Secrets Shared

The documentary photos of Donna DeCesare

Donna DeCesare's photos raise a curtain on the darkest side of childhood. From her current featured work documenting exploited Central American and Colombian children in "Sharing Secrets: Children's Portraits Exposing Stigma," to her years of telling the stories of youths affected by gang fighting and civil wars across the Americas, her photos viscerally confirm that the messes made by adults wreak havoc on the lives of children. "Sharing Secrets" is part of the Open Society Institute's "Moving Walls 12" exhibit, which opened at the institute's Manhattan headquarters on Sept. 14.

Among other current projects, DeCesare is building a bilingual educational Web site called "Destiny's Children," which she describes as "a collection of photo narratives exploring how war, trauma, and gangs impact the personal choices and social stigmas faced by young people across the Americas." The specific images in "Destiny's Children" are a compilation of her work over a more than 10-year period, with young people involved in gangs in Los Angeles, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Most of the youths featured in DeCesare's work drifted into gang life or sex work or other desperate situations after fighting as child soldiers in civil wars or after "suffering displacement and witnessing human-rights abuses carried out with impunity" during conflicts in their countries, she says. "The [wars'] resulting social, economic, and emotional trauma creates rage and hopelessness. Stigma perpetuates the cycle." Devastated post-war communities are especially vulnerable to the manipulation of organized crime and other destructive social forces. She cites Guatemala, where the current annual homicide rate is close to the average homicide rate during the nation's 36-year civil war.

The photos in "Sharing Secrets" date from 2001 to 2005 and come from multiple projects she worked on during that time period. Some of the earliest are from a brief period she spent working in Guatemala on a UNICEF grant, while the latest, taken in Colombia, are from several months she spent working there on a Fulbright fellowship. "In all cases I conducted the interviews with the children before taking their pictures," DeCesare says. "I always explained a little about myself, the kind of work I do. Sometimes I showed them my pictures of young people in the U.S. or Central America."

"Sharing Secrets" is a first for DeCesare, in that instead of her often lengthy explanations appearing with each photo, text written by her subjects accompanies each of the images in the exhibit – hence the title. "The children's words just add a very different dimension," she says. "I felt that having their words – them telling their own story – makes the work more gripping and more poignant."

"These are children who are largely ignored and forgotten. ... [People] see them as a problem – not as a child, not as a person. Or they see them as an inconvenient reminder that everything isn't all right in the world." The combined portraits and personal accounts become a subtle and powerful medium for raising awareness of the lengthy aftermath of war. As DeCesare puts it, the texts allow "the truth of the pictures" to creep up on you.

After 18 years as a freelance photographer, videographer, and writer, DeCesare joined the UT journalism faculty in 2002, teaching courses in photography and documentary video. Her photographs have been exhibited around the world and published in The New York Times Magazine, Life, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. Since 1995, she has also worked as a video journalist and producer on numerous documentaries for the Learning Channel. She continues her work documenting youth violence and violence-prevention programs in Colombia and Guatemala, as a fellow of the Soros Foundation.

On these pages are four of the 11 image-and-personal-story combinations featured in the exhibit, along with an account by DeCesare of the circumstances of each photo. You can see the entire group of photos at the foundation's Web site (

Tomas (Colombia, 2003)

"Tomas," age 15, lives in a home for former combatants sponsored by the Colombian Family Welfare Institute. He joined the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) paramilitary forces when he was 11 years old.

Secrets Shared
Photo By Donna DeCesare

Tomas: "I left my house because of my mother. She and my father argued a lot. One day, she was screaming at him. She kept screaming. It scared me, and I ran to hide. But I saw it. She lit my father with fire. The flame caught on his clothes. He was burning, and he died. After that when she was angry, she told me she would do the same to me. I was eight, I think. I don't remember. Do I have to remember?

"The main thing is I was scared, and I hated her. Sometimes I went home, but I stayed away a lot. I was afraid. That is when I met the paramilitaries. They were kind. Even though I was little, they said I could stay with them, and I didn't have to do anything. I was the favorite. They bought me nice clothes, everything I needed, gifts, and food. I was so happy with them. I loved them. They told me not to think about my mother. They told me they would always protect me.

"Later, bad things happened. I saw them kill people, a lot of people. They told me they had to. I didn't like it. Sometimes I felt so angry I wanted to kill someone, but then I would feel afraid. They told me not to worry. I didn't have to do any of that. I would close my eyes.

"They were my family. I would never have left them. But one day the army came. They saw how small I was, and they captured me and brought me here. I begged them to let me go back. At first, they kept us locked in here. I wanted to escape and return to the paramilitaries.

