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Remembering Uruguay's Disappeared Through the Eyes of a Photographer

One of Miradas Ausentes pictures in Montevideo | Photo: Juan Urruzola/Reproduced with permission

One of Miradas Ausentes pictures in Montevideo | Photo: Juan Urruzola/Reproduced under authorisation

When Juan Urruzola returned to Uruguay after 12 years in exile, he got back into his old habit of wandering through the streets of Montevideo. The sky, the pedestrian promenade know as la rambla, the river, the sea, the grey — everything remained pretty much as he remembered. Except many of the faces he used to see every now and then were no longer there.

It was 1987. The dictatorship that had expelled him to live in Spain — after two years in prison — was no longer in power. But the wounds it created hadn't healed.

Similar to what happened in neighboring Argentina and Brazil as well as in nearby Chile, in 1973 Uruguay experienced a civil-military coup that plunged the country into military dictatorship for the next 12 years. The repression — imposed with the support of other dictatorships in Latin America — included methods of torture, murder and disappearances. As a result, in Uruguay there are still 192 people who disappeared during the dictatorship and have yet to be found.

To Urruzola, the worst part was that only a few people seemed to care about remembering all of it. As he shared with Global Voices in an interview via email:

A partir de mi regreso definitivo me rencontré con la impunidad y los vacíos de memoria de nuestra sociedad, una gran parte de la sociedad luchaba por saber y por encontrar respuestas a lo sucedido de 1972 a 1985 y otra parte de la sociedad empecinadamente quería tapar lo sucedido, ocultar y liberar a los represores de enfrentarse  la justicia…todo eso me llevo naturalmente a introducir los temas de memoria en mis trabajos

Since I returned for good, I found myself confronted once more with the impunity and lack of memory that we can find in our society. A large part of society was fighting to know more and to find answers to what happened between 1972 and 1985. The other part was trying hard to cover it all up and to free the oppressors from facing justice. All of this took me, naturally, to bring the subject of memory to be part of my work.

It was through photography, a craft he learned in exile, that Urruzola found a way to fill in the blanks. He began with Montevideo 12, a collection depicting his own re-encounter with his hometown. But it would take him more than a decade to collect the pictures that compose his most recognised work: Miradas Ausentes (Absent Looks), a collection of photographs in which Urruzola holds up portraits of people who disappeared during the dictatorship against the backdrop of the capital's landscapes.

‘Memory is something that can be quite necessary for some’

According to the photographer, the criteria to select the series’ characters was purely incidental. He received a package with several pictures from the Organización de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos (Organization for Families of Detained and Disappeared Peoples) to be used at the memorial in honor of those who fought against the dictatorship. After a while, Urruzola saw he could do more with the portraits:

Yo salía a la calle con las fotos en un bolsillo y sacaba una con mi mano y la ponía delante de la cámara cuando el paisaje me gustaba y hacía la foto, a veces si el fondo era oscuro o claro, buscaba sin elegir otra foto más clara o más oscura. [La idea era] que se despegara del fondo de ciudad….

I would go out with the photos in my pocket, then with one hand I’d hold it up and put it in front of the camera whenever the landscape pleased me and I'd take the photo. Sometimes, if the background was dark or light, I tried to use another photo that was darker or lighter. [The idea] was for them to pop against the city’s background.

Urruzola says he still doesn’t know if it was fate or coincidence that the man in his favorite picture — the one that he would often showcase in most of his exhibitions — happened to be a portrait of the first disappeared person “found” in Uruguay. The man in the photo was Fernando Miranda, whose remains were found by anthropologists from the Universidad de la República in March 2006 at a former army installation. Miranda was a notary who taught civil law at the university and was a delegate for the Communist Party and FIDEL, the National Liberation Leftist Front. He was 56 years old, married and with two kids when he was taken from his own home in 1975.

Fernando Miranda, the first one of the dictatorship's disappeared found in Uruguay | Photo: Juan Urruzola/Reproduced under authorization

Fernando Miranda, the first victim of enforced disappearance during the dictatorship period in Uruguay to be found after so many years. | Photo: Juan Urruzola/Reproduced with authorization.

Miradas Ausentes was later turned into a poster campaign first in Porto Alegre, during the Mercosul’s Arts Biennial. The same initiative was taken to Montevideo, but with very different results:

Siempre hubo de todo en cuanto a las reacciones de la gente […] Desde gente que se emociona hasta gente que las rompe. La memoria es algo muy necesario para algunos y muy negado por otros. Eso hace interesante el arte “político” o el arte de denuncia: incorporar al imaginario elementos y temas que implican debate, discusión, etc…

There were all kind of reactions from people. From those who became emotional to those who tore [the pictures] up. Memory is something that can be quite necessary for some, but also something that needs to be denied by others. This is what makes “political” art or protest art interesting: They incorporate elements and subjects of debate and discussion into the imaginary.

‘Searching for a loved one who has disappeared is a never-ending agony’

Urruzola was arrested for the first time at the age of 15 for “anti-social behaviour”. The second time was in 1971, accused of being “a student and a leftist”. Many of his friends faced the same accusation. Some went to exile, while others disappeared inside the military headquarters. It is to them that Urruzola dedicates his life's work. To cherish the memory of those he will never forget, and help his country do the same.


Juan Urruzola's work in the streets of Montevideo. Image published with permission.

The Internet has helped bring his work to a new and broader public. More of Urruzola's story can be seen in this Spanish-language video, shared by Sebastian Alonso on Vimeo.

In the interview, the artist talks about memory and reparations, but, above anything else, he states the importance of keeping historical memory alive:

La desaparición forzada es una cosa terrible, en America Latina tenemos cientos de miles de desaparecidos, en particular de las poblaciones indigenas. Países como Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, lo usaron masivamente y más cerca Chile, Argentina, Brasil, Bolivia. En fin, es una deuda seguir denunciando el tema. Buscar a un familiar que ha desaparecido es un dolor que no se acaba nunca. Se queda dentro para siempre.

Forced disappearance is a terrible thing, in Latin America we have hundreds of thousands disappeared people, especially among indigenous communities, countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, they used it massively, and so did nearby countries Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia. Anyway, it is a debt to keep denouncing this matter. Searching for a loved one who has disappeared is a never-ending agony. It stays with you forever.

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