Photoessay: Documenting Violence

Colombia 2005.  Photo by Donna DeCesare

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By Donna DeCesare

I have file drawers filled with dramatic photographs of broken bodies, rage, terror, anguish and mayhem. These images map nearly two decades covering revolution, urban crime and state repression, as well as more intimate facets of violence in the Americas. The repeated witnessing of such trauma often leaves one feeling inadequate. The ripple effects of mayhem and the attempt to draw meaning from it, to provoke outrage or to transcend the suffering are struggles that create a bond between the witness and those whose sufferings are much deeper. My work has taken new directions, as I search among survivors, for those struggling to make sense of the senseless, to find a narrative that permits hope.

Hope begins with safely being able to speak truth. But my subjects—many of whom are women and children—live with a burden of fear and stigma. Whether these women are living with HIV, surviving as prostitutes, or struggling with the physical and emotional scars of war, the fact that they have been violated does not save them from being treated as outcasts or blamed for situations over which they have little control.

As women and children in Guatemala and Colombia know, showing your face while speaking honestly can get you killed. And yet, the children especially crave recognition. As soon as they spotted my camera, they were eager for fame or immortality. "Oh, take my picture," they said, but a moment later, their expressions turning sober, they would add, "Just please don't show it here."

Any illusion that photographers can control where or how our images appear dissolves in the age of the Internet. An image that exists in a public sphere can be instantly copied and distributed whether or not its publication is intended or officially sanctioned. How to depict suffering and injustice without exposing those violated to further stigma or harm has become much more difficult. The ubiquitous reach of the Internet penetrates even remote areas of Guatemala and Colombia.

Knowing that I couldn't control local exposure of my images, I needed to find a way of working that would protect my subject’s identities, allay their fears, and empower them to speak truthfully about their lives. Those who feel imprisoned by stigma need to have a context in which they can exercise control. When a child asked if he could pick a different name to accompany his photographs and story, it occurred to me that he was really asking to share control. This inspired me to look for ways to make the image-making process collaborative.

With adults I let the interview suggest ways to make the image. We discuss how to convey metaphorically or with artifacts central elements of their narrative. With the children the image often comes first. It is more like a brainstorming game. In this playful dance of posing and waiting for a spontaneous gesture, an expression of candor, or an image that provides context, we learn to trust each other and they are able to share their secrets.

Donna DeCesare, an award-winning photojournalist, is most widely known for her groundbreaking coverage of the spread of Los Angeles gangs in Central America. Her latest project, published in essay form here, was supported by a 2005 Fulbright fellowship in Colombia. She joined the Executive Committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in 2007 and remains on the faculty at the Journalism School at the University of Texas at Austin where she has been on the Advisory Board of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas since 2003. Additional work by DeCesare can be seen at and at the soon to be launched site She can be reached via email at

See also: Violence