De Cesare: 20 Years On Gangs

For more than two decades, Donna DeCesare photographed gang members and their families in Central America and in refugee communities in the U.S. "Unsettled / Desasosiego" is her bilingual book, featuring those images and the stories of the people she followed. Documentary filmmaker and photographer Mimi Chakarova spoke to DeCesare about the work. With an excerpt from the foreword by Fred Ritchin, author and professor of photography and imaging at NYU.  

"Unsettled resonates with a seminal idea of the English critic John Berger," writes Fred Ritchin, author and professor of photography and imaging at NYU. "Bothered that the London Times could publish nightmarish imagery of the Vietnam War while supporting the conflict on its editorial page, he was eager for a media strategy that deviated significantly from the use of the public, iconic photograph: "The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory... For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial...

"DeCesare's photographs have enabled severely marginalized young people and their families to keep track of each other, and to be reminded of their own histories. Her photographs have also served as memorials. These images have contributed to a family album for those whose lives have been so frequently and drastically interrupted. They have been useful as warnings for some who have thought of joining gangs. And they, along with DeCesare's personal testimony, have informed those working for governments, social service agencies, and schools, both here and in Central America, who have tried to be of some help."

Click here to order the book. 



Documentary photographer and filmmaker Mimi Chakarova spoke to DeCesare about the book.

MC: Much of “Unsettled” is about trauma, the stigma of violence and the consequences of war. You pose a poignant question in your book: “What determines whether suffering is turned toward cruelty, or toward resistance and resilience?” After 20 years of documenting children who, in many cases, are both victims and victimizers have you gotten any closer to the answer?

DD: One thing that I have learned by seeing the real courage of the kids who’ve been able to extract themselves from this is they need to have a strong interior sense of self and to have some control over their destiny.

So many of the kids that I met when I was doing this work told me they knew they were going to die before they were 20 years old. They feel that they’re destined to die. What helps people overcome that? If you feel you’re destined to die, then you have no stake in anything. You are treated cruelly and you will respond with the same level, or perhaps even more intense levels of cruelty, to others. So I really think it comes from seeing examples in your own community of someone who’s able to overcome violence, and finding people who won’t give up on you. In these neighborhoods, kids are really on their own. They’re raising themselves and they’re raising themselves on the streets.

A gang member who wishes to leave gang life tries to comfort his children but he worries about the future because his tattoos make it difficult to find legitimate work. (Guatemala City, 2002.)

MC: The book takes us on a journey through the civil war in Central America in which an estimated 75,000 lives were lost in El Salvador and 200,000 in Guatemala – in both cases the casualties were mostly civilians. Then you take us to Los Angeles in the 1990s where many immigrated during the years of the war. You show us the impact of gangs on immigrant youth through the passage of time. In your last chapter you return to Central America where through personal accounts and your own voice you reveal how there is a new type of war within the social fabric of society. And your journey, as well as your photographs, feels intimate, immediate and personal. What was it like for you as a woman to enter into the lives of these young people? What were your biggest challenges in establishing trust? And tell me more about your personal safety.

DD: One of the advantages I had going into this situation is that I had already covered conflict. I covered Northern Ireland and El Salvador during the war. El Salvador was my journalism school. That’s where I learned how to trust, who to trust, how much to trust, where to be skeptical, how to stay safe and how to think about the safety of the people who entrusted their stories to me. I learned a lot of lessons there. I had that background and that was an advantage. Young kids [in gangs] who are trying to prove themselves are probably the most dangerous element in this panorama. The first thing they think is that you’re a cop: “Why do you wanna take our picture? You are working with the police.” So I would show them my press ID and I could show them photographs I had published from the war in El Salvador in Newsweek or the New York Times with my byline. They were impressed because I had covered the war and I knew about their country and they were curious. There was this kind of bond of being an insider who’s an outsider. Being an outsider meant that it was safe to tell me stuff that they wouldn’t tell someone that was an insider. But I was insider enough that they felt comfortable and they knew I understood something about their country. I approached this work with patience. I got to know their families. I got to know their mothers and made sure I got to know their girlfriends. I wanted to make sure that no one got singled out from my attention. You are constantly looking for ways to reassure people about your intentions.

