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Donna DeCesare is a documentary photographer, author, and educator known for her conflict work in Central America, and the spread of gangs between Latin America and the US. Her new book Unsettled / Desasosiego: Children in a World of Gang a memoir of thirty years covering gang members and their families. She is the recipient of the 2013 Maria Moors Cabot Prize for her work in Latin American.

Pavon Prison Guatemala
A gang member in an isolation cage–located in a special unit for prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates.

Tell me about your beginning in photography.
The first pictures I made were with my dad in the darkroom developing photos of my grandfather. I don’t tell that story a lot. I was five and my grandfather had passed away before I was born. I was the first grandchild and I was named for him. He was Donato DeCesare and I was Donna DeCesare. That’s how I met my grandfather in the ether of developer. It was magical. Every photographer talks about that, about seeing the image come up, but to have my namesake come up in the chemistry, that was special. And he was from southern Italy and he had a garden – it was a picture of him with his tomato plants. I remember it very well.

After that it (photography) became a hobby. My dad bought me my first camera. I took pictures when we went on vacations. It was a way of escaping. I read books and took pictures to escape from the chaos that was my childhood.

I loved my grandmother’s stories. I loved to listen. I was curious. My cousins called me “Nosy-Parker” because they thought I parked my nose in other people’s business. That was the beginning of my interest and approach in stories. I was five visiting my relatives. They were my family, but I didn’t know them. I had permission to be there and ask questions even though they were strangers.

And then I went to graduate school. I studied English Literature. I thought I was going to be a college professor. But I went to northern Ireland with a few friends at Christmas, and I started taking pictures there and it was different. These weren’t snapshots anymore. It was really what’s going on in the streets in the world. Why can’t this friend not go to the home of the other friend? Because they were from different sides of the conflict. I had studied Irish literature. Everything to do with Ireland was interesting to me. Not just the conflict. The street kids, all the aspects of life, the fallout from the conflict, but also the things that partly caused it.

I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class.

I came back to the US and worked in book publishing for a couple of years, because with a literature degree that ‘s what you do. After that experience in Northern Ireland I knew I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower. I wanted to be in the world doing stuff with real people, people who were not just from the elite class. I filed that away, but I also thought I’ll never make a living at this. So I worked in publishing because what else would you do with a literature degree? I saved up my vacation time every year. We got 3 weeks of vacation and 2 weeks of sick leave, and I never got sick, and took 5 weeks and went to Northern Ireland to photograph and write and sell my pictures. After doing that a couple of times I was convinced that was what I really wanted to do.

I tell my students this all the time…no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry.

I did take one class with Fred Ritchin the first year ICP offered a program. I took a workshop with Gilles Peress. Apart from that I was totally self-taught. Fred told me at some point that if you’re serious about this you just have to go. I quit my job and he was horrified when I told him, but it was the best decision I could ever have made. And I tell my students this all the time, when you’re young, no matter how bad the economic situation is – don’t be worried about security when you’re 20, you’ve got your whole life to worry. Now is when you should take risks and find what you’re passionate about.

The moment when I quit I was designing book covers. I was the associate art director, so when I left I was still freelancing book cover design. I was photographing writers because I knew a lot of them through my job with Penguin. I photographed Irish musicians. I started photographing for the Irish Echo, a newspaper that focused on Irish Americans and Irish immigrants. I was writing and photographing from the beginning.

In the course of doing a story for the Irish newspaper, I met some refugees in a sanctuary church in California that some Irish-American nuns ran and that was how I got interested in Central America. Life is such a journey, and I tell my students this too, you meet people and then you take different turns in the road.

El Salvador / Honduras border, El Poy, El Salvador, 1988
Salvadoran families make their way to the the village of Guarjila in a caravan of buses, after leaving the Mesa Grand refugee camp in Honduras.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

What was it that resonated so much with you?
I was engaged in Northern Ireland because there was a lot of injustice in the situation. The British were not behaving very well. And in Central America the United States was involved. These people were telling me horrifying stories. And our government is supporting this? Can they be, really? I wanted to see for myself.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart.

I met a woman who was going by the name Monica at the time. When I was done with the story and leaving she looked me straight in the eyes and said “Donna, please don’t forget my people.” That got into my heart. She gave me a bookmark with Msgr. Romero, the bishop that was killed in El Salvador. And she had written that on it as well. “Donna, please don’t forget my people.”

A year later I went to see the show at ICP that Susan Meiselas and Harry Mattison had put together and then I found that bookmark and I felt like somebody is telling me that I should go there. It was a message. Somehow in my heart that was really what I wanted to do.

