Experimenters Explore Photojournalism and Social Change in Argentina
by Hannah Nord
Fifteen high school students from the United States meandered through the pathways between the catacombs of La Recoleta cemetery before coming upon the burial place of Eva Peron, an actress and populist political figure who championed the rights of the working class. Speaking up for those who found themselves voiceless in 1940s Argentina, Peron, also affectionately known as Evita, advocated for worker’s rights, gender equality, and the impoverished. The irony of such a staunch defender of the poor being buried beside the very people that she opposed wasn’t lost on the group as they continued walking amongst the ritzy and exclusive tombs crowding the cemetery.
Rich visual images such as these stood out to the participants of Argentina: Photojournalism and Social Change, a program of The Experiment in International Living. As they learned the fundamentals of photography and storytelling through photo shoots, classes in both digital and print media, and even the chance to design their own pinhole cameras, they were able to more deeply understand, synthesize and portray the emotions behind Argentina’s social issues, both past and present.
The Experimenters also got to focus their lenses on Argentina’s national pride and cultural celebrations through excursions to historical sites and places of social activism. They visited the National Flag Memorial built in 1957 by Alejandro Bustillo and Angel Francisco Guido in honor of Manuel Belgrano, the creator of the Argentine flag. The grandiose columns and burning flames stood in contrast to the grey sky.
In Rafaela, a city in the north, students attended photo-worthy celebrations for Argentina’s July 9th Bicentenary, marking the country’s independence from Spain. They watched locals perform lively regional dances such as zamba, chacarera, Gato and Tango to rhythmic music with ladies wearing their hair up in ribbons, sporting lace blouses and long skirts, as the men wore sombreros with sleek, black boots. Families enjoyed yerba mate, an infusion of holly leaves, and snacks, and strolled between aisles of street vendors selling local honey and bracelets. The Gendarmeria Nacional Argentina and other patriotic organizations proudly marched down the main thoroughfare known as La Plaza de 25 de Mayo showing off their bayonets and nation’s flag, providing a vibrant photo op for the budding photographers.
In a far more somber part of the trip, the students visited “La Casa de Memoria,” a faded, yet colorfully painted house that once belonged to a blind couple whose baby was abducted due to their suspected involvement in anti-governmental/pro-socialist protests. This was where they delved into a difficult era of Argentina’s recent history, the “Dirty War” of the 1970’s and 80’s.
Here, the students learned about how the Argentine military hunted down those believed to oppose the country’s right-wing government or associate with the opposition. Many students, journalists, and artists, and other citizens simply “disappeared” during the period of terror. The group learned that there are investigations into the whereabouts of the disappeared; parents continue to search for children who were stolen from them during that time.
The stark contrast between the national pride witnessed by The Experimenters on Independence Day, and the disturbing history of state-sponsored terrorism against large swaths of the Argentine population discussed during their visit to La Casa de Memoria, allowed them to more fully document the country’s identity.
In addition to discovering the intricacies of Argentina’s sociopolitical history, the US high schoolers enjoyed newfound relationships among themselves and with Argentines. They were welcomed to quinceneras, festivities celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday, and asados or barbecues. They shared a love for U.S. pop and karaoke, but came to enjoy Argentina’s cumbia and salsa dance classes. The students and their Argentine hosts also recognized some cultural differences. The Experimenters were surprised to see children ride bicycles without helmets, hanging onto their parents, bumping down cobblestone roads. Their Argentine host parents chuckled at the visitors’ willingness to eat their vegetables at dinner.
By being immersed in Argentine culture, learning about its political history, and developing new skills in photography, 15 US high schoolers captured the essence of Argentina today through their cameras. This immersive experience enabled them to get to know the people and the spirit of Argentina and, at the same time, help build closer ties between Americans and Argentines.
Hannah Nord is a communications intern at World Learning.