Interview with Paula Allen: The Power of Image and IntimacySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Journal editor Michelle Harper interviewed Allen on February 10, 2000 at the International Institute and attended Allen's lectures. Allen's visit was sponsored by the School of Social Work, the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, the Department of Anthropology, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the Residential College. Readers may e-mail Paula Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org for info on the U.S. release of her book or to purchase a copy.
J: How did you become a documentary photographer?
Allen: I've been photographing for 20 years and my initial concern was documenting women's nonviolent movements, particularly women protesting missiles in Western Europe. At the time I was working for many newsmagazines. My interest was and is about documenting women's invisible histories as a photographer and writer.
J: How would you define your work?
Allen: I work on projects for very long-term periods of time. The work is really about a transition-of events, of lifestyle, of history, of emotion. I do make a distinction between being a photojournalist and doing documentary photography because my commitment is to long-term projects.
What do I really feel that I am? I'm an activist with a camera. Photography is a form of activism for me.
J: Why are you interested in photographing women's stories in particular?
Allen:History is viewed from a patriarchal eye. There's no question about it. And I saw the necessity to revision how we view history from a more feminist perspective. Also, the stories that I'm telling, for example, the courage of the women digging in Calama, searching for their dead relatives for 17 years in defiance of a dictatorship … the 32-year-old woman, Marta, in Kosova, who rescued 500 women and children by driving a tractor across a swelling river 40 to 50 times … The courage of these women … These are all stories that need to be told. They're stories we're not hearing. That's a history I want to know.
J: What projects are you working on currently?
Allen: I'm actually completing several long-term projects. Last year I published a book called Flores en el Desierto (Flowers of the Desert) about women who searched for 17 years for the mass grave of their relatives who were "disappeared" after the coup in Chile. I spent ten years on and off with the women, documenting and interviewing them. I am now working in Kosova on a book called Bread, Salt, and Heart. It's about a woman from one village along the Albanian border who saved the lives of 500 women and children from another village, who were driven out of their homes by the Serbs. The Serbs massacred nearly all of the men in their village. The book is about the courage of Marta and the relationship between the villagers and the women, who are now living alone and trying to reconstruct their lives emotionally and physically.
I'm also doing a book on Irish gypsies. They're called Travellers in Ireland. I spent 16 years living on and off with a Travellers community in Belfast.
J: How did you get involved with that project?
Allen: In 1984 I started photographing the Troubles in Northern Ireland and I noticed the Travellers' caravan camps all over the city. I'm working on a project with a woman named Liz Groves there, tracing the history of the Troubles through the birth of her eight children. There's a lot of work out there unfortunately. Most of it is about situations in the world that I would rather not be happening.
J: Your work does not seem to be done in the traditional "objective" manner of the documentary photographer, distanced from his or her subjects. Doe you see your work as collaborative?
Allen: My work is based upon a complete trust and intimacy between the people I'm documenting and myself. I don't photograph anything that I don't deeply care about and love. The work is collaborative in nature in that it is based on a complete consent and willingness and desire to participate. When I was working more as a photojournalist, I never felt very good at it. I wasn't really good at taking pictures where I couldn't get close to the people or I was publishing images where there wasn't a name attached. I recognize the validity of that kind of work and I honor photographers who are working that way. However, I needed to move in. I needed to stay. I needed to know the people. That was very, very important to me.
I never finish projects because photography for me is about my relationships with people whom I love and that never ends. It's not just about a photographer and subject. It's about friend meeting friend. The book is over, the relationship isn't.
I give everyone copies of images as I go along. I think it is so important to return to the people and show them your work. And the most successful I ever feel is when I return to some place and my work is on their wall or in an album.
J: How do you find your stories?
Allen: Various methods. Some of them are very well researched. I hear about something and it sparks an interest and I pursue it by reading, by finding people in the area. I find other stories when I arrive some place expecting something else, and by chance. But always, it's about finding a story that needs to be heard. For example, in 1989 I was on my way to photograph the first democratic elections since General Augusto Pinochet had seized power. But two days before, a friend called me and told me about a film by Deborah Schaffer called "Dance of Hope" about the plight of women in Chile. I went over the next morning and saw the film. One scene moved me. During the anniversary of their men's disappearance, on October 19, 1973, the women would go into the desert and throw red carnations into the air. I knew from that moment that I wanted to go.
