“To snatch an image from that, in spite of that? Yes. Whatever the cost, form had to be given to this unimaginable reality. The possibilities for escape or of revolt were so limited at Auschwitz that the mere sending of an image or of information–a plan, numbers, names–was of the utmost urgency, one of the last gestures of humanity.” Huberman
I have focused the development of my artistic practice on themes such as absence, memory, illness and death. The human being has always been my main concern; I have explored him/her from different perspectives based on personal experiences and – evidently – my country’s political and social situation. For years now, I have concentrated on victims of violence.
Using photography as a main tool, I have devoted myself to listening and patiently documenting the accounts of those who know the inhumanity of humanity. For example, in the Silences Series from 2004, I had the opportunity to document the testimonials of 30 World War II survivors who arrived in Colombia during or after the War to rebuild their lives in a country that was quite unknown then, and that had quite an unfriendly migratory system. In a place where the Jewish community is rather small in comparison to other countries, these testimonials became a very valuable and revealing document not only in as much as the War, but also to consider Colombia as a destination of hope, where rebuilding your life is a possibility.
The main theme of the Drifting Away Series (2007-2008) is forced disappearances. Using the clothing that family members of the disappeared ones have kept, I made a representation of one of the ways in which this heinous crime is committed – disposing of bodies in the cold rivers. In many cases, apart from the unrelenting torture those victims are subjected to while still alive, their bodies are dismembered post mortem, so that, in case they resurface, the identification process is practically impossible. Those atrocious practices make some parts of our country become places where “you can breathe the air of death”, turning the waters in our rivers – previously a synonym of life and progress – into mass graves and synonyms for impunity and terror.
Shrouds (2011) is composed of the testimonials of twenty women who had to suffer, as part of their own torture, watching the acts of violence performed on their loved ones. As they were eyewitnesses of these acts of terror, they understood firsthand and in front of their own eyes that there is no difference whatsoever between man and the fiercest of beasts in all of nature. Better yet, they understood that there is a great difference, which is that as a species, we are the only ones capable of mass murdering, and we are the only ones that cannot adapt to our own society. N.Timbergen.
The process of the making of this series consisted of setting up a photo studio, where we sat across from each other framed by a basic lighting arrangement, much the same way it is done in a portrait photo shoot session. In this act of mutual acceptance, where the models surrendered themselves to the photographer to immortalize the instant, we were completely aware that the resulting images were not going to be guided by the idealization of their faces, but rather, to the transcendence of their pain. Both these ladies and myself, accompanied by a PSYCHOLOGIST were willing to travel through dark places: they were willing to narrate the moment they were doomed to remember. From that very moment, neglect became a privilege reserved for the dead. I was willing to diligently document that instant where language is depleted because what one is trying to convey does not fit into any concept or into any word. It is only the silence, the emptiness and the despair captured inside their bodies that can give us a glimpse of the horror these people were victims of.
In three-hour sessions, the details were divulged of the most humiliating and horrible situations a human being could be subjected to. If the portrait, as Richard Brilliant says, belongs to the actual memory of the person represented, the shrouds are the portraits of the irreparable damage that violence bequeaths to humanity. They are also portraits of the victimizer, because in the shrouds one can see the dimension of their destructive capacity. This is well explained by the contemporary art historian and curator, Ileana Diéguez, “They (the women) are the testimonial of the enormous horror and extreme degradation at which we have arrived in these times, where killing someone is not enough, but the body and the sight must be punished, and the memory of the other must be made insufferable.”
The testimonials are horrifying: one of these ladies, while pregnant, was forced to watch the assassination of her father. This left her engulfed in the inevitable tragedy: her son’s life would be forever tarnished by the painful memory of this tragic loss.
Another woman witnessed her husband’s murder. He fell dead at her feet as his victimizer prevented her from picking him up, pointing a gun to her forehead, as she felt under her feet the warmth of her husband’s blood traveling, little by little.
Another woman was raped by six armed men for hours on end, enduring not only immeasurable and incomprehensible transgressions to her body, but also the infinite agony of having to suppress her screams because her children were locked up in the room next door.
There was a daughter who was forced to witness her mother being tortured. She was tied to a horse that dragged her around the main town square. In the most severe moment of her torture, her victimizer demanded the daughter to watch as they cut her mother’s tongue and how they ripped her eyes out. She was made to remain there, eyes wide open, until the moment when this everlasting agony found an end.
