Christian Poveda (1957-2009) PDF
Written by Nick Fraser   


Documentary film-maker and photojournalist

unfazed by danger or difficulty.


Chistian Poveda


Christian Poveda, who was shot dead in El Salvador last week aged 52, was one of the most talented photojournalists of his generation. He was also a brave documentary film-maker, specialising in politically contentious or dangerous subjects that others wouldn't touch.

Christian was born in Algiers. His grandfathers, one an anarchist, the other a communist, were exiles from Franco's Spain, and Christian often said how much he admired them for their political engagement. After Algerian independence, the family moved again, to France. Untrained, with a highly developed eye, Christian began to sell photos at the age of 19, and for the next decade he covered wars throughout the world, specialising in Latin America. His break came when he covered the civil war in El Salvador, a country that he came to love.


Cristian Poveda2


Among the publications for which he worked were Paris Match, Newsweek and Time magazine. A Poveda image was instantly recognisable for its stark, formal qualities, but like Robert Capa, on whose life he modelled his own, Poveda wasn't interested in aestheticism. He cared about the people whom he photographed, and he did become involved in their lives, keeping in touch long after the images appeared in magazines throughout the rich world.

In the 1980s, he began to make documentary films, focusing on the lives of the banlieue young, boxers and wrestlers. Within the cliquey, status-minded world of French broadcasting he had a reputation for being a "dur" – a cantankerous, unbiddable outsider. But the same executives who bemoaned his aggressiveness in meetings would concede, often uncomfortably, that he obtained great material by living with his subjects, month after month, without regard to constraints of budgets. He had developed his own style of campaigning film journalism, by showing what it was to live on the outside.

I met him in 1995, and together we made the television documentary Journey to the Far Right, on Europe's far-right movements, which was shown on BBC2 and the French-German network ARTE, and throughout Europe. I think Christian had misgivings both about working with a BBC, Oxbridge-educated reporter, and about whether we should be giving airtime to characters whom he described, with his usual terseness, as "des merdeux" ("shitbags"). However, we got to like and respect each other.

We were threatened with violence many times as we travelled throughout Europe, and I have never worked with anyone as persistent and physically courageous. Christian was thick-set and dark, bull-like, with sad, eloquent eyes. We developed a distinctive reportorial procedure. He would stand in front of a racist politician, blocking any exit; being tall, I could loom over the interviewee. I would ask the same questions, until our victim either demanded an end to the interview, or in exasperation spat out his views. Intermittently, though it was very time-consuming, the method proved to be highly successful.

Christian taught me that one must never compromise with people whom one loathes for good reason. But I noticed, too, that members of the National Front respected Christian, because he never for a moment pretended not to dislike everything they stood for. His own expressions of satisfaction were rigorously confined to whether we had triumphed over the forces of darkness.

If we had failed he was disconsolate, drowning his sorrows in Bandol, his red wine of choice, also, to Christian's horror, the National Front's favourite. After the last of our many jousts with Jean-Marie Le Pen, he was gleeful. "On l'a baisé bel et bien," he said. ("We really screwed him …") He was pleased when the film was shown at many festivals throughout the world. It became one of ARTE's most successful films, and it was used in journalism schools as an illustration of how to cover racists without permitting them to evade responsibility for their views.

Christian remained half-detached from the French scene, but he did manage to make a living, subsidising his films with more lucrative photo assignments. After separating from his wife Tamsin, he began to spend more time in El Salvador, which he loved. In La Vida Loca, which was the result of more than four years' work, he looked at the lives of teenage gangsters of San Salvador, focusing on the heavily tattooed Mara 18 gang, filming gang initiations, dope dealing and smoking, and funerals. Gang members are killed in the film, and it's clear that few if any of the picturesquely named children (one of them is called "La Chucky", after the protagonist of the horror film Child's Play) will ever reach adulthood. "We must try to understand why a child of 12 or 13 joins a gang, and gives his life for it," he said. Christian wanted us to see that for these children, there can be no other outcome. Like the best of his work, the film is raw, beautiful and involving.

Last week, La Vida Loca was about to be released in France. Christian had called friends, expressing worries that pirated DVDs were freely available. He had heard that many in the gangs, as well as the police force, weren't happy with the film. But he went filming in Tonacatepeque, a barrio 10 miles outside San Salvador. On his return, he was ambushed and, seated in his car, shot several times in the head. A gang member was arrested by the police. "Christian is just one of the 10 who will die today," a Salvadoran photographer wrote in the internet newspaper El Faro. "If you look long enough down the throat of the lion, he will eat you."

• Christian Poveda, photojournalist and documentary film-maker, born 12 January 1957; died 2 September 2009

Nick Fraser, Sunday 6 September 2009 18.47 BST





Cristian Poveda3




Share This