EL SALVADOR, as tiny as it is, is a country that invites superlatives. This is true whether you speak of its convulsive history, its unspeakable misfortunes and suffering, or the stoic resilience of its people in the face of adversity.
A thought-provoking exhibit, "El Salvador in the Eye of the Beholder," at the Photographic Resource Center here, features 100 photos from the country's recent past (1979-1991).
A detailed chronology accompanies the show and is useful for those not familiar with the country's intricate and bloody history. As can be expected, there are many photos that deal with the civil war that has taken more than 75,000 lives. The exhibit captures the devastation and horror, but somehow it does not have a numbing effect.
"Witness to Massacre" (1981), for example, shows a young woman of perhaps 14 lying on her side among clothes and wrecked belongings, her body wrapped in shadows and fear. Her two eyes peer out, wide, as if to pour out all the grief, the anger, the sense of loss. You sense that she is orphaned, not only because she lost her family and most of her village, but also because the violence she witnessed was so extreme that it wipes out some sense of her own humanity as well. And yet, her eyes show a flicker of
hope and resistance that will allow her to survive.
Many photos document life in El Salvador under less dramatic conditions: fieldworkers toiling in the countryside, peasants attending mass, street vendors peddling their wares, university students at an indoor rally. Humor is quite present as well, in the form of satire (a photo of the Miss El Salvador contest), irony (a shot of camouflaged elite combat troops who, despite all their belligerent trappings, look scared anyway), sheer joy and relief (two women guerrilla commanders embracing upon hearing the news of a truce), or just plain fun (a man under a waterfall playing like a child).
What emerges, ultimately, is an intimate portrait of Salvadorans by Salvadorans. Curator Katy Lyle says this is a crucial point of the show: "Many photographers from abroad have taken wonderful photos in El Salvador. But there's always a distance - you can see it in the eyes. It's one more veil you have to sift through. In these photos you can sense the dialogue, the warmth between the photographer and the subject."
The show is part of a wider effort by PANATECA, a group of Salvadorans dedicated to creating and maintaining a living archive of audiovisual materials to enrich the national and historical patrimony of their country. Two PANATECA representatives, Mario Cesar Marti and Hernan Vera, were recently in Boston.
Says Mr. Marti, "We have over 80,000 photographs, along with film and video material, radio broadcasts, tapes of speeches, and interviews. There's a lot of work to accomplish in preserving, developing, and making this available. It took four months of painstaking work to come up with the quality we wanted for the 100 photos in this show."
Equally as important as the humor in this show is faith, although sometimes it is seen in very unorthodox ways: a guerrilla priest officiating in a territory controlled by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or a group of worshipers in a church absent of any priests with revolutionary slogans on the wall.
One photo, "Mutual Faith" (1980), shows a poor urban dweller greeting Archbishop Romero and three nuns. Her face radiates peace and joy. It is a moment of pure revelation and redemption, made all the more poignant by the fact that only weeks later Romero would be murdered by the notorious death squads. Despite the helicopters, the bullets, and death, it is Romero's message of justice, forgiveness, and redemption that infuses each photo as a small tribute to life. At the Photographic Resource Center until April 5. Duplicated portions of the show are on view through April 5 at the Houston PhotoFest. The Boston show travels to Space Gallery in Toronto in April and May.