Artist documents human struggle
Audience members filled the auditorium to view Donna De Cesare’s early photographic work through the short film My Latin American Odyssey at Museum of Fine Arts Houston Tuesday.
De Cesare’s photographs document the issues Colombian youth faced during a time of political turmoil brought on by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an organization trying to unite paramilitary groups in the country.
De Cesare said photography is an important mode of communication that speaks to many people not just photographers.
‘ ‘My photographs bear witness to human struggles and sufferings in the fringes where despair and anger grow,’ De Cesare said. ‘Documenting lives being ripped by these extremities give my own proportion and purpose.’
De Cesare said the memory of her younger brother falling out of her family’s fast-moving car when she was five yeard old is a motivation for her photojournalistic work.
‘Miraculously, my brother Mark survived not only the accident, but a childhood filled with ridicule of those who didn’t understand his brain injury,’ she said. ‘When I look at my photographs of El Salvador – especially those photographs taken in a decisive moment, but without the premeditative focus of my conscious mind – I wonder if my intuition, my compassion and my compulsion to tell this kind of story has something to do with me and Mark.’
De Cesare’s photographs from her international odysseys depict images of Colombian families torn by displacement, religious conflict in Northern Ireland and the indigenous Colombian survivors who seem thankful to call a plastic tent house their home.
With much of her early work focused on those living in war zones in Central America, De Cesare’s photo editors suggested she go to Bosnia to photograph the war, but De Cesare had a different vision for herself.
‘I didn’t want to go,’ she said. ‘Not because I didn’t think that the situation in Bosnia was an important situation to document, but there were other people doing that work, and I felt that I spoke Spanish and understood something about the cultures of Central America.’
De Cesare spent 15 years photographing Latin American immigrants in the United States and Latin Americans in countries of political turmoil and gang violence.
‘ ‘As a photojournalist you are always told you have to be distant; you must remain objective,’ De Cesare said. ‘The more that I did photography the more I felt that I wanted to be involved in the lives of the people I was documenting, and that I could still maintain a sense of honesty and voracity about what was going on and have a strong relationship with the people in my stories.’
De Cesare met El Salvadoran teenager Carlos, who survived gang violence in his slums to achieve his dream of being an artist, as Carlos expects to graduate from an art institute in Vienna, Austria in June.
De Cesare said she and Carlos worked on his narrative together as a collaborative effort.
‘I feel more and more in the work that I do that, that is the way that I want to work – always collaborating and giving people their own voice,’ De Cesare said. ‘So often, young people, especially those who are so stigmatized by this violence, feel that they are disempowered by the media images that are made of them.
‘I really want my work to be a way that young people can find a voice through it and in it in collaboration with the work that I do.’