30/08/2016 To mark the International Day of the Disappeared Emmanuel Guillén Lozano, a photojournalist based in Mexico City shares his insights on the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa Teachers College and why photography is an essential tool in the affected families fight for justice.
When we think of Latin America’s missing persons, it’s inevitable to think of the military dictatorships that struck countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina where about 30,000 people disappeared during Videla’s regime. Mexico is a country that is supposed to live in a democracy in the twenty-first century, but despite that ideal, the latest official statistics indicate that there are more than 28,000 missing persons since 2007, when the Drug War was declared by President Felipe Calderón. There are still many anonymous cases that have not been registered because the families of the victim’s fear retaliation for reporting them, so the real number could be much higher. Forty-three of these cases caught the attention of the world on September 2014. I decided to document the aftermath of the attack against the Ayotzinapa students who were kidnapped by the police in Iguala in the north of Guerrero.
For two years, the parents and relatives of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa Teachers College have faced the government’s indolence and its insistence on closing the case. As they are normally seen as a crowd, I tried to explore their identity by making portraits of them using a piece of black cloth taped to a wall during their meetings at Ayotzinapa, their search brigades in Iguala or their trips to Mexico City. All of them are people of humble origin, farmers, masons and workers who have lost their sons. Ayotzinapa proved that narco-government in Mexico is real; crimes like this are the human cost of corruption and impunity. That is what they are fighting against. The commitment of the families to find answers and justice is tireless. Their own identities and the clothes that they wear reveal the most symbolic search in Mexico’s recent history, some of them have tattoos or a charm of a turtle – the symbol of Ayotzinapa and some wear T-shirts with photos and the names of their disappeared. The idea of taking single portraits is based on the individuality itself, as history always underestimates the identities of the poor and working classes, reserving memorable portraits only for the aristocracy, leaving in anonymity those who suffer the dark parts of history, those who are not usually grouped with names, but numbers.
Throughout history mankind has been making its own memory through art and literature. In a country like Mexico, photography is an essential tool because each of those numbers, each of those victims was a human being, a part of society that was violently mutilated. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International, during the attacks against the students of Ayotzinapa six people were killed, 25 were wounded and 43 disappeared. The deaths and the disappearances have left 180 direct victims and around 700 indirect victims (the number of affected families). How many dead and missing are needed for the country to react? And most importantly: Why do we forget them? Since the disappearances, many photographers have taken the time to document the case from different perspectives. The work that documentary photographers and photojournalists have made, is extremely valuable because it helps to create a bigger visual memory. Photographers and journalists in Mexico have been killed, and that is the strongest proof that there are some who fear memory.
After the tragedy of Ayotzinapa, President Enrique Peña Nieto visited Guerrero and said, “Let’s overcome this phase and take a step forward”. He was asking us to forget. One of the virtues of photography is that by showing situations and tragedies, we are not only spectators, but witnesses and by generating documentation through photography visual memory can be transformed into consciousness. Through photography, memory becomes an act of resistance against oblivion and injustice. You can see more of Emmanuel Guillén Lozano’s work here Feature image: ©Emmanuel Guillén Lozano “Chilpancingo, Guerrero. Parents of 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa standing in front of anti-riot state police during a rally to avoid the midterm elections in Guerrero.”