"The purpose of my photographs is to approach truth"
by Laura Litvin.
It started in 1978 after her husband disappeared, the activist Willy Moralli. Her photograph”Mother and Daughter “in Plaza de Mayo became an icon of resistance against dictatorship. Her series are part of the collective memory of a society that still many times does not see.
In November 1082, Adriana Lestido was 27 and had a camera. During the first week she had started working as a graphic reporter in La Voz newspaper, had been sent to cover a march against the dictatorship in Plaza Alsina in Avellaneda. Among those marching, a mother and a daughter wearing white scarves on their heads responded to all the slogans with anguish. The demonstrators shouted political slogans first and then they concentrated on the speakers. But Adriana waited a few minutes, until the mother took the girl in her arms and then Lestido photographed both the dignity and the deepest sadness. Thirty years passed since that afternoon and the photograph is still shouting, still hurts. Adriana could have never imagined that picture would become an icon of resistance against dictatorship. And at the same time, the image of her own pain: in 1978, her husband disappeared, the activist Guillermo “Willy” Moralli. “A short time ago I realized that image was the foundation of my later work. Their search was also mine. “It still is”, Lestido says. Because Adriana went on shedding light on mothers, daughters, absent men, losses. Issues that they are still shouting, that still hurt. Such as her series ”Children´s Hospital”, “Adolescent mothers” , “Imprisoned women” , “Mothers and Daughters” , “Love” and “Villa Gesell” , among others, that are still moving because of their honesty and commitment, and she has won prizes and awards all over the world.
You started taking pictures a few months after Willy disappeared. When did you realize that absence was going to be an important milestone in your life?
I was not aware of the short time that had passed between his disappearance and the eruption of photography in my life. The previous years before dictatorship and until ´78 were very busy. I realized that between ´73 and ´78 only five years had passed. I felt they had been almost 20 or 30 years. When I organized the retrospective in the Cronopios Room, at the Recoleta Cultural Center (2008) that was the origin of the book “What is seen” I realized it had been less than a year between his disappearance and the time I started taking photographs.
You had never thought of it?
Not at all. At my parents´house there was an old camera in the wardrobe that called my attention. I never took photographs and I don´t even remember seen anyone behind that camera. I do remember that as a child I liked movies. I loved it. I went on Saturdays and Sundays when they showed three films at a stretch. In ´79, after going through different experiences and confused as regards profession, I started studying at a film school in Avellaneda, directed by Rodolfo Hermida.
You studied engineering and the nursing
I was at the Engineering School from ´73 to ´76 and I was an activist at Vanguardia Comunista. I wanted to quit the studies because it was not for me. I wanted to study psychology. My mates said I was very valuable at the University because there weren´t too many women. I was pressed to go on. Then came proletarianism and we had to find jobs in manufacturing companies. I worked in a textile company but I didn´t last long. Then I started studying nursing but I quit before the end of the first year. Activism was intense. In ´75 the university takeovers started. Oscar Ivanissevich was the Minister of Education (his explicit task was to “eliminate disorder”. There were strong actions in that sense. In ´76 I quit the University. But I remember the terror with the Triple A. Already in ´75 friend activists were killed. Willy studied engineering, he didn´t finish his studies. He had reached an advanced level. He was six years older than me. We both were activists when we met at the University. He was the secretary of the students’ center together with Daniel Winer who disappeared in ´75, kidnapped by Triple A and found dead in a vacant lot many days after. Nobody imagined the State could do something like this.
What happened to you after Willy disappeared?
I saved my life thanks to him. He was careful that my address were not given, I had moved a short time before and a friend that had been killed knew it. Though at that moment we were separated, we met all the same. We met on a bus, I think the day before his kidnapping. We agreed he would call me, he was hiding and he had gone to a friend’s house to be safe. In fact the military forces went to take his friend but they also took Willy. Later I went to look for my birth certificate that was in our apartment, imagining he could be held under the rules of the PEN (National Executive Power). I thought I could visit him in jail. Nevertheless, some time ago I found a newspaper that I wrote at that moment. I was not aware, but I knew inside of me that he had been killed. It was hard to realize that I knew it. I really don´t know when is it you can give up hope of finding someone disappeared.
Did you think about the possibility of leaving?
It didn´t cross my mind. I was in a state of madness with so much death around me. I thought that if it had to happen, it would happen. I remember the terror I felt each night I got back home. What I did was to stay at a friend´s house for a while. But I never left the country.
Then came the course on filmmaking and photography. You started working as a reporter and you took the emblematic picture of resistance.
It was a demonstration against dictatorship the week after I joined La Voz, which was my first work in a newsroom. I had applied in different places but they didn´t give a position just for being a woman. La Voz was the only newspaper that agreed to see my photos. The only activity I had done on my own as a report was a series about the floods in Villa Albertina. And they sent me to cover the march of the Mothers in Avellaneda. The girl with the white scarf was standing and crying when everybody photographed her. I felt ashamed and I couldn´t raise my camera. My colleagues left and I stayed by them. Suddenly the mother raised the girl and I could take the picture.
For some time you thought those females me were claiming for a husband / father, but still it turned to be a brother/uncle Did you see them again?
