Changing the Conversation
Walking in demonstrations taking photos can be filled with tension as there is us with a cause opposing them. Nerves are frayed. Group think dominates. I had participated in demonstrations in Washington during the Vietnam war. Things could go wrong, but we were young and naive and in our own culture, still confident that democracy provided some ground rules. But walking in a demonstration in a war zone, in this case, the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, where the army had gunned down Archbishop Romero coming from the sanctuary of the church after mass, made it far more dangerous to attempt to find voice.
We were three photo journalists, entering the march: NYT, Christian Science Monitor, freelance guy and me, with my Nikon. 100,000 city protestors walked down the asphalt boulevard waving red flags and banners tied with string on sticks. The only sound was a swishing of pants and scuffing of sandals, like a chorus of wading birds. They wore ragged shirts and their faces were covered with red or blue bandanna triangles tied behind their heads of black hair. It was a quiet march.
We walked along lifting our cameras, turning left or right, walking backwards, zooming in on a worn brown hand with a missing finger or a group pulling up their bandanas as they stepped into the march as we passed. We caught the images on our film of turned over cars and buses blocking every side street and at some corners we snapped the dark tanks, hummers and military trucks stopped behind the turned over cars and the soldier boys in dark green uniforms and WWII helmets aiming rifles at the boulevard. We zoomed even more to snap the images of the soldiers lying on the roofs of three story buildings angling their rifles down at us.
At about the third block we heard the whisper of chanting. The volume turned into a lyrical song. The song turned into thousands of voices becoming one carrying 100,000 campesinos in traditional simple white field pants and shirts with wide brimmed straw hats and red bandanas tied at the neck. They were mingling from a side street into the boulevard having marched half the night from the countryside, joining arms with the 100,000 quiet city marchers. Everyone sang and the song became a flood drowning the soldiers, the tanks, hummers and transport trucks.
We marched on the rising tide four more blocks till we flowed into the plaza of our destination to take back the Social Security building where the military had killed and wounded hundreds of strikers trying to go back to work the day before.
The soldiers formed a human chain blocking the building. Rigid, they stood at parade attention, legs apart, eyes front, the rifle butts on the ground, their fingers balancing the barrels loosely in front of their bodies. No military leadership emerged. They stood still. The demonstrators formed an opposing line on the other side of the plaza and piled into all the crevices leading into the plaza and into the surrounding buildings, on their roofs, and in the trees.
The soldiers were as ice sculptures, silent when the demonstrators climbed on each others shoulders and spoke of high ideals and freedom and truth and made concrete demands for several minutes. The soldiers remained a rigid wall of billowy leg pants tucked into calf high brown thick boots, long sleeve shirts held in by brown belts with small oval buckles, with dark turtle back shaped helmets on their heads. They balanced their rifles. They were statues in olive green, elbow to elbow.
The demonstrators rustled about, piled up tires and set them aflame, chanted, danced, played music, sang to the statues.
I walked forward with the zoom out and snapped at four soldiers. Safe. I tip toed a few more steps forward and aimed directly at two soldiers and took their photo. Safe. I bent forward a little and gripping my camera, moved in on the one soldier at the end of the line and snapped his full body. Safe. The demonstrators were carrying on behind me. I crouched, legs spread and inching about, camera gripped and aimed. Snap, his hands to the top of his helmet. Snap, the top of the rifle to his helmet. Snap. his face and helmet. Snap, his face, zoom in, his eyes to his lips. Safe. Tip toe to the side. Snap, his profile, dark eyelashes, his vacant eyes, as if I weren’t there. Safe. Shorten the lens and capture the image down the row till they looked short at the other end. Snap, snap, snap. Zoom in a few bursts at his face and eyes again. He could slam me with his rifle butt. Backing up towards burning tires, the shouting protestors, people picking up rocks, milling, moving closer as I backed farther away. Safe. Drop the camera to my side. I don’t see my friends.
I stand there thawing from my tension, looking down, fiddling with my camera settings, thinking I might head to the back of the crowds down one of the side streets. And then like an eerie vacuum before a tsunami when everyone is looking around puzzled, feeling change, not registering it yet, people start stirring, bumping into each other, dropping things, scattering, then running. Scuffles from the other side of the plaza, the shoulder to shoulder ice sculpture of frozen soldiers is on fire, leaping out of the ice, not melting. People are falling, shouting, scrambling. I tear out, blind, white liquid into a carport garage under a building. I come crashing to elevator doors closing. The crowd within not stopping the doors for me. I only see their eyes pretending I am not there.
Soldiers are rounding the corner into the garage. I dive for a car, my Nikon shattering on the cement before I land on top of it and wiggle under. No breath, it is occupied by fear swelling through my chest. I lay rigid. Did they see me? They are yelling and zig zagging around the carport, butting rifles against the elevator doors, smashing car windows and tail lights, and darting like flies and frothing like hyenas. Till one points to the stairs and they all charge up.
I lay there in terror. If I crawled out, would another bunch fly around the corner? If they didn’t, where would I go? And wherever that was, where would they be? So I stayed.
When I flew out of San Salvador for Nicaragua a few days later, I reflected on that day. I questioned formulas or truths about how to resolve issues of blatant injustices. I thought of one path: demonstrations with photo documentation. They give voice and hope, change the conversation, one word at a time, while we negotiate through the contradictions and differences of opinion and rule of law and constitutions and clandestine back room deals.