Ariel Dorfman: The haunting power of a small photograph

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

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.