Worth (much) more than a thousand words

El Duelo Revelado: La Vida Social de las Fotografías Familiares de las Víctimas del Franquismo, by Jorge Moreno-Andrés (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2018)

reviewed by Ignacio Iturralde, Pompeu Fabra University

Two old photographs sit in a shoebox outside a recently demolished house. The first, sepia-toned, is no wider than your palm. It portrays a man wearing a uniform for his job. The larger photo is a black-and-white portrait of the same man in an elegant dark suit, a suit that oddly seems painted and looks bigger than the actual body. The surface of the first photograph is scratched and wrinkled, a missing corner and side, frayed edges. There are some words written on the back, barely legible. Beyond their aesthetic value, there is no obvious meaning. The photos are now a pair of orphan stills that have succumbed to sheer oblivion.

However, a trained eye—like that of a social anthropologist—looks beyond the images to reveal an experience of enduring mourning, which becomes a living testimony against brutality. Photographer and filmmaker, Jorge Moreno-Andrés, demonstrates the value of this sharp gaze in his latest book, El Duelo Revelado: La Vida Social de las Fotografías Familiares de las Víctimas del Franquismo (a title that plays on the double meaning of revelar, to reveal: The Exposed/Developed Mourning: The Social Life of Family Photographs of the Victims of Francoism).

Over eight years in the field, Moreno-Andrés has compiled over 2,000 photographs of political victims of the Spanish dictatorship (1939-1975), particularly those resulting from the military suppression of dissent during the postwar period (1939-1945). This book records a search for family snapshots which gather dense narratives and unsettled biographies.

The quest for photographs took place mainly in Moreno-Andrés’ home area, Ciudad Real (Spain), a region that remained loyal to the Republican Government and consequently faced the merciless retaliation of Franco between 1939 and 1942. Nevertheless, his ethnographic search for photographs also took him further afield to other Spanish cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia) and even other countries (Algeria, France, Mexico, Venezuela, USA), in order to reveal how photographs kept prisoners and exiles in contact with their families—in some cases, all the way to the present day.

In El Duelo Revelado, Moreno-Andrés analyses, unravels, and explains some 150 family photographs, as if they were what Marcel Mauss called faits sociaux totaux, total social facts. Moreno-Andrés argues that these photos have cultural biographies, social lives, as Igor Kopytoff and Arjun Appadurai (among others) have shown for other objects. By focusing on the practices, movements, displacements, interventions, and the inheritance of such photographs, as well as on the actors involved in their maintenance and care, this book demonstrates how simple images become vibrant symbols. These images travel through generations performing different social functions, becoming a potent mechanism facilitating the transmission of both family and political memories, including painfully traumatic ones.

Over 500 relatives of the victims attended book presentations in Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Santander, Seville, and Valencia upon its first publication in 2018. Their reactions to displayed images at these public events—on screens, in flyers, as photographic prints—confirmed that families also kept those memories for political reasons. In some cases, the resulting public disclosure gave closure to the victims’ untold biographies and put an end to the vicissitudes of their photographs. During the presentation in Madrid, seven members of these families—all women, some near a hundred years old—presented their own private images and shared their secret memories to an audience that was rendered speechless, and many of whom were moved to tears.

Already in its second edition, El Duelo Revelado has received particular attention and prominence in mainstream media, a rare response to social anthropology books in Spain. El País, the national newspaper, placed its book review on the esteemed back page, while other reviews and author interviews have been featured on national television and radio broadcasts as well as in global publications like the Spanish ABC, Le Monde Diplomatique, and La Vanguardia. The book was awarded the 2019 National University Edition Award for the best monograph in Art and Humanities. It is feeding a suddenly unearthed hunger and curiosity among nonacademic readers. It is connecting with anyone interested in family memories of those who stood for their ideals.

The criterion that Moreno-Andrés uses to classify these photographs—and eventually to structure the book—is the type of political violence that the victims suffered. By far the longest and most absorbing part, Chapter I covers some incredibly touching examples of murder victims, whose scarce photographs became both a legacy and a funerary symbol that allowed their families to mourn. In some homes, portraits even symbolically substituted for the body of the disappeared and, as such, they have been carefully tended for decades. Chapter II deals with the political prisoners, who offered with their pictures a visual message of hope to their loved ones, which was reciprocated by their relatives when they sent letters with their own photographs back to the prisons. Something similar is described in Chapter III, dedicated to exiles, where hope also combined with the need to keep oneself rooted to the land that one had been obliged to leave. The dictatorship’s repression and censorship mediated the whole social process that these photographs went through in all three cases. For example, some exiles disguised themselves as tourists to get their images home as postcards.

