An emblematic photograph: a young man wearing a jeans jacket and torn pants leaps into the air over a wall covered with graffiti, including one representing a handgun. He seems to be propelled like a bullet from the barrel of the gun. This image by Pablo Ortíz Monasterio stands for the violence brought on by social changes at work on the continent, and is iconic of the exhibition as a whole. We see a picture of youth in full bloom, adopting the styles and the culture of the North-American underground, while at the same time confronting a daily threat of gunfire in countries often ruled by dictatorships.
In this context, how does protest emerge? What is the potential for action under an oppressive regime? While freedom of expression has been nearly obliterated, the walls and façades of Latin American cities have given voice to the cry of the people. Covered with graffiti, posters, and slogans, public spaces speak to social and political issues, as shown in the images and collages by Ataulfo Pérez Aznar and Herbert Rodriguez. The artists demonstrate that photography is adaptable to a variety of formats, widely disseminated in the streets, and passed from hand to hand among activists.
In the 1960s, North-American pop culture transformed Latin America. The continent became a space of diversity, blending consumerism and vestiges of Hispanic culture. The famous portrait of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda was turned into a controversial symbol of the era, reproduced on banners and T-shirts, and any other possible surface at hand.
Violent clashes repeatedly erupted between activists and the police. They were a true counterpoint to the fairyland and the promises of the consumer society as portrayed by Hollywood. Alvaro Hoppe thus captured a broken window as an embodiment of this violence. Eduardo Longoni’s and Pedro Valtierra’s images similarly focus on social unrest. Depictions of a raised fist denounce the violence. As the curators of the exhibition, María Wills and Alexis Fabry, underscore, “Photography was a weapon against silence.” Photography became a dissenter and a whistleblower. It documented absence, kidnappings, and murders. It recorded the many conflicts that had wracked Latin America, such as the Cuban Revolution, military dictatorships, and their various strategies of oppression. Photography is a precious testimony that nourishes history and our idea of the past.
By Julie Bonzon
Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography from 1959 to 2016
June 14 to October 6, 2019
The Photographers’ Gallery
16–18 Ramillies St., Soho, W1F 7LW London