New York

“The Nicaragua Media Project”

New Museum

The military aggression waged against Nicaragua by U.S.-sponsored “contras” (so-called “freedom fighters”) is equaled in perfidy only by the nonmilitary actions—economic, propagandistic—of the Reagan administration, and all are designed in toto to bring about the eventual overthrow of the Sandinista government. Essential to the narrative that supports these political tactics is an unrestrained exploitation of media materials and forms which gives voice and shape to a xenophobically consituted representation of the Sandinistas as Marxist “other.” (Anti-socialism never sleeps.) A recognition of the established media’s determining influence on the public image of Nicaragua—a carefully inverted image—provided the impetus for the ten organizers of “The Nicaragua Media Project.” Beyond this unifying point of origin, however, an implicit question arose—what is the best counter strategy to the codes of the communications industry?—and two distinct, apparently antithetical attitudes seemed to emerge in the show. These may be characterized as “libertinism,” which advocates taking hold of the media to present an oppositional view, and deconstruction, which attacks the mechanism of the media critically in order to break the circle of deceit.

Neither tactic is likely to derail the hardheaded conservative. But the deconstructive operations in this exhibition offered evidence to effect small ruptures in the patriarchal, monolithic picture of a hundred and sixty years of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations. The contradictory manipulations of the mass media as a fundamentally unilateral, rhetorical system of representation were also made plain.

The subtitles of the exhibition’s five sections—“The Rhetoric of the Image,” “Nicaragua: By Whom?,” “The War Against Nicaragua,” “Nicaragua by Nicaraguans,” and “The Weight of History”—supplied the ostensible infrastructure for its content, which was unresolved and sometimes at odds with itself; we found the substantive material collected by the organizers impressive but its articulation uneven. “The Rhetoric of the Image” was the most effective and demanding section. It death with the use and abose of the photograph as signifier, and presented a contrasting study of photographs caught in and out of a confluence of editorial devices. Some of these media techniques are habitual and are to be anticipated (by the suspicious): we are thinking here of the sensationalizing treatment and mythologizing coloring of Nora Astorga, rejected by the U.S. as Nicaraguan ambassador, by both the “right” and “left” press. Other examples were more extreme in their fraudulent appropriation of photographic images. The most outrageous case traced the saga of a photograph taken in 1978—Red Cross workers burning the corpses of civilians killed by Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard—which in 1982 was printed in cropped form by the conservative Parisian Le Figaro magazine (it was the Red Cross workers who were deleted) with a caption referring to the dead as 200 Miskito Indians murdered by the Sandinistas. Subsequently Alexander Haig, then U.S. Secretary of State, displayed the fabricated evidence at a TV news conference as proof of Sandinista atrocities.

The “Nicaragua: By Whom?” section attempted to correct these misrepresentations. Prints of photographs by various international photographers depicting Sandinist Nicaragua in a humanist context were juxtaposed with selected press images, edited texts, and frequently bellicose headlines. This was a revisionist presentation, one that drew us unemotionally, but that relied on a naive confidence in the accessible truth of the photographic object-in-itself.

The same may be said about the members of the Nicaraguan photographers’ union, whose works comprised the “Nicaragua by Nicaraguans” section. We cannot disagree with the notion of presenting the work of the unrepresented, and we also know that this largely inchoate group operates under severe difficulties. Nonetheless, their photographs elicit more empathy for the painful struggle of photographic learning than the privileged insight into the familial, communal, and political life of Nicaragua that one is led to expect. For us, the undesignated heroes of the exhibition were finally the highly experienced, responsible, and dogged professional photographers such as Susan Meiselas, Anne Testut, Koen Wessing, Mel Rosenthal, and Margaret Randall. Their interactive camera skills always load the photographic sign to its fullest potential for interpretive meaning.

The task undertaken by “The Nicaragua Media Project,” despite its dichotomy of method and ambition, its gaps and incomplete thoughts, is decidedly important on several counts. Not least significant is the reflective stance the viewer must take when confronted both with the counter assertions and corrective measures of a revisionist view—presented, however, in traditional ways—and with an anti-therapeutic rupture of those traditions through critical practice.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom