Saturday, January 06, 2007

¡Mi Comandante Se Queda!


Much has been written in the North American media about the shift to the Left in Latin America, but I for one have been left wondering whether the recent elections in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua constitute a coherent shift, or whether some other factors are at work which have escaped the pundits. I think there are very few North Americans who understand the nature of Latin American politics, the authoritarian traditions that are so deeply embedded here and which consistently hinder the development of stable democratic institutions, as well as the lasting influence of Spanish colonialism, its social organization, which places family and clan at the center and the larger social good at the periphery, and the lasting psychic effects of the institution of slavery, whether it involves exploitation of Indian or of African populations.

Thus it was with some satisfaction that I viewed a masterfully done multimedia piece about Chavez’s recent re-election, put together by a young photographer from Slovenia, of all places. Manca Juvan has managed to say quite a lot in her brief show, not only because the images are so strong and so well mixed, but also because of her take on the story, which is always the deciding factor in photojournalistic storytelling. When it comes to telling a story, strong images are just one element, but the narrative point of view is often what translates the work to a higher sphere. The question for me always is, what do you choose to look at? What is particularly notable is that her insights are the result of a complete outsider taking a very inside look at a city that has baffled many other onlookers. This is often the perspective of the best documentary work, an outsider working on an inside track, which flies in the face of the current ideology espoused by theoreticians of identity politics, who would have us believe that only a member of an oppressed minority can adequately represent his or her experience in any given discourse. Karl Mannheim had a name for this sort of perspective, which he described in his book, The Sociology of Knowledge. He called such travellers who venture beyond the borders created above all by class, the "freischwebende inteligenz" (the freefloating intelligentsia).

Manca took the brave decision to look at the elections from inside the teeming, violent and oppressive barrios of Caracas, a city that exemplifies all the problems associated with urban development in Latin America. Crime and violence are out of control, and yet this is ironically where Chavez derives his control of the country, for it is among this desperate, incendiary, enraged underclass that Chavez finds his greatest support. And this presents him with a quandary: he cannot act too strongly against “la delincuencia” which has everyone complaining in Caracas, because he would alienate the underclass, but he can try to coopt it, employ it on his behalf, as many another “caudillo” or strong man has done in the past. And that is why so many Chavistas have a thuggish air about them – they are thugs.

I suspect that Chavez, for all his talk of socialism, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, and Bolivarian revolution, is really just a demagogue in the Peronist mold, with a dash of Castro's charisma wrapped in green. Lots of bread, a few circuses, and choice words intended to play on the fears and prejudices of a disinherited mass of urban slum dwellers. What would El Libertador think of present day Venezuela and the city where he was raised? Probably not much, as he was defeated by the same forces which at are work today in South America and which caused him to relinquish his dreams of a federated nation guaranteeing the inalienable rights of man. The dissolution of Gran Colombia put an end to lofty democratic designs and validated, at least in practice, the subsequent use of dictatorship as a means of governing and solving problems. The rousing song that serves as a backdrop to the multimedia sequence is inevitably tinged with a bitter irony, for it is unfortunate that while el comandante indeed is sticking around, he must do so by appealing to the popular love of authoritarianism.

Manca is a young photographer, but she has already traversed Afghanistan and other Asian countries, bringing back several strong stories from there, as well as having covered her native Slovenia with flair. In 2006 she was named Photographer of the Year in Slovenia, and she has published her images in several major magazines and papers. There is a maturity to her work that is rare to see in a new photographer, and it is instantly apparent that her vision is very much her own, though it does partake of certain current esthetic trends in photojournalism. Unlike Chavez, Manca does not deal in utopian promises, she delivers a social vision that is altogether humane, soberly realistic, and above all genuinely sympathetic. Hers is a compassionate eye, but not a naïve one. She is nobody’s fool. Compassion and realism make for a strong documentary vision, and I expect that Manca will eventually dominate the ranks of the younger generation of photojournalists who will take the genre into the 21st century.

4 comments:

Jim Johnson said...

Jon, Thanks for bringing this Manca Juvan to our attention. She seems extremely telanted and perceptive young woman. On top of that, I think your assessment of Chavez is pretty much on the money - "I suspect that Chavez, for all his talk of socialism, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, and Bolivarian revolution, is really just a demagogue in the Peronist mold, with a dash of Castro's charisma wrapped in green. Lots of bread, a few circuses, and choice words intended to play on the fears and prejudices of a disinherited mass of urban slum dwellers." I am always skeptical of political leaders who appeal to the disenfranchised & dispossessed in slganeering ways. Too much of the American left, I think, assumes (mistakenly) that critics of the U.S. are automatically admirable on other dimensions. At the same time I worry that the U.S. will feel sufficeintly threatened to try to undermine Venezualan sovereignty using one or more its time-tested tactics.

el viralata said...

You put your finger right on the problem, which is why I hesitate to criticize Chavez too much. But it must be said. About Manca on the other hand there can be no doubts, she is the real deal.

Alex Reshuan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Reshuan said...

Jon:
I am glad you wrote about Manca and her work in Caracas.
I've seen her work and her intensity is incredible. This is a ongoing project and she plans to return to Venezuela soon.
I previously deleted a comment since it wasn't public until now that she has won again photographer of the year in Slovenia based on her work about Chavez.
http://delo.si/index.php?sv_path=41,104,189666
I am sure we will hear a lot about her.