Photographing the Families of Chile’s Disappeared (and How You Can Help)

One of the most vile and insidious ways that Augusto Pinochet’s regime violated human rights was through the use of “disappearance” against people it labeled threats to the state and society. Between 1973 and 1990 (and especially in the first five years of the military dictatorship), the regime forcibly kidnapped and executed over 3,000 bodies, many of which remain unaccounted for even today. The use of these repressive measure meant that the families of thousands of people were left with the heart-breaking duty to try to find out the fates and final resting place of their loved ones, a quest that continues to this day, nearly forty years after the regime began the use of state-sanctioned torture and murder.

Since the late-1980s, photographer Paula Allen has documented the struggles of a group of women in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, where at least twenty-six men’s bodies were buried after the regime summarily murdered them. The women only found bone fragments of some of the bodies in the 1990s, but they continue to gather at Calama every year to clean up the memorials to their husbands and share the burdens that they, as the loved ones of the regime’s victims (and victims in their own right) share. Their search, grief, memorialization, and identity as survivors of the disappeared all get at the heart of the ways that the Pinochet regime still directly affects the lives of its victims, and Allen’s photography does an outstanding job of chronicling the women’s trials and determination even while capturing the other-wordly nature of the Atacama Desert, the “world’s driest place.”

Allen is now trying to publish a book (through the University of Florida’s Press) that will include her photography as it attempts to chronicle the particular lives of a handful of the thousands of people who still suffer from the regime’s actions. However, publishing costs and the tenuous budgets for university presses have made the project difficult to fulfill. As a result, Allen has begun a Kickstarter project to get the work published, and she seeks to reach $10,000 by June 28. (And for those unfamiliar with Kickstarter, the premise simple: there are various donation “levels” that will result in donors getting different things; for example, should somebody donate $25, your name will be included in the acknowledgements of the book and Allen will give you a personal thank you note; for those who contribute $150, you can get an acknowledgement in the book, an autograhped copy of the book, and a 30-minute photography consultation with Allen; etc.) For anybody interested in Latin America, human rights, women’s rights, or just photography, I strongly encourage you to contribute, so that Allen’s work and, more importantly, the story of the women of Calama, can reach a truly global audience.

And if you’re still unpersuaded, I’ll leave you not with one last argument in favor of the project from me, but with one last argument in favor of the project from globally-renowned author (and cousin to Salvador Allende, who Pinochet overthrew) Isabel Allende:

 “In the hallucinatory photographs of Paula Allen, the lunar landscape of northern Chile’s desert stretches toward the horizon like a sea of grief. That arid land is the perfect metaphor for the unremitting pain of the women of the disappeared. Their suffering is that vast, that terrible. The tiny figures of the women with shovels in their hands, scouring that plain baked by a brutal climate, are in these photographs converted into eternal symbols.”

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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