‘Esta es una historia real’ or ‘This is a true story’ are almost the first words one encounters in Destino Final. While echoing a familiar Hollywood mantra normally used to evoke credibility, these opening words seem intended instead to assuage incredulity at what follows. Destino Final examines the practice of the death flights, part of the campaign of terror widely known as the Dirty War waged by the Argentinian military junta against its opponents for almost a decade following a military coup in 1976. In this book, the result of a collaboration between Italian photojournalist Giancarlo Ceraudo and Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin, the death flights become an entry point into exploring the wider architecture of political repression employed during this period. From there it also reflects on trauma and grief, personal and national memory, and the patchy process of bringing the architects and perpetrators of repression to trial.
Lewin, herself interned as a teenage political activist, writes that almost from the start the Junta was highly conscious of it’s international image. State terror often depends on a degree of domestic visibility and public knowledge, but what emerged in Argentina was a literally and metaphorically shrouded system of repression employing abductions, torture and execution. Few of those interned survived, becoming part of los desaparecidos, or the disappeared, and public knowledge of what was taking place was at least initially scant. The most unique of these practices, the death flights, is the one that has subsequently become most notorious outside of Argentina. Each week a selection of prisoners held at improvised detention centres like the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada would be chosen for what was euphemistically termed ‘transfer’. They were then sedated and loaded on to cargo planes bound for the Río de la Plata, the wide estuary at the mouth of the River Plate, where they would be dropped still alive into the ocean. As Lewin notes, one finds an inescapably jarring contrast between the military rhetoric and ideals of heroism and sacrifice, and the secretive brutality employed.
Following revelations by Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo, the two journalists began to search for the aircraft used in the flights, eventually identifying a series of them scattered across the globe in locations which seem random but which also jar with historic significance. One turns up in United States, a significant backer of the Junta, another in the United Kingdom, an odd quirk given the role some of the aircraft played in the Falklands or Malvinas War. Another sits rusting on wasteland in Argentina, purchased by a scrap metal merchant who intended it to be a memorial to this conflict, unaware of its role in a far less commemorated campaign. By tracing the aircraft and their log books they are able to begin to unpick the details of the flights and those behind them. An indication though of the long shadow this period still casts is revealed by the difficulties they encounter in finding pilots willing to translate the log books from their arcane aeronautical lexicon. One pilot approached by the pair briefly fled the country in panic. For all the public acknowledgement, the detention centres turned into museums, the memorials to the disappeared, one thing that becomes clear in the book is that this is not a distant episode in history but one with a very real grip on the present.
The search for the planes forms a short prelude to the bulk of the book which deals with other facets of the lingering memories of this time, and the attempts to resolve them. There are visitations to the places of internment, there are photographs of the handful of survivors. There are numerous photographs of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of relatives of the disappeared which has met every week for the past forty years. Azucena Villaflor, one of the original founders of the group, was herself later murdered on one of the death flights. Another section follows forensic anthropologists working to exhume and identify the bodies of other victims of the period, and another the trials and prosecutions.
Ceraudo’s photography is grainy black and white, traditional photojournalism which largely fits the gravity of the subject matter, although one also wonders whether such weighty material needs such further amplification. In some respects this style of photography also sits a little strangely alongside the altogether fashionable images of log books, official court documents and newspapers, a strategy which appears so regularly in contemporary photobooks as to pose the question as to whether documentary photography has reached peak document.
On both counts the aesthetic can start to feel rather too familiar, but this is diluted by the regular texts throughout the book and occasional visual changes of direction. One photograph of a TV screen displays the highly-pixelated face of the argentine military leader Jorge Rafael Videla. So different to what has come before, this is a jarring moment in the book, recalling the climax of W.G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, when the narrator encounters a frozen TV frame of his long-lost parents in Theresienstadt concentration camp. As in Sebald’s novel, half a life time has passed since the events that sparked Destino Final, but that time has been no great healer and memories remain as raw and unresolved as when the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo first began to meet in 1977. The book also acts perhaps unintentionally as a chronicle of an at times uneasy collaboration between the two principal contributors. This is not drawn out as much as it might have been, but forms an interesting sub-strand of the story. It is unclear who is most invested in this history, with Lewin acknowledging her own uneasiness at times despite, or perhaps because, of her personal experiences of detainment. In contrast, Ceraudo shows a zeal to uncover this history which is surprising even to some of his subjects, a drive which has propelled his project for 15 years.
The publication of Destino Final now after such a long period of development seems timely. In terms of formal justice Argentina has been a comparative success story amongst the former Latin American dictatorships. Videla was later tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the coup and repression which followed, as were many of his subordinates. Still, consensus on the history of the period remains elusive, with denialist groups reportedly on the rise in Argentina, and even the current President generating controversy in an interview last year by refusing to be drawn on the number of victims of the era. Beyond Latin America, the legacy of the Dirty War should give some cause for thought given the free hand that these dictatorships were given by many western democracies of the time, who in the context of the late Cold War saw right-wing tyranny as preferable to one with a socialist tinge. Living just as much in a world of ideological extremes and dirty campaigns today, we should be ever aware of the tendencies of contemporary democratic governments to turn a blind eye, or worse, to unpleasant regimes. What Destino Final demonstrates is that means have far reaching ends.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lewis Bush
Destino Final by Giancarlo Ceraudo and Miriam Lewin was published by and is available from Schilt Publishing.