"Now that I have been here for almost a year, I think I want to stay. School is hard. I don't understand things. At first, I didn't like to be around so many women, but there is one girl I like. I met her when we took a trip to a farm. She was very kind and pretty, too. I would like to see her again. They tell me if I stay here maybe I can see her again."

DeCesare: Tomas was an exceedingly anxious boy. After my interview with Tomas, the kids at his home went on a weekend trip to a farm, and the girl he told me that he liked was also on the trip. He asked me to take a picture of them together. They stood side by side, held hands, and posed with very serious expressions. I told Tomas that that picture was going to be my thank-you to him for sharing his story but that I wanted to take another picture for the project about his life.

I asked how he thought we could do that without showing his face. He walked over to an iron gate and said, "Take it behind here." I recognized immediately that it was going to work. The bars of the gate were a metaphor from how imprisoned Tomas still was by the traumatic experiences of his childhood and years with the paramilitaries. I moved in so that the bar would obscure nearly half of his face. I wanted to show the eye with the piercing. In this image the harrowing expression in his eye was most acute.

A year later I went back to Colombia and was able to visit Tomas again. The director of the home didn't recognize him in this picture. He was still a nervous boy, but he'd lost the intensely anxious look and had changed his haircut and removed the piercing from his eyebrow. Tomas liked this picture.

Nancy (Colombia, 2005)

Nancy, age 24, and her six younger siblings were displaced after surviving one of Colombia's most brutal paramilitary massacres. In 2000, during three drunken days of mayhem, paramilitaries tortured and killed more than 40 villagers from El Salado. Nancy works with Women Life and Future, a support group for women who have been affected by the war.

Secrets Shared
Photo By Donna DeCesare

Nancy: "I was 16 in 1997 when the paramilitaries arrived with the first list of names. One of the people on it was my neighbor, Domingo Mena, another was the schoolteacher. They only killed four people that time, but it shocked us. We couldn't believe what we had seen with our own eyes. Then, in 2000, the paramilitaries came back with another list of names. This time they ate and drank while they tortured and killed almost 40 people in the town square. They said they were killing guerrillas.

"In Montes de Maria, people are accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. If an armed person comes to a civilian and says, 'Make me coffee,' I make the coffee if I value my life, so they don't kill me. But when the paramilitaries were coming, the guerrillas left. And who remained in the town? Unarmed peasants. And who got killed? The peasants.

"Fear is something that invades your heart so that it becomes like your most trusted friend. Once fear exists, the smallest thing can activate it. Today, in El Salado, it is the Colombian army that asks for favors. Now, if someone does a favor for the soldiers, then in five days you might be found dead in a bag. Fear has made the civilian population victims, but silence has made them collaborators in their victimization.

"The war is a business fed by ignorance, fear, and acts of rage. If I am a man and my father rebukes me, I pick up a gun to get even and feel superior. Sometimes it is that simple. Rage blinds you. It makes you make crazy mistakes. The desire for vengeance is one of the roots of the violence we live with.

"Thankfully, we've had a lot of support and psychological help in El Salado. At the time of the massacre, I wanted the electric chair for every one of them. Now, I would ask the paramilitaries who committed the massacre, 'What made you do this? What gives you the right to take life?' Maybe they will answer that they were following orders. Then I would ask, 'How would you feel if this had happened to you, to your family?' I don't want to make them suffer this; I do want them to at least imagine what it would feel like to be us.

"If they cry and wail and tell me they are sorry, this will not convince me. My family and I have cried more tears than the people who did this ever can. I believe in actions more than words. But if there is a process that breaks the silence, ends the fear, and makes them show a genuine change of heart, with time I hope I can accept that. I don't know if that is justice. But life teaches you tolerance."

DeCesare: I interviewed Nancy and each of her five siblings about the massacre in El Salado. I was impressed by how united they were as a family. One of her sisters described the murders as a menacing shadow on the land. I realized that I could use the idea of the shadow in a different way, and it would be a way to protect their identities. I asked them what they thought about photographing their shadows in the late-afternoon light. They all got excited, and we started talking about different ways we could make the picture. There was a moment when they all joined hands, and I recognized that this image was a strong symbol of their unity and resistance to injustice.

Cindy (Guatemala, 2001)

"Cindy Paula," age 17, is a single mother who works in the red light district along the railroad line.

Secrets Shared
Photo By Donna DeCesare

Cindy: "I was six months old when my papa left my mama. She only has me now, and my younger brother and sister, so as the oldest I have to help.

"Right now, my mom and I get along. But it wasn't always like that. The big problem was my stepfather. He beat me, and I got mad at my mom when she didn't stop him. So I left home at 14. I started living in the streets with other kids. The streets are hard. People always want something from you. The boys all want sex. In the end, they give you the cold shoulder. There are no real friends.