People’s responses partly create the reality that the kids then project. I remember one time I went with a teacher on a trip across country with a group of the kids that were involved in a gang. We stopped at the Grand Canyon and there was a woman who was a tourist who stopped one of the young men in the group. He’s wearing his bandana and all these colors and this woman stopped him and asked him if he knew how to fix her camera. This kid ran up to us afterwards, his face beaming, and said: “That lady just asked me if I could help her! And like, she wasn’t scared of me, man!” And I realized, that’s it! That mask of anger and defensiveness is because that inner child feels so rejected all the time that that’s what they have to wear to face the world.

MC: Did what you saw lead you to make a conscious decision to use photography and journalism as a tool for social change? You not only witness and record what’s in front of your lens but you also seek action. At what point in your project did you make the decision to distance yourself from the so-called “objective journalism” and is there such a thing, especially considering the subject matter of your work?

DD: On the one hand I don’t think we can be objective in the sense that we’re without feelings or opinions. I think journalists who cut themselves off from their emotions do so at their own peril. When I look back on my own history and the things I witnessed, and reflect on the intuitive feelings that drew me time and time again back to Latin America, I don’t think it would have been possible, or even desirable, to do this work if I wasn’t searching for something greater than facts. If I didn’t see my own family story paralleled in the places I visited, I doubt I could have made any of these photographs.

Having said that, I also think that we can strive to be fair and to understand a point of view that we don’t hold ourselves. It’s difficult and a necessary part of our growth as storytellers to do that. It’s one of our great responsibilities as journalists. I don’t really think it’s possible to be inside the mindset or spirit of another person, but I do see journalism as a bridge – as a way to cross from one reality to another – that can alter your perception but it can also alter perceptions both ways. I found that in the work I did on the streets with young people. I sometimes changed the way they thought about me and the way they thought about themselves too.

I remember once I was talking to a teenage boy just as I had photographed a gang initiation ritual and I must have shuddered or something because he looked at me really surprised and said: “Are you upset?” I said, “I don’t like to see violence.” Then he said to me, “Then why do you photograph us?” And I said to him, “Because that’s not all that I see.” He was amazed that I saw more than just violence. And so we started a conversation.

I often felt when I was doing this work that I was the only adult that these kids had conversations with. They would get a different perspective from someone who wasn’t judging them, someone who was there, documenting them and was accepting them, and yet would show them a point of view that was different from the way they were seeing things. You never know when that kind of an interaction actually touches something in someone and maybe can help change their life. And that’s something that I always was trying to do – model a kind of behavior that would help people trust me, but also make them think about things. I guess I’m a natural teacher in a way.

Near the Modelo Market, local youth initiate a 15-year-old into their clique of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. (San Salvador, 1993.)

MC: I would like to talk about your photos and your selection choices for the book. You focused primarily on children, yet their faces look much older than their age. You also write in your last chapter: “Abuse and neglect can break or harden the will and the heart.” Many of these young people are no longer around to see your work. And while you were photographing them, you must have known that the odds were against them. How did you deal with the heaviness and injustice of such young lives being wasted so carelessly and prematurely?

DD: In the beginning, anger very much fueled me. But later, when it came to actually writing the book, it was my sadness that really propelled me. I relived a lot in writing it. I was struggling a lot with my feelings of deep, deep sorrow at all the lives that had been lost. It’s devastating.

So many times there was a complete sense of impotence. There was nothing I could do. Nobody was going to investigate. They don’t say, “His mother needs justice. We should find who did this.” There is this overwhelming impunity in Guatemala and El Salvador. So of course then young people feel they have no choice but to take the law into their own hands and to retaliate.