The last testimonial I will comment on is that of a wife, torn apart by her husband’s murder right in front of her eyes. Possessed by the pain, her reaction was to scoop the blood spilling from that body and to desperately drink it in an irrational and senseless act, trying to preserve inside her some small part of her loved one.
I have decided to share some of these testimonials in this dialogue because I deem it is important to understand the breadth of the tragedy that the protagonists have survived and that is encapsulated in these images. In spite of them being testimonials of an overflowing dreadfulness, they are also testimonials of colossal strength, resilience and dignity. These have been the driving force of my work. By means of the openness and generosity with which the victims have shared their experiences, I have understood that my chore is to be the witness of the witnesses and, I have also understood that art provides an environment of safety and discretion, but at the same time, one of great visibility in a country where justice can be the greatest threat for those involved.
To this day I have been the recipient of over 300 testimonials, which as a whole, are a measly part of the history of a nation that is only now starting to know the extent of its own tragedy . I speak of Colombia because it is the country I was born in, where I have lived most of my life and from where I now develop my work. However, in spite of being a work that originates from a very specific socio-cultural context, it is entirely universal, since I have decided to shape it on the basis of the mourning process and the memory, and not just from the specificity of violence in Colombia. If we understand that memory is inevitably linked to death and to absence, as it is to presence and love , we can relate from our own context and reality with the pain these images are revealing.
Undoubtedly, finding a way to show these barbarities is not easy. Representing them in the sense to literally imitate violence would be heinous. However, if we understand representation as the capability to bring something to mind by means of signs, words or images, we would understand the importance of echoing these testimonials from every artistic language possible so as to make their revelations reach the justice authorities, because that is how far they should reach.
I believe we stand before a privileged moment for artistic creation. We are experiencing an era of swift, technological advances where the only real limit is our imagination. One of the first decisions I made for the Shrouds project was to print those portraits on silk.
It was a technical quest originating from the intention to capture the feeling that more than one victim of violence has expressed in their testimonial, and that is to have been torn away from this world; to feel like they’re suffering a living death since they crossed paths with violence.
This is why my decisions were focused towards achieving translucent and ghostly images, which were at the same time tangible and daunting.
Similarly, how much sense it makes to house these images in settings that are sacred and conducive to contemplation, where the architecture and the meaning of these environments guide the observer to consider the Shrouds not in a passive manner, but to amalgamate with them from their own beliefs and their own humanity understood as empathy and not pity. This would allow the observer to enter into communion with the images so that – as Susan Sontag says – “starting from now, we might be able to bear in mind this reality, and hopefully in the immediate future to be able to generate the social changes needed for these atrocities to become part of the past and not be the only certainty of our future”.
In a text that talks about the Holy Shroud, Huberman states that the simple desire to see something beyond makes us see something beyond. Hence, I invite you to reflect on the images that illustrate the injustices and the pain, recalling that it is our duty, as observers, to see what the images are showing us, hiding from us, unveiling. If – as Ileana Diéguez states – “the artistic images and events do not salvage the past, do not return what is lost and barely help us to recognize what has been inevitably lost”, it would be worth it to ask ourselves if our indifference, indolence and silence towards the images and events do not make us, in some way, accomplices of their dreadfulness. Refusing to recognize what other human beings have lost, silently forces us to concede victory to the victimizers.
It may be preferable to remind ourselves of Todorov’s wise words in his book, The Abuses of Memory, “Those who for one reason or another know the dreadfulness of the past, have the obligation to raise their voices against other very present terrors that are happening a few hundred kilometers away, even a few tens of meters away from their homes. This way, far from continuing to be prisoners of the past, we will have put it to the use of the present, just as memory and oblivion will have to be put to the use of justice”.
The history of a country cannot be written in silence and its memory should not be built in the darkness. This is why I believe that, aside from being necessary, it is our obligation to narrate, document, show and try to understand our history from all the possible perspectives.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Erika Diettes lives and works in Bogotá, Colombia, exploring issues of memory, pain, absence and death. The photographs have been exhibited in unique spaces linked to re-memoration processes developed by the victims’ movements in Colombia. Erika received a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from the Universidad de los Andes and has authored several essays on artistic representation in times of war that have been included in books, newspapers and journals. Her work is part of the permanent collection of major museums, including the Museo de Antioquia (Colombia) and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (USA). Her work has been exhibited at the Museums of Modern Art of Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Barranquilla; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Chile; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and many more. The work Sudarios has been included in the Fotofest Biennal, the Festival de la Luz in Buenos Aires, the Ballarat Foto Biennale in Australia, and The Center in Santa Fe New Mexico among others.