I called the book Flowers in the Desert because of my first inspiration.
J: How did the women go about their searching?
Allen: They took a piecemeal approach to searching. They'd go out when they had a car available, whenever they could. Sometimes they would have real shovels, sometimes only plastic shovels. Sometimes Vicky, whose 17-year-old brother, Jose, had disappeared, and I would go into the desert and pull at things with our hands. Sometimes people would call saying that they knew where the men were. Sometimes well-intentioned miners who had found bones would call.
Vicky would have dreams where the bodies might be and call me. The next day we would go into the desert to search. I've never been with anyone who had a sense of desert like Vicky. If I were left alone in the desert I would die. There was no point of perspective or reference for me at all.
I found myself in situations with these women digging in the desert when for a moment I would forget and I'd be enjoying myself. Then I would remember, "Oh my God, we're here because we're really, really digging for somebody."
J: Why were the men seen as a threat? Were the women threatened?
Allen: Pinochet wanted everyone in the north to be afraid because the northern part of Chile was so isolated. It was a mission to spread fear. Eleven of the men worked at Dupont, an American explosives plant.
The women felt threatened and they were indeed risking their lives. Once they were imprisoned. When questioned in the desert, they said they were out for a walk.
J: All of the images in the book are black and white. Why is that?
Allen:I felt that black and white was more appropriate visually. I also needed the experience of developing the pictures myself.
J: What are you trying to convey in the picture of the shovel in the desert?
Allen: First let me say, that the shovel was already there. I never set up images. The world offers too much and how could I possibly do better than what already exists in the world?
A group of women and I were out digging in a place called the Valley of the Moon. The shovel when I arrived initially was a symbol of their searching in the desert. This has now become the last image in my book. It is now the image that describes that the search continues. They are still searching for their disappeared relatives because this is a story without ending. Only 13 of the women have received the identified remains of their men.
J: Do the images speak for themselves?
Allen: Some do. The book on Chile is heavily reliant on both interviews and images. I think the images are incredibly powerful, which is why I'm a photographer. But to think that they are the end-all in terms of expressing experience-certainly not. They're about a portion of the experience but certainly not the whole experience. It really depends on the images I create. How powerful are they? What do they say? Do they need to say more?
I never knew I would conduct interviews when I first started. I photograph out of passion, I write out of necessity. I really feel that the women need to tell their own stories. I am the image-maker. The work becomes truly collaborative when you include voices.
J: Would you say something about your background?
Allen:I was born in Detroit so I'm close to home now. I went to university in Boston for six months and then dropped out. I'm self-taught. I very much wanted a camera and my father bought me once as a present. Education is very relevant. I would never undermine it in any way but when I had a camera in my hands for the first time I realized that I had found what I needed to be doing. I found a voice in the world-that felt powerful, emotional and contradictory and celebratory. I dove into the medium. My desires to express myself were so powerful that I was able to educate myself and find people to guide me along the way.
J: What advice would you give novice photographers?
Allen: I would like them to understand that the camera, although a mechanical tool, is not completely a technical medium, it's a means of loving-the link in my life between vision and desire.
You have to determine your own path. For example, people might say about me, "Oh look, she didn't go to school and she's doing what I want to do"-but that was my path. Some people need more structure than I needed. Universities offer structure and facilities with which to work. They provide criticism, which is very beneficial. And others may not need that. They may just need to go out in the world and discover what they care about.
For the past 20 years, Paula Allen has traveled all over the world, documenting women's struggles from the streets of New York City to Northern Ireland, Cuba and Chile. Her work has appeared in Newsweek , The New York Times Magazine , Paris Match , The London Observer Magazine and Art in America , among other publications. In February she came to the U-M to give a series of slide presentations from her work, including her recently published book, Flores en el Desierto (Flowers in the Desert) , a bilingual account of her decade-long work with the women of Northern Chile and their search for the bodies of relatives executed and "disappeared" after the 1973 military coup of General Augusto Pinochet. On the last day of September, a Puma military helicopter took off from Santiago on a tragic mission to the north that came to be known as the Caravan of Death. The outcome of the mission was the massacre of 72 political prisoners in four northern cities: La Serena, Copiapó, Antofagasta and Calama, where 26 political prisoners were killed. This is the backdrop of Allen's book.