Flowers In The Desert: Chilean Women's 40-Year Search For Murdered Loved Ones
On Christmas Day in 1989, photographer Paula Allen took a 26-hour bus ride to the remote city of Calama in northern Chile, and walked into one of the most hostile deserts on Earth. The half-dozen women she traveled with spread hundreds of red carnations across the floor of the Atacama Desert to honor 26 men likely buried beneath the sand.
These two dozen husbands, sons, and brothers were executed and disappeared on October 19, 1973 during the U.S.-backed coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Allen traveled to Chile on assignment for Newsweek to cover the transition of power between Pinochet and the dictator’s successor, Patricio Aylwin.
“I got a phone call from a friend the night before I was leaving who said, ‘I’ve just seen a film called Dance of Hope, and there’s a scene in the film that shows these women in the desert town in Chile throwing carnations into the air.’,” Allen says. “Carrying that image, I knew that I had to go. I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m not Chilean. I have no relationship, presumably, with Chile. But I was drawn there by one image that was in a film. And I knew, as a woman who was committed to documenting the hidden struggles of women all over the world, I needed to be there.”
For a quarter century, Allen has chronicled the stories of these women during and after the search for their missing family members. She published her photos in the book Flowers in the Desert. The women finally learned where the 26 men were buried in July 1990, but the mass grave contained only crushed remains and bone fragments after the military dug up the bodies and disposed of them in the Pacific Ocean in 1975.
Over the past 25 years these women gradually learned of their loved ones’ fate as technology evolved and DNA testing allowed more victims to be identified. Some remains and victims have never been matched.
“What happens in those worst situations are you meet the best people. Over and over again you meet the people who are fighting the dictatorship. Who are fighting the violence. Who are refusing to be silenced to maintain their dignity in the face of tragedy over and over again,” Allen says. “We talk about being in the middle of the greatest pain in the world, and there’s always someone, people, who have the greatest spirit and the greatest fortitude, and the greatest courage in the face of those situations.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Paula Allen, welcome to World Views..
PAULA ALLEN: Thank you, I'm so pleased to be here.
GRILLOT: You are a documentary photographer, so you travel around the world. You've been to some amazing places documenting certain experiences that are happening there on the ground, and showing those images to use. So first I'd kind of like to begin with that. Your work as a photographer. You teach a class in New York, "Why Am I A Photojournalist?" From photojournalism to documenting certain experiences on the ground, can you tell us a little bit about the background of that? And the importance of documenting things in images. Not in film, but in photography.
ALLEN: I did teach a class at the International Center of Photography, "Why Am I A Photojournalist?" And I think I ask that question to my students because it's a question that I repeatedly asked to myself. Sometimes I'm a photojournalist. Sometimes I'm a human rights photographer. Sometimes I'm a documentary photographer. And I would say basically that I'm an activist. And I use a camera because that's what gives voice to what I care about in the world. So that's why I chose a camera, because it works for me. It's the most effective vehicle I have to communicate what I think needs to be communicated. I have traveled all over the world, and I'm led by many ways into the world. I'm led by situations that are unfolding, and I go to find them, which is where I began with non-violent revolutions in the world. And then I continued by going into war to understand what that meant. How to affect war with the camera - how to change it, how to raise consciousness. From that, I went into documenting more about violence, and sexual violence against women specifically, because I felt, as a woman, as a subject matter that wasn't being talked about very much. That I had an obligation, a responsibility, a desire to pursue that as subject for my work.
GRILLOT: Well you clearly have focused on, as you mention, issues regarding human rights and war and violence, conflict, abuse, injustice. This is definitely a theme in your work. I like how you put it that you want to see how using that camera, going into these places, can have an impact on the situation. So maybe you can extend this a little bit and just tell us... I want to get into some specific places you've been here in a minute, but just in general, what is it that you hope people will take away just by seeing those images? What is the impact that you're hoping to have?
ALLEN: I think, and being here at the university I can answer that question more specifically in being here, I hope that people come away with understanding who they are, and what they want to be doing, and how they can best connect with the world, and how they can take the feelings that are generated from the images and apply it to their own lives and their own activism. And a kind of connection and relationship that they will continue with their own lives. I think I'm asking the viewer of images to identify more with who they are, and with themselves, so that they can then take action for themselves.
GRILLOT: So tell us about that difficulty of being in that situation and seeing these things. For those of us who are viewing these images, we often think how tough that must be. It's hard enough to see them on a printed page, or on a digital screen, but to see them in real life, and the impact that must have on you as you are drawn to these things, as you are drawn to trying to have an impact on a particular situation. So wherever it is that you've been, you've seen some very difficult things. So how has that affected you in your work, and motivated you more? Or influenced what it is that you support?