I went to Costa Rica first because I didn’t speak Spanish fluently. I didn’t want to go to a country at war without speaking the language. I spent six months in Costa Rica. I traveled to Nicaragua and stayed in villages. That’s how I learned Spanish. I learned it in high school, but I was not fluent. I could read it but couldn’t speak or understand. I was hopeless at other aspects of it. I really learned by immersion.

San JosŽ Las Flores, Chalatenango El Salvador, 1988
Children mingle with insurgents in the rebel-held territory.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1988

At any point did you doubt yourself, that this is what you wanted to do?
I really didn’t. I was on an adventure. I was meeting indigenous people in Costa Rica. I was doing stories, too. I started stringing for the Christian Science Monitor. I spent some time in a village in Nicaragua as well. I would go back for weddings and stuff.

This was a village where some of the population were in the army fighting the contras up north. It was quiet and safe there, but you could see the effects of the war on the village. And I felt, and this is funny because it’s completely different, an indigenous village really, but I felt everything about their life was like the stories my Italian grandmother told me about growing up in southern Italy. They carried water on their heads in italy too from the well. Gathered wood for cook fires. They slaughtered animals.

I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time.

My grandmother was the youngest and her father let her hang out with the boys, she was the shepherd and went out with the animals. So, here I am in this village where people were doing these things that were the same rituals described to me. They looked different because of the setting, but were so reminiscent of the stories I heard from my grandmother I felt like I was in my grandmother’s life, going back in time. I was soaking that up and loving photographing it. And I gained confidence in my Spanish too. At first you’re embarrassed, you know, but people are kind and peasants are not judgmental. They were just so happy I was trying. When I said something right they would applaud. So I gained confidence and I had my first dreams in Spanish, so I was starting to think in the language as well.

Ventura, California, 1994
At the end of visiting day at the California Youth Authority facility where she is serving a sentence for drug related robbery, sixteen-year-old Jessica Diaz embraces her mother, Carmen, and her son, Carlos.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1994

What came next?
I moved to El Salvador. That was challenging at first, too. Before I had gone to Central America, I went to see editors in New York. I had been working for a lot of different of people. I had a pretty good portfolio from northern Ireland. So I went to Robert Stevens at TIME magazine, I went to see Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine and people back then would make an appointment and talk to you. I got to talk to all of them despite being a nobody photographer. There were no promises. All of them said, “Stay in touch. Here’s our number. If you get anything call us and we’ll take a look.” I was just happy I had been able to see them in person.

When I got down to Central America it was a question of learning the country. One of the ways we found work was networking with other reporters. You meet the people at the wire services because they always know what’s happening. You do your own research and reporting. I reached out to NGOs like UNICEF. And then at the hotel you meet the reporters that fly in. They needed a fixer – someone who knew the story, knew the country, had contacts and could take the photographs. It helped that the editors remembered me from my visit to New York. Even though there was a lot of competition, it was the hot spot of the time.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together.

Little by little getting to know people, I began piecing it together. I worked for a photo agency that was wonderful, committed to issues, but not good at business. Impact Visuals, I was part of that cooperative. They got my film developed and then when things did heat up I was called on when contract photographers weren’t available. I did a lot of work for newspapers, magazines, and der Spiegel used me a lot. They loved my work. The photo editor used to say to me, “I know we mostly want head shots of politicians, that’s what we run in the magazine, but we love being able to support a photographer like you by giving you this assignment that then you can do this other work.”

How did the gang war come into it?
The first gang member I met in my life was in El Salvador. He was a young man who was HIV positive and had been deported from Los Angeles. He was from the 18th street gang. He had tattoos, and I had never seen anyone in El Salvador with tattoos so he stood out. Tattoos are now a Salvadorian phenomenon, but back then it was a Los Angeles thing.

We talked and he told me about how he grew up and his mother had tried to prevent him from getting into the war, so she took him to LA where he had gotten involved in a gang because they beat him up at school. Then he got involved with drugs, selling and using. He claims he got HIV from getting tattoos in prison, but he also was an IV drug user.

I filed that in the back of my mind, because he said you should go to LA. “Everyone there is in a gang.” And I thought, that can’t be true. There are 800,000 Salvadoreans in LA and I’m sure they’re not all gang members.

I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues.

But I remembered what he said and after the war ended I was facing a choice. Some editors thought I should go to Yugoslavia because that was the next conflict. My colleagues in Central America were headed there, but I didn’t see myself as primarily a conflict photographer. I care about conflict itself but conflict where I have some knowledge and deep connection to the issues. I felt like there were other people already doing that. Maybe for them the situation in Yugoslavia, because of their ethnicity, their connection to that place, and the language, would be more meaningful for them. I felt it’s Europe so it’s going to get covered. I thought what I really want to do is see what happens to the people after the war, to the diaspora community.