"I tried glue and solvent at first. Then I moved on to marijuana, cocaine, and crack. Sometimes I would have sex in exchange for food or drugs. I got so addicted I preferred drugs to food. Finally, I ended up in the hospital with cardiac arrest. The doctor told me I was going to die if I continued the drugs. I cried and cried. I was so scared. That is when I decided I had to stop.

"I made friends with a woman who worked as a prostitute at the railroad tracks. She was 20, and she told me I could make better money doing that than working in a factory and it was better than stealing or begging. She explained everything to me – how to use condoms, how much to charge, how to make my price a lot higher if someone looked sick or violent, so they'd go away.

"Even though I know it's not the best, for me it is the only way to get ahead. As a servant, I'd make 300 quetzales [$37 per month]. In a textile factory, I'd make 1,200 quetzales [$148 per month]. Here, I can make twice as much.

"But someday I hope I can leave here. You always have to hide things when you work in this. If someone where you live sees where you work then they spread gossip. I don't want my boy to grow up feeling ashamed of me."

DeCesare: I interviewed Cindy Paula inside the tiny room where she worked along the railroad tracks. It is an extremely dangerous area, controlled by gangs, and Cindy didn't think I should be outside with my camera gear. We closed the door, and I made a number of posed shots in which I carefully avoided including her full face. I made some images of her looking into a mirror where only a part of her face could be seen, some images of the photo of her son on her miniskirted lap.

Then we turned the small, bare incandescent lightbulb in the room off. She walked to the doorway and opened the door, and I realized I could use her silhouette. I asked her if she was comfortable with me just sitting on the bed and waiting to capture a moment when someone passed. She liked that idea, so I stayed very still and just waited for several hours. I made a number of images, but this image of the man staring at her and the gang graffiti on the wall gives context and suggests the risk her work involves.

Roxana (Guatemala, 2001)

Pregnant at age 13 with no family, "Roxana," age 15, began working in a brothel saloon to support herself and her baby.

Secrets Shared
Photo By Donna DeCesare

Roxana: "My mother gave me away to a señora when I was a year old. The señora took good care of me. I stayed with the señora till I was 10. She died. Then I was all alone. I tried to go back to my mother, but she treated me bad, so I looked at the buses one day and got on one that said Chimaltenango. I didn't know anyone there, but I decided to go far away to find work.

"At first, I worked in a restaurant washing dishes, later in houses washing clothes. Then, when I was 12, I met an older man who wanted to hug me. He said he would take care of me. He became my husband. But after four months with him, I was pregnant and he left me.

"That is when I came here to work. I knew this place because I would pass it sometimes. The señora here was kind, and she let me come to work. She is indigenous too, and she gives me advice. She pays me 300 quetzaeles [$38] a month. I used to make only 100 quetzaeles [$12] a month washing clothes.

"Often I think I want to leave this life. Some men are abusive; others are kind or sad. No one stays. But leaving this life is difficult. I only studied to first grade, and now I need to buy milk for my baby. He's six months and eats a lot. The baby milk is very expensive.

"In the beginning, I thought I would give my baby away. But then I thought – I don't want to give my son away like my mother gave me away. I knew he would always be sad thinking of that. I don't have any dreams really. Well, to marry and have a happy family, but I don't think that will happen now."

DeCesare: When I interviewed Roxana, I explained that I was working for UNICEF. I imagined that since UNICEF had huge billboards promoting breast-feeding all over Guatemala that she would be familiar with their work. After we finished the interview and I told her that I wanted to make some photographs for her story, she looked up at me and asked. "Is it OK if I keep my clothes on?" I realized Roxana had no idea who I was or what my motives were, even though I thought I had explained them clearly. I also realized that I probably wasn't the first photographer who had asked to take her picture. Guatemala is a destination for sexual tourists.

After I explained again why I was taking the pictures and the work UNICEF does, Roxana became animated. She asked the woman who ran the brothel saloon if I could take pictures. The owner agreed to let me photograph customers in the front of the bar as long as I didn't show the men's faces. This was difficult because I couldn't show Roxana's face either, and showing two people from the back is tough to pull off. So I decided to try an angle where I would be looking down on the scene and where I would capture the emotional tone of the room, the bikini-clad women from the newspapers wallpapering part of the wall, the beer bottles. Finally a young man came in for a beer and for a girl. Roxana sat down. I waited for a moment when she was listening to him in which her face would not be clearly identifiable, and her body language would reveal her feelings.

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Donna DeCesare, Soros Foundation, Sharing Secrets, Moving Walls, Open Society Institute, UNICEF, documentary photography

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