The Pictures that Could Have Been Taken
How do you capture an absence in a photograph?
Argentine photographer Gustavo Germano has found a way to do just that. Since 2006, he has been documenting the absences of individuals who died under dictatorships in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. In November, the University of Minnesota hosted an exhibition of his photographs in his “Ausencias/Absences” project.
Imagine a pair of photographs. On the left is an authentic family photo from decades past. On the right, another image attempts to recreate the earlier one—with those who are still living. The individuals in the later photograph offer sober or saddened expressions to the camera at the same location where the first photograph was taken. You feel the weight of the empty space where their loved ones should have been.
Professor Ana Forcinito, the exhibit coordinator, suggests that it is possible to imagine that these two photographs enter in dialogue with a third image that we will never see: the image without those empty spaces, and without the horror of systematic human rights violations.
She notes that “the absences are not only portrayed through the differences between the two pictures in the pairs but also through the contrast between the photographs taken by Germano and those other pictures that the artist could have taken if the military dictatorship had not committed all those crimes.” The subjunctive form of the Spanish language, and more precisely the pluperfect subjunctive, is used here to express impossible situations and to simultaneously emphasize the possibilities, doubts, wishes, desires, and the unknowns that surround enforced disappearance.
Photos of the 'Disappeared'
One of the featured photograph pairs tells the story of Ileana and Edmundo, a married couple, and their infant daughter Soledad. On December 21, 1977, policemen burst into their apartment in Montevideo, Uruguay, and kidnapped them, leaving Soledad in the care of the building’s custodian. Ileana and Edmundo were taken to the Command Center of the Tactical Operations Team 1, where they were tortured by Uruguayan repressors and inevitably “disappeared.”
In the last photo taken of the family, they posed for the camera in front of the seashore. In its companion photo, Soledad stands at the same location, nearly 35 years later, without her parents.
Germano’s project raises awareness about human rights violations from the recent past and from today, displaying how the pain of these mysterious absences should never have to be felt again in the future. By capturing the memory of the absent loved ones through those empty spaces that were left forever in the families, Germano’s project reminds us of the wounding and long-lasting effects of human rights violations.