I’ve tried to get attention for this issue and I think some of the things that I’ve done have helped people, individuals, but also, some of the NGOs doing this work were influenced early on by my raising the issue. Things started to change a little bit but when I look back at the amount that they’ve changed and the amount of the devastation, there is no comparison. We have to do so much more. If we’ve become a society of people who feel under siege and with enemies everywhere, (and that’s what’s happening – we see these kids in our midst as enemies) we are going to lose the things that made us successful and admired as a society. That’s why I felt that it was really important to tell this story now and in the way I tell it. I’m hoping that it will open people’s eyes to see how this has evolved historically and what kind of responses we need. We need to enforce laws justly. When there is impunity and only justice for some, and others are left out of the equation, there can be no social development or economic development or any of the other things that people aspire to.

There are some statistics I want to read from something I saw at the Children’s Defense Fund. And these are statistics about our country – the United States of America. This is not El Salvador or Central America where things are even much worse.

“Every 19 second a child is arrested in the United States.”

“Every 32 seconds a child is born into poverty. “
“Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected.”
“Every 3 minutes a child is arrested for a drug offense.”
“Every 7 minutes a child is arrested for a violent offense.”
“Every 3 hours and 15 minutes a child or a teenager is killed by a firearm.”

That’s staggering! We allow that to happen in our country! If we treat our own children this way, how do we treat those other children who we do not consider to be our own?!

MC: Titles are important. So is the image you chose as your cover photo. Why Esperanza and why “Unsettled”?

DD: I believe that karma exists. I think that when you open yourself up to other people, you receive in return. And that picture came to me. When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. It was like a miracle. It was a spontaneous moment that I captured while I was waiting several hours to present a 16-year-old teenage boy, who had been paralyzed in a drive-by shooting, with the very first birthday cake he ever had in his life. I tell a more complete story in the book but Esperanza is clutching a pigeon, or in Spanish the word is paloma, which means “dove,” and yet there is a gun on the bed beside her. It was so astonishing – that juxtaposition. And of course it’s an image that’s unsettling because it’s deeply ambiguous. This stark contrast between what’s lethal and what’s innocent and precious in every child is what is most disturbing about the image. I felt that it’s a powerful image – this tremendous gift – and it has that sort of tension I wanted.

Then I was trying to think of what kind of title, what word, would capture that same feeling. I wanted something that was subtle, because in many ways when I began this work I was shocked all the time. I was completely shocked by the terrible realities that so many of these children and young people faced. But it seems that there has been a kind of numbing effect and we need ever-greater levels of shock in order to draw our attention to things. Poverty and impoverishment have been so demonized that it’s almost a reflexive expectation that the lives of some children will be filled with violence. So we kind of accept that almost as normal now. And as a result we fear those children. I wanted to capture both in the title and the image a penetrating sense of unease with all of that. The word “unsettled” also has many meanings. It means “uneasy”; it means “unresolved.” It can mean “uprooted,” “lacking stability,” “deep anxiety,” “unpaid debts”…

The children in the book bear the legacy of a war, which, despite ending through negotiation, left many of the original causes of the war unsettled. So their lives were uprooted by migration. They faced anxiety as a result of their immigration status when they got to the United States and also as a result of the crime and poverty in the neighborhoods where they grew up. I wanted the viewer to see and feel this and to also feel unsettled by the stereotypes and dismissive ways that we have treated these children growing up in our midst.

Jessica Diaz embraces her mother Carmen and her son Carlos at the end of the visiting day at the California Youth Authority facility where she is serving a sentence for drug-related robbery. (Ventura, California, 1994.)

MC: In Fred Ritchin’s foreword he reflects on your work and how an in-depth project like yours “often involves enormous amounts of time and passion, and a nearly obsessive dedication to one’s often unsanctioned role as witness.” What was the driving force behind your dedication to document these children’s lives over so many years?

DD: For me, photography feels like it’s a form of self-portraiture. We project our fears. We unveil our souls. We show the world who we are by what we are looking at and what we are drawn to. It’s very revealing of the photographer.

I come from a family of immigrants on both sides of my family… people who were working class – Irish and Italian peasants. They came to America seeking a better life so I really responded to the immigrant dreams of the people who came from Central America escaping from the terrible violence they fled. I’m the first one in my family that was able to go to college... My grandfather raised his family in neighborhoods controlled by the Italian Mafia. They extorted businesses in the neighborhood. And, according to my father, grandpa always refused to pay and the family had to move three or four times while my father was in school. My father was left back in school because they moved so much.

