The photo became a substitute for that body that the government officials contended had never been arrested, a way of bringing into visibility someone who was being hidden from view, whose corpse, if indeed the detainee had been killed, was being denied the right to denounce the crime committed against it, the only vocabulary left to the dead.

It was only in the months and years that followed, as the relatives took their protest into the streets, that they discovered that, beyond telling the essence of their predicament, with extreme efficiency and extraordinary poetry those stark semblances of the missing also answered the needs of the contemporary media, its time constraints, its hunger for visually striking imagery, its audiences with short attention spans.

At a time in history where it is all too easy to feel defenceless and passive and irrelevant, it is heartening to see how some of the least powerful people on this Earth can score a victory of the imagination against their enemies, can prove that it is possible for the modernity of human rights to defeat the modernity of inhuman authoritarianism. Indded, the relatives of the disappeared are handing us a model for how other humans can make use of the forces of globalisation to make this world a less threatening home for us all.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor