On August 31, 2021, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele announced the dismissal of all judges over the age of 60. Among them was Jorge Guzmán, who had spent the past six years gathering testimony from the survivors of one of the most violent episodes in recent Latin American history: the massacre of a thousand civilians by the Salvadoran army in the village of El Mozote in December 1981.
It was at that fateful time that photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg moved to El Salvador. He went on to cover the darkest years of the conflict, on assignment from Time Magazine. El Salvador was in the early stages of a civil war that would claim more than 75,000 lives; 85% of the casualties have been attributed to the Salvadoran army largely supported by the United States. “You had a government trying to prove that it was right and journalists trying to prove the opposite. It created an interesting dramatic tension,” Nickelsberg recalls.
Leftist rebels were pitched against the Salvadoran military force in a conflict that became a pawn in the Ronald Reagan Administration’s fight against communism: the U.S. strategic interests were more important than human rights. Official lies and coverup were widespread, and American journalists covering the conflict found themselves facing an extremely powerful discrediting machine. One of the New York Times reporters, who revealed the El Mozote massacre, was fired; some journalists faced threats, while others were prevented from reporting. Nickelsberg remembers that “embassy officials did not go to the scene of the massacres and reported only information filtered by Salvadoran officials keen on receiving a steady flow of American aid.”
Forty years later, as victims still await those responsible for the massacre to be brought to justice and demand an apology from the United States for fueling the conflict with the billions of dollars in aid, the photographer revisits his civil war archives in a forthcoming book. From official diplomatic meetings to training of Salvadoran soldiers by Vietnam War veterans, to elections, portraits of the rebels, the rise of right-wing extremist groups, and snapshots of everyday life, Nickelsberg’s images paint the conflict with rich complexity. “The advantage of being there the whole time is that you get an uninterrupted story, you don’t miss anything, you are totally immersed. Over time, you gain better access, you develop friendships and collaborations with local people to capture the subtlety, the nuance, the changing seasons, all of which I think is essential to the story.”
The archive Nickelsberg is compiling today comprises his black and white photos, yet unpublished because at the time color images were in demand. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at these images and found them more interesting than those that did get published. Black and white was much more technically flexible than color, so I always had two cameras on me.” In retrospect, these images tell the other side of the story and bear a troubling resemblance to ongoing crises.
Nickelsberg’s photographs of Salvadoran army training and operations are particularly vivid, with soldiers covered in dirt or wading waist deep across a river. Not to mention that they reveal the military arsenal generously supplied by the United States. The photographs of officials also subtly evoke the U.S. position: at the airport, an armored limousine awaits the arrival of the American Secretary of State, parked as if in a conquered territory. “The question is: what are the symbols of American foreign policy? The great Uncle Sam lands with money and approval. Then there’s a press conference at the airport, held by a special representative of the U.S. State Department, it’s almost like they own the airport. They really made themselves at home,” Nickelsberg comments. Another photo shows Colonel John D. Waghelstein, commander of the U.S. military in El Salvador, at another press conference, a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. As the photographer puts it, “all of these things are indicative of the arrogance of the institution.”
Many of the images reveal what the disinformation machine could not hide: the deaths by the dozen, the torture and its impact on the population. “I always traveled with the Newsweek photographer, because, ideally, you should travel with somebody, in case something happened. Our technique was to set out very early in the morning, after having been informed that a village was under attack. If you got there early enough, the guerrillas would still be in town. But by eight o’clock they would have left, and the military would come in and take over,” he says. Nickelsberg captured some intense images on such mornings: a woman collapsed on the ground, semi-conscious after learning of her brother’s death.
Nickelsberg’s unpublished work sheds light on what it was really like, what worked, and what went wrong. “In the Cold War era, no one took the time to analyze this, to hold themselves accountable for the policies that didn’t work in Vietnam and that were then applied to El Salvador. Most governments are incapable of admitting that they were wrong,” observes Robert Nickelsberg. His archives give access to a story that is not told in history books in the United States, a story that, between the lines, offers insights into the current migration crisis. “The immigration situation in the United States is in some ways a consequence of this civil war which has never been fully resolved. The U.S. are partly responsible for the violence, because they have done nothing at the institutional or humanitarian level to help El Salvador recover from the turmoil.”
By Laurence Cornet
Laurence Cornet is a journalist specializing in photography and photo editor at the daily Le Monde in Paris.
More information about Robert Nickelsberg on his website.