by Daniel Bloch · 11/09/11
The work of Marcelo Brodsky merges the historical with the personal. In his career as a photographer, Brodsky has created an enormous archive of powerful images engaging with the nuances of his identity as an artist, a Jew, an Argentine and the brother of a desaparecido–a disappeared. Marcelo’s brother Fernando is one of an estimated 30,000 Argentines who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during Argentina’s 1976-1983 Dirty War, victims of an exceptionally cruel apparatus of state-sponsored terrorism which targeted suspected “subversives.” Many, like Fernando, were barely out of their teens and allegedly linked, however tenuously, to anti-dictatorship political and social movements. Once detained, the majority were never heard from again, their bodies never recovered, thus literally disappearing by the thousands from their families–a horrific technique replicated during the same era by dictatorships across Latin America, especially in Chile and Uruguay.
In a conversation that appeared in the Buenos Aires issue of Habitus, Marcelo Brodsky recognized the importance of his family’s experience not only to his art but to a larger conversation about collective healing and memory in Argentina. Brodsky said:
“The loss of my brother–like the loss of so many other people–was not a private issue. It was a social issue, a political issue. It’s something not entirely mine. It’s common to a lot of people in our society. As an artist, I can only speak about what I feel, about what is emotionally significant for me. I wanted to deal with the issue of the disappearance from an emotional point of view. The only real experience I had that could transmit on an emotional level what happened to us–not as a journalist or a critic–was the experience of my family, the void at our own family table.”
Brodsky turned to a trove of family photos to create a response to Fernando’s disappearance, at once a celebration and a memorial of his brother and what his fate continues to represent. Along with numerous exhibits around the world–including the 2007 exhibition at El Museo del Barrio, ”The Disappeared (Los Desaparecidos)“–Brodsky’s work has been published in collections like Nexo and Buena Memoria, and is also extensively featured on his website. Brodsky’s photographic response to his brother’s disappearance, while intensely personal and specific, is intimately tied to the use of photography as a tool for social activism in contemporary Argentina. Groups like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue to march in downtown Buenos Aires, hoisting banners emblazoned with the names and enlarged black-and-white portraits of their missing, and often posing the devastatingly simple question–“¿Dónde están?” Where are they? “Photography is there all the time,” Brodsky said. “There is a relationship between photography and memory, and death, because it is at the crux of all these experiences. Memory is the essence of photography.”
Which makes the photos of Víctor Basterra all the more miraculous. A trained graphic artist, Basterra was kidnapped in 1979 and spent his captivity in the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), one of the largest clandestine detention and torture centers in Buenos Aires, where he was put to work forging travel documents for those in charge and, among other tasks, falsifying death certificates for victims of torture. Part of his job was to take photos of officials, and also of those detained within ESMA and, photo by photo, Basterra was able to smuggle the images out, often in his underwear or taped to his skin, to store in a hole in the wall of his house.
Basterra’s photos have since become a centerpiece of the evidence against the orchestrators of the disappearances and, most recently, they were used to help convict a dozen former military and police officers who administered the daily horrors at ESMA. In an astonishing twist of fate, one of the few photos of the disappeared that Basterra snuck out of ESMA is of Fernando Brodsky, Marcelo’s brother. The photo (see above) shows a young man with long hair and an intense gaze wearing a threadbare tank top. In an interview with the Argentine newspaper Página/12, the presiding judge at the recent ESMA trial, Daniel Obligado, specifically mentions Basterra’s photo of Fernando:
“They asked me which testimony impacted me the most. I think it was Sara Silver de Brodsky, in reference to her son Fernando. [...] She showed a childhood photo of him and then she showed [the photo by Basterra]. And then she said to me, “Look at what they did to my son!” That is something that stayed with me. [...] The photo [of Fernando] is very well-known. It’s the young man in a tank top, like a gym shirt. And I think the survivors [of ESMA] said that he would exercise, as a way to counteract the situation. [...] Now he is disappeared. But it was that intense look, [the photo] begging for an explanation.”
For more coverage in English on the ESMA trials, check out the articles that have appeared on BBC News Online. For especially unique coverage, take a look at the column in the Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language newspaper founded in 1876 that dared to report on the disappearances as they were taking place. The article, written by former editor Robert Cox, focuses on the initial efforts of Fernando Brodsky’s parents to find their son and their subsequent fight for justice in his name.