Photojournalist Documents Gangs in the Wake of El Salvadoran Civil War

May 21, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin hosts "Inside El Salvador," a photography exhibition of more than 100 black-and-white images concerning the country's civil war and its aftermath.

More than 30 images taken by award-winning documentary photographer Donna DeCesare, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, focus on the end of the civil war and its consequences on the population.

Donna DeCesare's photograph of Edgar Bolanos

Edgar Bolaños—"There are lots of people here who want to kill me. I don't mean homeboys. I mean the really bad people from the organized crime rings and other people who just hate us." Photo: Donna DeCesare

Rather than abandon El Salvador when the 1992 peace accords were signed, DeCesare began photographing visual narratives that sought to explore how the war, trauma and gangs affected the personal choices and social stigmas faced by young Salvadorans, inside and outside the country.

"I believe it is important for journalists and the press to maintain interest in a place after a conflict ends," said DeCesare. "The aftermath and the rebuilding is the critical time, and that's the time that gets less coverage. Dramatic visuals drive the story and the press easily shifts its focus to the next dramatic conflict, instead of staying to report on the rebuilding process, and on what's working and what's not working. I think El Salvador suffered from that tremendously. Many of the journalists who were in El Salvador moved from Central America when the war ended. The conflict in Bosnia began shortly afterward and they moved on to cover the next war. My efforts were an attempt to continue the story."

Some of DeCesare's images tell the stories of two teenagers living the legacy of the Salvadoran civil war in the gangs of Los Angeles and El Salvador, tracing the tragedy of youth violence from its origins in Los Angeles, where the Salvadoran immigrant community forms the second largest Salvadoran "city" in the world, back to El Salvador.

The first story follows Jessica Diaz as she attempts to break the vicious circle of violence trapping her family. The second story follows Edgar Bolaños, whose mother sends him back to El Salvador, naively believing he will be safe from the world of gangs that killed his brother in Los Angeles.

DeCeseare's groundbreaking reportage about the spread of United States gang culture to Central America has earned national and international awards. In 2005 DeCesare was interviewed in Univision's documentary "La Vida Por la Mara," providing insight about the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang established in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles. Often referred to as MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha now have roots in Latin America and the United States.

Recognized as an expert on issues of youth identity and gang violence, DeCesare has worked as a consultant to UNICEF as a photographer and reporter and in helping to develop the protocols for representation of at-risk children and youth.

Running through Aug. 3, "Inside El Salvador" can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours to 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

High-resolution press images are available.

Information about the exhibition, including multimedia features, can be found at www.hrc.utexas.edu/elsalvador.

Listen to Donna DeCesare speak about photojournalism in war zones.

For more information, contact: Jennifer Tisdale, Harry Huntt Ransom Humanities Research Center, 512 471 8949;  Alicia Dietrich, Harry Huntt Ransom Humanities Research Center, 512-232-3667.