And I did try to pitch stories about Latino’s in New York early on and it really was just too early for that to be on editor’s radar screens. To me it was overwhelming. I lived in China Town and when I came back every Chinese restaurant has mestizo speaking Mexicans from Oaxaca and Puebla working in the kitchens. If Chinese restaurants are employing these people they are the cheapest labor in New York, cheaper even than family members. To me this was a big story, but it was a hidden story, a subtle story. It was too early. I tend to see things before it becomes a big story.

Pico Union, Los Angeles, 1994
Ivonne reads a letter from her gang-involved boyfriend after his deportation to El Salvador.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare,1994

You sound confident that staying local and not going to the next conflict was the right move for you. Were you that confident at the time?
I was worried about making ends meet. A friend invited me to go to Cairo. I had applied for a Dorothea Lange grant for the gang work, and it takes months for them to decide. I felt like I needed a change. Three or four days after I bought my ticket to Cairo, the first Wold Trade Center bombing happened. So I was going to Egypt. I was walking into a situation again where people were already covering things. I could stay with my friend and could get a lot of work. I stayed for three or four months. It was wonderful to deal with a different culture and I worked with translators for the first time. It was exciting and I loved it. Working with a translator works for some people, but for me it’s important to listen first. When you listen intently, you look intently.

Jocotenango, Guatemala 2001
A Holy Week procession passes village walls marked with the graffiti of the gang that dominates the zone.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2001

Tell more more about looking intently.
Everyone is so distracted with devices these days. They (students) skim and pull threads together quickly, but they miss a lot of things. People know when you’re not really present. When you give quality attention, people can tell. Everyone has a different way of doing things, but this is my ethos.

When you listen intently, you look intently.

I look first for points of connection to establish the relationship. I’m not someone who goes looking for the exotic to turn my eyes on. The exotic attracts attention, it’s shocking, it grabs us, but it also “other”izes, it distances. I’m looking for ways to make us relate, so people think this story, these people are part of our world, too.

People can’t be reporters without observing what’s going on around them, in the present moment, and give themselves fully. It’s like they all need to practice yoga and being mindful and present. I try to teach this with assignments. I have students do a soundscape of Guadalupe Street, telling the story in sounds. A lot of the reporting these days looks like music videos – it’s voice over with images and canned music.

They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Documentary is all about the uncontrollable. You have to pull the story out of life unscripted. You let the story come to you. All of that means you have to be comfortable with the unscripted. It feels like kids are branding from the womb these days. Where is the imagination? If we deny kids the space and time for that, if they are under the microscope of peer group and adults, they don’t have a place to fail spectacularly and learn. They want recipes and formulas. “Show me what an ‘A’ looks like”. Everything for them is rubrics and metrics. They’re losing the capacity to approach the intangible. That’s what I try to do in my teaching and it makes them wildly uncomfortable.

Guatemala / Mexico border, Talisman, Guatemala, 2002
Deported U.S. gang members seeking to return to the United States populate border towns along the migrant route and influence children who live in them.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2002

Tell me about collecting the work together for the book.
It’s had many iterations. It started in 1999 with the Mother Jones Award. The Soros award was to put the work on a website. The core stories for the website were done in 2005-2006. We did it in HTML and then updated them in Flash, that was a mistake.

In 2010, I published the full site with core stories, timelines, and connections with NGO’s working with these same issues. The website, Destiny’s Children, is 197 pages long. I want to find someone who knows HTML5 and keep it updated. Maybe pair with an NGO who would work with students or interns to continue the storytelling. I want to be a resource for educators because it’s history. I want to keep young people engaged in their history. The website tells four stories. Two where people successfully leave the gangs and two where people didn’t get out. (Spoiler alert) They died in the process.

The book then was telling my own story, my life. Connecting the dots between my concerns covering conflict and childhood trauma in war and what happens afterwards. We know a lot now about what children need. If they don’t get help with trauma, it sticks with them the rest of their lives. I saw the immediate impact of trauma on kids – child soldiers, the maimed and orphaned.

As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I came to LA, to the gangs, and these traumas were what the gang members wanted to talk about. These kids came to LA as undocumented refugees. There were no psychologists in the schools to help them. The wound is still there and if it doesn’t heal it comes up elsewhere. As macho as these gangs were, it was a “brotherhood of suffering,” their mechanism for dealing with trauma.

I wanted to write about that process to model for the next generation of photographers how you do this. How to make sure you’re safe and that you ensure the safety of the people you’re covering.