ALLEN: There is no doubt that it is emotionally very, very hard to do this work. I get asked very often, "How? You're in such physical danger. How do you do what you do, and aren't you afraid?" And I always comment that yes, there is physical danger, but I have an awareness of that. I go in knowing that, and what the greatest danger is is the emotional danger. But the point is, that no matter what that is, I do it because I feel capable of doing it. And I want to do it. And I also think that I get to leave. I have the privilege, the deep privilege of being able to go into any situation in the world, and then I can get on a plane, I can leave, and I go back to a more safe, if there is such a thing as a safe zone in the world, and leave behind the violence that I'm witnessing. So it's hard to answer that besides saying that I can manage the emotions. I want to manage them, because my responsibility is to share that experience. And my gratitude exists to where I've been and the people who have permitted me to enter into their lives in such a profound way to tell their stories. The obligation, the responsibility to share the stories is far greater than anything personally that I'm experiencing.
GRILLOT: I think the fact that you used the word "responsibility" is very interesting, because in reading a lot of the work that's been done about you and your photography indicates that as you're telling your story, you're saying, "I heard that this was happening in Kosovo, or in Chile, or in the Congo, or wherever, and I had to go and see it myself. And I had to document it. I had to tell that story." So this sense of responsibility that you have. That you're drawn to these places. So tell us about these places. Tell us about some of these places that you've been. I know you were in Srebrenica, for example, after the massacre there in the 90s. You've been to Kosovo. The reason why you're here at the University of Oklahoma right now is because of the work that you've done in Chile for many years with women searching for their loved ones who were disappeared and murdered and never returned. And their search for their remains, and for answers. So there's a theme here. You're drawn to war and conflict, but particularly where women are affected, and women are involved. So tell us about the places that you've been, and the ways in which you've been affected.
ALLEN: I think I'd like to answer by telling the story of the women of Calama. Briefly, 26 men were disappeared and executed after the 1973 coup in Chile where Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president, was overthrown by [Augusto] Pinochet and by the U.S. government, who backed the coup. And 26 of the men were killed, and the women were never given back the bodies in this town in the far north of Chile. And they searched for 17 years for a mass grave. And they finally found a mass grave in 1990, and they found the remains of their men. I arrived 25 years ago, right before they found the remains, and I have been documenting them for all those years. How do you get some place in the world is really the question? How do we find ourselves where we are? I got to them because I was on my way to Chile to photograph the transition of power between Pinochet and the next president, Patricio Aylwin, on an assignment for Newsweek magazine. I got a phone call from a friend the night before I was leaving who said, "I've just seen a film called Dance of Hope, and there's a scene in the film that shows these women in the desert town in Chile throwing carnations into the air, and the flowers are landing all over the desert floor, because they never knew where their men were buried. Their men were executed and disappeared. Carrying that image, I knew that I had to go. So I contacted the filmmaker, Deborah Shaffer. She sent me the film. I took a copy of the film to Chile with me. I completed my assignment for Newsweek in Santiago. I boarded a 26-hour grueling bus ride to the north of Chile with the film in my hand from Deborah Shaffer, and I met the women. So that is how I arrived in Calama. I didn't speak Spanish. I'm not Chilean. I have no relationship, presumably, with Chile. But I was drawn there by one image that was in a film. And I knew, as a woman who was committed to documenting really the hidden struggles of women all over the world, I needed to be there.
GRILLOT: So you mentioned the role of the women in this case, and the incredible strength that obviously you've witnessed among these women. The resilience of these women. I think one of the common themes in the work that you've done is that you're drawn to these issues of women, in these horrible situations, that are experiencing war, and violence, and rape, and genocide, and all of these things. But the ultimate message is one of resilience, and power, and healing. Is this part of the message that you're trying to show? Here are the horrible things that happened, but here are the amazing ways in which these women around the world overcome these things? It's almost like a mixed message, in some ways, but it comes through to me in that way. I don't know if that's what you're intending.
ALLEN: Isn't life a great contradiction? You go into what would be the worst situations in the world, and I don't even know what that means anymore. I go, "This is the worst thing I've ever seen." And then a month later, "This is the worst thing I've ever seen." And it goes on and on and on and on. And what happens in those worst situations are you meet the best people. Over and over again you meet the people who are fighting the dictatorship. Who are fighting the violence. Who are refusing to be silenced to maintain their dignity in the face of tragedy over and over again. So we talk about being in the middle of the greatest pain in the world, and there's always someone, people, who have the greatest spirit and the greatest fortitude, and the greatest courage in the face of those situations.
GRILLOT: Those are great lessons to learn. From tragic events is how to persevere in these situations. It's sad but true, like you said. A major contradiction. Well Paula Allen, thank you so much for being here with us on World Views today to share these images with us from around the world. Thank you.
ALLEN: Thank you. I feel very fortunate to have been here today.
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