I searched for them, I was always asking for them to Nora (Cortiñas, Plaza de Mayo Mother), I asked everyone. Many of them remembered her but they didn’t know where they lived. I always thought he was the husband of the woman and the father of the girl, but it turned out to be her brother (and uncle) Avelino Freitas, a leader and worker of Molinos. The woman, (Blanca Freitas) was 30 at that time, she was an unusual Mother of Plaza de Mayo, she was not asking for her man. In the end, three years ago a teacher from the south contacted me. She is working with Blanca and so I could contact her.
What was the meeting like?
Very nice. It is very warm people, loving, working hard all their lives. I wanted to meet both but the daughter could not go. Still the granddaughter was there and she is just like the little girl when I photographed them. They are the same age and they look the same. It was very thrilling, beautiful.
This picture won the first prize in a contest of the Permanent Association for Human Rights (1984). What did it mean for you?
It was a very good contest with good photographers. I was just starting, very moving. Today I feel it was very important that the first prize they gave me had to do with Human Rights. Yes, I always liked it very much but just when I was preparing the retrospective in Cronopios with the idea of giving a new meaning to my work, I realized how relevant this image was in my road.
It defined what you did afterwards.
Exactly. The absent man, the pain, the strength, the strong bond between the mother and the daughter. The separation. It is all there, in that first picture.
Your observation started a period in photographic journalism. And your work is part of the collective memory.
It is amazing. Many people know the photograph but they don´t know who it is. I like that. I am impressed: the photograph has a life of its own and that is what makes it valuable. I like it when images move beyond the author. They have used it and changed it in many ways. In Rosario they made graffiti with the contour of the picture for a feminist movement. They covered the city walls with that image. They also used it, and they didn´t let me know, for an activity about Evita from the Culture Secretariat. It inspired songs, poems, texts.
Your works throw light on many things we don´t look at. Those women, although now they are mothers, go on crying and aching. What lead you to deal with these issues?
I didn´t search intentionally on subjects with a social relevance. It was never like that. I don´t know what took me there. In some way I always feel subjects choose me. They had to do with my story, my female condition, my activism. With my darkness I needed to name and see. If after this it happens to have an important social relevance, I celebrate it. But it started somewhere else, from my own needs.
The need as a drive for creation?
It is the only thing that validates creation. That it should be something vitally necessary. There are so many images… It is good see a bit just for the simple act of seeing. That compulsion to turn everything into image, I don´t know. What I mean is that afterwards, what transcends in time is just what appears as a genuine need. It is the only thing that gives substance to expression.
In these last 30 years, you set standards, many people are photographers because they have seen your works. What is your best lesson?
You should ask them. I think I help them connect with something good in themselves. To clean a little, to remove noise. It is not different to the sense in my life. I clean to make room and generate what has to be generated. To be able to be what you are, that the seed will not decline and become latent.
Your work travels around the world. Have you ever thought you would reach this far?
No, life took me. I don´t know if I ever craved for something. I want things more connected to personal issues such as being more free. To have started from scratch what gives me the roots. Still, for a long time the achievements made me feel anguish. They drove me mad. I found it hard to enjoy them. It took me many years to accept my goals.
You dedicated to Willy your last book. What do you remember of him?
I remember his voice and his joy. His eyes. Recuerdo su voz y su alegría. He was very optimistic, bright, passionate. A beautiful man in every sense, with a survivor’s attitude, necessary perhaps to go on. Something that protects from pain but takes you away from life. Only in 1996, when I was doing the series “Mothers and Daughters” taking pictures to Marta Dillon and her daughter Naná (Marta´s mother was kidnapped and disappeared when she was ten and was beginning to be an activist in HIJOS), I could connect emotionally not only with my mother but also with Willy. Only then, I could trespass the wall and connect myself with the loss.
Making the book and the retrospective is it in some way closing this period?
I believe so, but you can never tell. Perhaps it is just as the final phrase in the Great Gatsby "And so we move forward, boats that row against the stream, endlessly dragged towards the past". Perhaps it is that what you move forward but going back once and again. Luckily one goes forward and it is never the same place.
Your work is the search of truth?
That is the sense, my choice, getting closer to some kind of truth I believe Peter Handke when he said that beauty was truth with wings. Creation has a happiness of its own, no matter how painful what you show must be.
Why Adriana Lestido
Because in these last 30 years she photographed with honesty and commitment adolescent mothers, imprisoned women, children in hospital, she worked on the relationship between mothers and daughters, or love and loneliness in nature. Her last anthology, What is seen, is dedicated to her disappeared husband, Guillermo “Willy” Moralli.
Three decades in an image
Lestido chose two moments. The first one is related to the demonstration on March 30, 1982 when a multitude attended the Plaza de Mayo march summoned by the CGT. The aim was to hand in a document at Casa Rosada but a hard repression started. "I had gone to the square. It was the first multitudinous gathering against dictatorship. The repression was hard, but I was there and seeing the people… such a long time this didn´t happen. I felt dictatorship was ending. It was madness because two days after the issue of Malvinas took place. The madness was even stronger for me. I felt alone because many leftists agreed with the war. But I remember the thrill I felt at the thought that dictatorship was going to end. The next image was that of Videla. “The fact that Videla died in prison in an ordinary jail was for me one of the greatest achievements of democracy”.