San Salvador, El Salvador, 2009
At a leadership training workshop on gender rights, a group of young women from one of the most impoverished and violent barrios, lists their suggestions for how to reduce violence in Salvadoran society.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 2009

What else do the next generation of photographers need?
People want to go off and do good in other places. I went to places with a deep, almost familial connection. Even if your motivation is human rights, be more invested in the work. The media is more democratized and available. The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

The voiceless now have cameras and tape recorders. They might need a bridge to the mainstream, but we need to include them as active agents in their own stories.

There’s a project I worked on in Colombia, Desearte Paz project of the Colombo Americano in Medellin Colombia. The idea was to bring an artist to work with local students on an issue close to them. We have an academic conference of sorts about it and then create. It was transformative for me. A group of teens who were in a youth photography group, and art students who thought photojournalism was “porno miseria”. They produced an amazing piece. Even the conceptual art students found the experiential component was important.

Portadown, Northern Ireland 1984
When the Orange Order loyalist group attempted to march through the Catholic Nationalist neighborhood known as “the tunnel” they were repelled by the community. Rioting broke out spreading thoughout the city and this woman fled her home.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1984

Any advice for young photographers wanting to do this kind of work?
Start in your own community. They will hold you accountable for the quality of your reporting. No matter where we go we have to have ethical discussions about the work, how it affects local people, and the issue at large. Students learn to be good journalists by practicing in their own community. They will be challenged by their editors and the people they cover. Students see what wins awards, and are eager to do that work, but they need to learn here first. Injustice exists here, too. Once you have the skills and have learned to be responsible, you take that with you. Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Also know who you are. One of the assignments I give my students is to do an autobiography in photos. Self-exploration of your experiences and how that affects their photography.

My brother was in a bad accident when I was a child and sustained a head injury. I was the one to tell my parents to stop the car. It forced me to grow up emotionally. In some ways my need to photograph kids who are marginalized comes from that experience, of watching him struggle. If you are conscious of yourself earlier it helps drive you. Get in the habit of thinking about your past experiences early in life and connect it to what you’re doing now.

Main street America is the world in a microcosm. You can report on the world, by reporting on your community.

Students today are missing a sense of history. I don’t know if it’s the education system. They’re so focused on the future. This attitude of: You have to get to the next thing first if you want to win. It’s destructive. At UT we have so many resources – The HRC, the Benson Latin American Collection, the Briscoe Center for American History, the LBJ Library. These places contain information and artifacts that can’t be found on Wikipedia.

Why is the Cabot such an important award for you?
This award is meaningful for me. This is the Pulitzer for covering Latin America. It used to be that every New York Times bureau reporter who stayed there for more than five years got one. It used to be white men, gray-haired, emanances from Harvard and Yale would hand this thing out, but there’s been a switch. Now it’s a network of journalists from American and Latin America judging this. There’s still an emphasis on the word, but Meiselas got it before me. I hope this marks a shift in recognizing photography for the award. It’s humbling. A great honor. It’s the most gratifying award to win. I feel so very proud and happy. I’m being honored, not as the gringa journalist, but I’m of both places and embraced by both places.

El Playon, El Salvador 1988
Salvadoran peasants displaced by the war survive day to day by sifting through the refuse of others in a place that was notorious as a death squad body dump just a few years earlier. One day they hope it will be safe to return to farm their abandoned cornfields.
Copyright © Donna De Cesare, 1988

What does it mean to be a woman in photojournalism?
When you’re at the top of your game you’re kind of an “honorary man”. Sexism is complicated to show and prove.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up?

When you look at the spectrum of women in the industry, a lot of female newspaper photographers have families. Those that cover the world are fully present to the work and that inhibits relationships.

I tell my students to look at photographers’ whose work you admire. Then look at the photographers’ whose lifestyle you covet. Do these two things line up? Not always and you have to be proactive to make anything work.

I still think that men have an easier time flying around because the wife is taking care of the home front. It’s not an impossible idea to have both, but it’s a balancing act. To deny that isn’t being realistic. Some female photographers become editors as a way to stay connected to the work and world they love and have the stability to have a family. What’s not to like about that?

What comes next?
I’m speaking about the book and the Cabot. I have a fledgling project with sociology students at UT about Latin America. It will be nice to explore countries I haven’t been to or worked in. A lot of it will be about things that have happened in the past and the relationship between memory and landscape. Maybe I’ll flop but it’s always about trying.

You can read (and hear) more about Donna and her groundbreaking work in this article from the Texas Observer. Some of Donna’s work is on display this month as part of FotoSeptiembre at La Peña in Austin. Donna will also give a lecture and book signing at the Harry Ransom Center on September 26, 2013.

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