Acclaimed photojournalist’s new book chronicles her coverage of civil wars, gang violence in Central America

By Alejandro Martínez

Last month Donna DeCesare, an award-winning photojournalist and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, released her bilingual book Unsettled/Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gangs. The book is both a memoir and a collection of her photographs documenting the impact of civil wars and gangs on young people in Central America and the United States.

Her photographs, taken between 1987 and 2009, capture with great empathy the trauma and resilience of decades of turmoil in Central America, the evolution and spread of gang culture from the streets of Los Angeles to the shanty towns of El Salvador, and the poignant lives of disadvantaged children and teenagers trying to find their place in a world sunk in violence.

Unsettled/Desasosiego has been featured in Mother JonesLa OpiniónBBC Mundo and the New York Times. Most recently, DeCesare’s photography was included in the traveling exhibition "War / Photography."

DeCesare recently sat with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas to talk about some of the pictures in her book and her work during those years.

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Knight Center: This book collects your photographs covering gangs in Central America and the United States but you’ve mentioned this book is about you. How is that so?

Donna DeCesare: This work is what I devoted my life to and it collects my experiences in the streets as a young photographer, but I reveal a lot about myself in the anecdotes I chose to tell. I was a young war photographer when I went to El Salvador and right at the beginning of that experience I made choices that put me in a closer communion with people.

KC: Can you show us a picture that captures that?

DD: For example, Adela. I have a picture of her in the first chapter.

That's not her gun but she used to be with the guerrilla, she was a child soldier. That’s her little boy.

She was my housekeeper. I hired her because a nun I visited told me she needed a job and even though I did not want to hire a maid I could not rent a home without one. You know, there was one part of me, the journalist, that wondered about the wisdom of hiring someone who'd been a child soldier with the guerrilla.

But I trusted her. She was very genuine and respectful. I helped her get educated, and later she got political asylum in Canada.

In that sense the book is about me. In this book I’m revealing about my relationship to the people I met, and it reveals something about my working process as well.

KC: What’s going on in this picture?

DD: This is a really interesting picture as visual ethnography; it’s something that someone who studies the culture of street children would appreciate.

First of all, this is an image from 1993, so it’s right in the beginning when kids started being deported from L.A. So the first wave of deportees had come and the U.S.-influenced gangs were just starting up.

And so these street kids were at a protest that turned violent, something that would happen in El Salvador all the time. Somebody started burning a tire and the kids all gathered becoming part of the scene.

What I really found interesting was that they tied their shirts around their faces, creating a mask in much the same way that student protesters did during the 1980s in El Salvador because they were targeted by the military.

They’re using a kind of visual strategy and symbolism from the war years, and yet when you look at their pants, they’re wearing them low, showing the top of their underwear. It's the homeboys’ style that they've seen from the deportees. So the image is the site of two different forms of protest, if you choose to read it that way, coming together in this group of young children. They've already been exposed to gang members, and they've also been exposed to the culture of protest from the past.

KC: Can you tell us about gaining access to these gang members’ circles and the degree of danger involved?

DD: In any situation you go into there’s risk. For me it's a question of managing your fear, of being willing to take risks. I think that when you’re honest with people, that's the best way.

KC: How does that apply to this picture, for example?

When I was getting to meet these young people, of course they first thought I was a cop. Somebody with a camera wants to take their picture? "Oh my God, it’s probably the police.” That’s the last thing they wanted.

So I needed to prove to them that I wasn't a police officer. How do you prove that? I could show them my press ID, I could show them published pictures in magazines like Newsweek with my byline, I could show them I was in El Salvador during the war and had photographed both  the army and the guerillas. And they’d say “wow!” and want to know more about me. When they were curious about me I was honest about myself, I was honest about why I was interested in them, and they would open up. I also was thoughtful about how I made images. Photographs can suggest things that may differ from the way the people in the situation see things. I would choose camera angles and use depth of field to obscure identities while revealing something about the situations of potential violence in which these young people find themselves.

The other thing I’d say is that I’d always be clear and honest about my reaction. Another time I was taking a picture of a gang initiation.

When kids are initiated into the gangs, it’s only 30 seconds or so, but a group of young people pummels and kicks and really beats up another kid, and this is part of the hazing ritual. It’s noteworthy that both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan military  also had and may still have violent hazing rituals with young soldiers.

So I took the picture, and afterward I was kind of shaking my head and shuddered. Then one of the kids who sat next to me said, “wasn't that great?” And I said, “you know, I took pictures but I really don't think that's great, I feel so sad for that guy you were beating up on.”

And he said, “but Donna, if you don't like violence, why do you like us?” That’s what he asked me. And I said to him, “because that’s not the only thing I see, I see a lot more. Violence is a part of your life, but you can choose not to let violence  define who you are.”

I felt that the conversation we started afterwards was absolutely as important as my taking the picture. By staying there and hanging out with them and talking with them honestly, not in a judgmental way, I was able to be a point of reference to a different world and different way of seeing things that they were not exposed to.

My pictures may not change the world, they may not stop gangs, but the experiences that I had on the ground with some of the kids  who survived… I know that knowing me made a huge difference in some of their lives.

KC: You knew closely many of the young people in these pictures, most of whom I understand have died or are behind bars. Was it emotionally draining to put together this book?

DD: This was a difficult book to do, I have to be honest. Many of the pictures were taken 10-20 years ago. I waited in part so that the emotional heat and the traumatic impact would be less immediate for the young people and their families, and so I wouldn't put anyone in danger. But I also felt that I needed to have time to reflect on what is a very painful and difficult history that connects the U.S. and Central America in morally complex ways that continue.

When I sat down to write I knew I was going have to be ready to relive terrible things in order to pull out the memories that I felt would make a contribution to current debates about guns and immigration and foreign policy placing where we are now in a historical context. But it was hard, even with some distance. I worked a lot in the early years to try to get attention for the issue with NGOS and others.  In doing the book I had to confront that question about proportion and change. Just think about all the waste of these young lives which should be so full of potential. It’s terrible, it’s tragic and it is a social crime.

Witnessing the cumulative impact in the lives of people you know, it does tear at you at a different level. Carlos Ingles, the way his life ended, it was gruesome. They found pieces of him in a garbage bag. His brother was the one who called me to tell me. And I tried so hard to help Carlos.

The cumulative impact of such loss and criminal social neglect... sometimes it makes me very angry, and anger can be a positive motivating force. But if it goes inward, it can make you feel impotent and depressed, really deeply depressed. I was afraid of reliving it all, but when I thought about how much harder it is for the families who have lost their children and the role that misconceived politics has played I also felt a tremendous responsibility.

As a society we must remember, we have to pay attention. Although many of my photographs show people I documented 10 or 15 years ago the legacy of this violence influences violence that is happening every day, in all our cities, and in Latin America every day. The devastation of our youth is greater than before in many places. We have to do something about it. I felt it was really important to show the scope of the devastation and to include one or two anecdotes to show that there are other alternatives if we as a society choose them.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.