Life among the Social Causes of Photojournalism PDF
Written by Ulises Castellanos   


Chrisitian Poveda at the last workshop he gave in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.





Christian Poveda, a photographer born in Algeria, had devoted his work to portraying conflicts in almost all of Ibero-America. In the 1980s his lens focused on the ups and downs of El Salvador, a country that he loved and that captivated his soul.







The international community has been moved by the recent murder of French-Spanish photojournalist Christian Poveda. Who killed him and why? It seems to have been the work of at least four of the protagonists of his last documentary, La vida loca, which deals with the Maras and gangs in El Salvador. The world will have to wait for the results of the investigation, while his body is repatriated to Spain.


But, who was Poveda? Here we’ll try to render a semblance of this singular journalist. It is always difficult to be objective when a colleague dies, particularly when he is assassinated at one of the best moments of his life, when he was on the verge of premiering his most recent work in Paris and Mexico.


Christian Poveda was in Mexico only 72 hours before he was killed by unidentified individuals in a land that he deeply loved, El Salvador. He had come to Mexico only a few days earlier to give a week-long workshop as part of the third photography meeting, organized by Mauricio Palos and held in San Luis Potosí. This was his first and last course given to a group of professionals, including a staff member of Excélsior, Abdel Meza, a photojournalist who shared his final days with him.


Abdel told me that in that workshop, Christian insisted on transmitting the idea of how we should get involved in our work and always be honest with the individuals that were the object of our obsessions. And he practiced this to its utmost. He presented his complete documentary to the workshop participants.


Christian went to El Salvador with the Nikon cameras and lenses that he had bought from Sebastián Salgado (a special edition made for the Brazilian photographer), according to what he told me years ago at the photojournalism festival in Perpignan. Poveda spent more than three years in El Salvador and close to two working with the Maras and the 18, rival gangs who killed each other daily. He proposed to document their human side and their everyday life, including birthdays, romances, visits to doctors, and arrests. During the course of his work with them, several of them died and he even documented their funerals and the community’s pain each time they lost a member.


Chrisitian Poveda at the last workshop he gave in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.


He used to say that it was that dedication that led him to become a paternal figure for the gangs; kids, who were mostly orphans or abandoned by their parents, found a generous person and an authority figure in him. Christian visited them every day, even at times without intending to film anything, just to stop by and see them to see how they were going and thus to establish a unique bond of intimacy. There in San Luis, he said that Bambam, one of the Maras, had called him on the phone to ask him for some sneakers when he went back to San Salvador.


Poveda was one of the founders and a curator of ES Photo, an annual program for collective photography exhibitions in El Salvador. Its fifth exhibition was planned to start this weekend.


Christian Poveda’s parents were Republicans and they were exiled during the Spanish Civil War.


He was born in Algeria during the French occupation, at the end of which he went back to Paris for refuge six years later. He gained fame for his coverage of the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara. He also worked on the U.S. invasion of Granada, and historical events in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador during the civil war more than twenty years ago.


He began his career as a filmmaker in 1977, dealing with conflicts as well as customs and upbeat events in African countries and throughout most of Ibero-America. During the 1980s, Poveda formed part of the contingents of war correspondents who covered the news and documented combat between the forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the Salvadorian Army.


After the peace accords were signed in Mexico on January 16, 1992, Poveda became interested in the complex problems that arose after the war and he decided to investigate the phenomenon of violent antisocial groups that called themselves “the Maras.” He spent his last three years in El Salvador filming a documentary, La vida loca. During the course of eighteen months, he documented the daily life of the criminal bands, particularly the members of the gang known as the Mara 18.


The documentary is a faithful and committed record on the gang phenomenon. It was presented at the San Sebastián Film Festival in September 2008 and at professional meetings, such as the ones held in Morelia, Havana, San Luis Potosí, and Helsinki.


On September 2, 2009, he died after he was shot in the Salvadorian barrio of Tonacatepeque, some 16 kilometers to the north of the capital, where he had been working on his film.


Here it is worth pointing out that when he finished the final cut and secured the respective funding, including the support of Canal 22 [the cultural channel] in Mexico, he decided to premiere the film at a university in El Salvador, an event that was attended by at least a dozen of the gang members who appeared in the documentary. They say that when the film was over, the members of the Mara left in silence and filled with the rage documented from their own lives. A few days later, as a result of what they had seen on that screen, they lashed out against their eternal enemies. A small war broke out while Poveda was in Mexico.


El Salvador has a population of 5.5 million people. It is a nation where more than ten people die each day from gang disputes, which leave a total of close to 300 dead per month. The deep roots of that violent culture that seeks resolution through the death of the other should come as no surprise to us.


Chrisitian Poveda at the last workshop he gave in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.


According to statements made by Édgar Romero, a photojournalist and joint-organizer along with Poveda of the Fourth ES Photo Festival, a line of investigation that has to do with the fact that La vida loca was on bootleg DVD stands in only three days, and it was being sold at a dollar per copy, but the gang who was featured in the film added a tax of three dollars, and they spread the rumor that Poveda was economically benefiting from it. When he returned from Mexico, he went to see them to deny it and also to defend his work, because he was very careful about copyright, according to Romero.


An article from the Spanish newspaper El País coincides with this. Citing Salvadorian sources, it implies that the documentary filmmaker had had differences and even faced threats from the gang members, as a result of the illegal distribution of the audiovisual material in the streets of the capital. According to the paper, Poveda attempted to resolve these differences.


We will never know the motives of whoever took Poveda’s life with four shots, three of them in the face.


In the neighborhood of La Campanera, in Soyapango, La vida loca, filmed with a camera held on his shoulder, captured the daily life of members of one of the main gangs in El Salvador, the Mara 18. The gang is characterized by its own language, tattoos, codes, and high levels of aggression, violence, and criminal activity.


This group and the Mara Salvatrucha are equals in cruelty. Moved by the utter denial of everything including death, they are living a merciless war. Some of these young people were killed in the course of the filming, which is captured in the documentary.


They are known as Maras in Central America and they are a copy of the model of Los Angeles gangs, created by the Salvadorians who migrated there during the civil war at the beginning of the 1980s. The Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18 arose there. These are the two main rival gangs that oppose each other today, although there is no ideological or religious difference between them that might explain this fight to death that pits poor against poor.


Salvadorian journalist Edu Ponces describes the reality of his country in this way: “El Salvador is the example for the world of everything that should not be done when it comes to violence.”


A couple of years ago, Christian Poveda spoke out against plagiarism that, he claimed, Isabel Muñoz (a Spanish photographer) had perpetrated against him, by copying the subject, style, and focus that he had used to begin his work in El Salvador. To date, that dispute has continued without reaching any resolution.


At the closing of this edition, five individuals have been accused in El Salvador in the course of the investigation of the murder of French-Spanish photojournalist and filmmaker Christian Poveda. According to the local media, the suspects are a member of the police force, Juan Napoleón Espinoza, and four alleged members of the Mara 18, José Alejandro Melara, "El Puma"; Luis Romero Vázquez, "El Tiger"; Calixto Rigoberto Escobar, "El Toro"; and Nelson Lazo Rivera, "El Molleja", the group of gang members portrayed by Poveda in his documentary La vida loca.


May condolences go to his family and to the community of professional photojournalists who today mourn his death.


Ulises Castellanos
September 13, 2009



Other links in Zone Zero:

La Vida Loca (Posthumous Homage)

In Memoriam



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