How is memory (re)produced? That is the ultimate question of this monograph. This question is broken down into two interconnected parts. First, how are pain and trauma experienced (and remembered) within the families of those who did not write the history books after the Spanish Civil War? Second, how is political memory subsequently generated, maintained, reproduced, and collectively transmitted? Of course, a big part of the memory (re)production is visual, through such photographs, but Moreno-Andrés demonstrates that if photographs modify memory, memory also modifies photographs. For instance, the bromoil process was used to transform photographs from records to artifacts of the social process of memory. It was used for enlarging (for instance, when only a small ID photograph was available, and the blurry enlargement needed to be painted by hand), cropping (making portraits out of full body shots), upgrading (mostly by changing working clothes to more refined attire), or even creating new compositions (combining family members, sometimes in an impossibly anachronistic way; for example, gathering in one print a young executed father with his offspring who were by then older than he was at death). This mainly manual retouching technique was a common way to intervene in the visual imaginary that would be passed forward to future generations.

In a delicate yet remarkably beautiful fashion, Moreno-Andrés shows also that dissimulation, secrecy, silence, and oblivion all play a role in how these photographs were kept and circulated. Such methods were defensive strategies in the home of victims of political violence – often used to protect other members of the family, and also to hold the group together. This affected how memory was recreated, once it was transmitted through modified or repressed images. In some cases, Moreno-Andrés observes, the widow hid the father’s photographs from her sons to keep them from taking revenge.

As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Women have always come to the fore in wartime.” This happens to be true in the aftermath of struggle, too, especially when it comes to preserving personal and community memory. Typically, it was women who undertook most of the activities related to the family photographs: organizing the exhibition or hiding of images (managing the “economy of sight,” in Moreno-Andrés’ terms); bromoil interventions on the photographs for the dissimulation, even the suppression, of parts or persons; and, finally and foremost, the reproduction of remembrance. Women, as the managers of the family home and documentation, have transmitted these photographic heirlooms and memories across generations, but not always by the most direct route. Moreno-Andrés evinces with the use of kinship diagrams several examples in which a portrait was inherited (and the testimony passed on) from sisters or nieces to granddaughters of murder victims (and not through wives or daughters, as they were keeping all potentially conflict-ridden memories away from them, but mostly away from other members of their homes).

The final chapter conveys the latest phase of these photographs’ social lives: their metaphorical resurrection in the democracy that followed Franco’s death, after a paradigm-shift in practices of memorializing the regime’s victims – from ethical imperative to political right. Family remembrance, which had been a private duty during the dictatorship, became a public legal right of historical and political memory in democracy, a collective prerogative that must be taken care of by the government. The 2017 “Law of Historical Memory” seeks “the recognition and extension of rights in favor of those who suffered persecution or violence, for reasons of politics, ideology or for religious beliefs, during the Civil War or the Dictatorship, to promote their moral redress and the recovery of their personal and family memory.” This paradigm-shift is a long (and unfinished) political process that is not unfolding without controversy. The restoration of historical memory, the exhumation of mass graves, and reparations for political victims are all still sensitive topics that face the opposition of the conservative party, the extreme right, and the Catholic church.

Reading El Duelo Revelado, I was shocked by the prices photo labs charged poor and starving women in the harsh postwar period for the development and retouching of photographs. Nevertheless, women strove to pay for these important services, sometimes over buying food for their families. I could not stop thinking about The Social Life of Things, comparing these photos to the account of relics as “enclaved commodities” that Patrick Geary develops in his essay in that book. The idea stuck in my mind for hours. However, after giving this much thought, I realized that Kant’s words about people as ends in themselves were echoing much louder: “In the kingdom of ends, everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.”

In the absence of a body to mourn, a photograph becomes worth (much) more than a thousand words, and is rather something priceless and irreplaceable, bearing dignity and self-respect beyond material value. These photographs stand as a symbol of hope and resistance, an antidote against the shadows of the human soul. As such, El Duelo Revelado is playing a much-needed role in the Spanish public sphere – providing visibility to family stories of victims, giving hope to those who suffered for many years the loss of a loved one, together with the pain of undisclosed grief. It is also a fascinating example of what good public anthropology can achieve – helping shape a society’s political agenda. Furthermore, this book and its presentations show that academia can be intimately involved in transforming society without carrying ideological burdens. Sometimes it is as simple (or as difficult) as producing good knowledge and then returning it by providing a public space for sharing it with the world at large.

In the end, this is an achingly moving book about dignity—an account on how women maintained dignity against all the odds, over the decades in a dictatorship—and, as such, should be read by absolutely everyone.