We are a nation of immigrants. We all have such stories in our backgrounds. So why can’t we have a compassionate view of what people are going through now and try to work with them?

MC: In your introduction you state: “The process of self-reflection alters purpose and motivation.” Can you elaborate? Do you mean that the deeper you enter a story the less it becomes just a story?

DD: The story changes you. If our thinking didn’t change with time, it would become stagnant. I’m dealing with people’s lives—people that I come to know, and that I develop a sense of affection for… and in some cases I follow their stories for a number of years so it’s impossible not to have an emotional investment in their lives. I found that I was drawn into the individual stories of people much more intimately. Some of them seemed to me to be like Greek tragedies. The story of Edgar Bolaños – his father disappeared during the war, he witnessed a military massacre, his brother is killed in a gang incident in Los Angeles and then he takes his brother’s gang name, he writes “Rest in Peace” on his back and the name of his brother that then he adopts. It kind of becomes a memorial of his own future death because Edgar too was killed. It reminds one of Sophocles. Those personal stories, as I saw how they were unfolding, drew me deeply and emotionally and I just couldn’t let go. I felt like I had to go on and continue.

MC: Donna, you say, “Sometimes knowing when to put the camera down is as important as knowing when to photograph.” How important was it for you to respect these boundaries?

It’s a question of what is important to show. It’s also a question of doing no harm to your subject. You can do emotional harm by taking a picture and if it’s not a picture that people really have to see, if it’s a picture that we can describe in words instead, then maybe that picture doesn’t need to be taken. Turning away, putting the camera down, listening to someone and really sharing a moment sometimes is much more important than making a picture of it.

MC: Your book is bilingual. English and Spanish share every page. Who is your ideal audience? And whom would you like this project to serve the most? Also, can you tell me about your website, Destiny’s Children.

I started out wanting people in the United States to understand the impact and the consequences of those counter insurgency wars that we waged by proxy as well as all the brutality that we ignored – the human rights abuses that occurred, you know, under our watch and with our complicity and sense of covering up as well. But as I worked on the U.S. side of the story and got closer to the young people that I was documenting, I realized they needed this history too and that many of the photographs that I would give them were like family album photographs. Photographers often give people they work with photographs as a way to say thank you but I started to see this as really creating an alternate history that could serve the needs of the young people to understand what happened. So many times they would tell me, “My parents won’t talk to me about the war. I don’t know why there was a war in El Salvador. Why are Salvadorans such violent people?” (Because that was the stereotype that others would tell them about themselves.) So I really felt that I wanted to collect personal and collective histories, and that the audience was not just a U.S. audience or a U.S. immigrant audience anymore. As I became involved in efforts to raise issues of gang awareness and a response to gangs in El Salvador, I felt that I really wanted to leave something for a historical record so we can all see where we had been and what had gone wrong. And I also teach photojournalism workshops to Latin American journalists and students and I really wanted this to be bilingual because the audience for the book is young people – young people who want to become journalists and storytellers; and young people who are living these experiences and seeking points of reference to understand their own history.

Destiny’s Children is part of that quest. When I did that website I wanted to tell the stories that connected to that larger historical framework and also provide some practical resources on the website. You know, if you are in El Salvador or Guatemala and you have a tattoo and you want to get rid of it because you want to be able to get a job and change your life, I wanted to make sure that those programs that offer those services were known. I created the website so that it would be a home for individual and shared history and a site where people who wanted help or wanted to do something could find points of contact.

MC: Every documentarian has an ideal wish for what she or he would like to see happen with the work, especially after 20 years of such dedication to the issue of how war, gangs, violence and trauma impact the youth. What is your wish for this work? And your ultimate goal?

DD: I really want people to see the connections and that this needs a holistic approach. This can’t be solved with education alone or law enforcement alone or a handful of afterschool programs for violence prevention. It needs a response that addresses violence using the public health model-- as something that we have to confront and prevent using all of the tools in our toolkit. We really have to show that we care. This and the importance of giving young people a voice and a sense of possibility is perhaps the most crucial message of the book.