Nicaragua Journal: “Pictures” Worth One Thousand Words

Photo credit: Harpers Magazine, 2007

In Pictures From a Revolution, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas returns to Nicaragua after ten years and aims to track down the people in photos she took during the Sandinista revolution of the late 1970s.

The film is a documentary of her experience as she asks neighbors, friends and family where she can find the exact people in the photos she took so many years before. Meiselas has a fair amount of success in finding these people — all but one was still in Nicaragua — and through the rediscovery of her subjects, she learns more about Nicaraguans’ attitudes toward the revolution and the way of life in the small, developing country.

The photos are striking in and of themselves, but when combined with the rebels’ and the Contras’ and the townspeople’s stories, the film gives a sense of the people behind the war efforts. And you just can’t help but to empathize with the whole of them because even today, they say the social climate of Nicaragua remains “exhausted,” and not too much has changed since the early days of the revolution.

Photo credit: American Photographer, March 1981

I think the most striking concept for me to grasp — the most difficult pill to swallow in understanding Nicaragua’s political and economic history — was, and still is, the notion that the United States government negatively contributed to the war, a war that didn’t even necessarily require its involvement. This became especially clear when one of the subjects in the documentary — a former Sandinista, I believe — said it was “a political war” in which the Contras and the Sandinistas acted as puppets, controlled by and fighting for other, more powerful nations.

One of those nations was Russia. The other was the United States.

This “political war” is a sadly perfect example of neocolonialism — corporate businessmen and politicians and leaders taking advantage of a young country in turmoil in the hopes of further controlling its economy and, thus, becoming even more powerful in the process. The Nicaraguans didn’t necessarily ask for foreign aid or outside involvement in their war, but they got it, and it seems that those outsides forces (the U.S. and Russia) only perpetuated the problem…and for selfish reasons.

I reflected on these thoughts with my dad the other day, wondering how a group of American journalism students might be approached there, considering our nation’s unwanted involvement not so long ago.

“How do they not hate us?,” I asked, “I might not be very nice if a country did that to us, and then its people came here to ask questions about it.”

“It’s not that they don’t like us. They don’t like our government.” He chuckled. “And, quite frankly, a lot of us don’t like our government right now, either.”

If anything, this film opened up my eyes to the fact that being a patriot of your homeland and disagreeing with its politics are not mutually exclusive. You can love your country so much that you’re willing to fight in the streets and die for it, and support your brothers and sisters who are doing the same, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never admit to its historical flaws and will support any leader that comes your way. The Nicaraguan revolution is a prime example of this, and that speaks volumes about the integrity of the people who call Nicaragua home.