Having fled the violence of Uruguay’s ruling military, Julio Etchart has spent his life capturing conflict and political developments across the world with his camera.
Documentary photography is for me is a means of communication and liberation. By bearing witness to the harsh realities of our world and telling those stories in a meaningful and creative manner, I have found the freedom that was so elusive in my youth.
I left my native Uruguay in 1974, escaping the repression of the military regime, which had staged a coup in June 1973. Under the dictatorship I was twice imprisoned for being an active member of the fledgling (and later banned) Frente Amplio party, a coalition of progressive forces not dissimilar to Chile’s Unidad Popular under Salvador Allende.
After a spell in Paris, I moved to the UK in 1975 where I volunteered for Amnesty International as an interpreter and translator, before studying Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at Newport Art College in Wales.
There was a strong feeling of solidarity with trade unions and refugee and exile groups. My course leader at Newport, the noted Magnum photographer David
Hurn, made a special effort to support me and encourage me to go out and record the injustices of the world.
In 1981 I started freelancing for newspapers and magazines, mainly The Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, and the French daily Libération. I also produced audio visual materials and campaigning exhibitions for NGOs such as Oxfam, Save the Children, War on Want and Unicef.
At the time, almost ninety per cent of Latin Americans in London were political exiles. I became involved with Chilean solidarity groups and documented the Latin American community, which has since changed a great deal. During the 1980s more people began to arrive for economic reasons, although I don’t like making distinctions between political and economic exile.
As fellow Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti once said ‘all exiles are political: they leave their countries because of a policy, a series of economic policies, which do not allow them to grow as individuals and give them no opportunities to work and realise their potential’, an opinion I have always shared.
Back to Uruguay
In the mid-1980s democracy returned to various countries in Latin America. I returned to Uruguay to cover the 1984 elections, and also travelled to Argentina and Brazil to record the end of the dictatorships and transition to civilian rule in those countries. With much trepidation, but encouraged by my exiled friends in London, I began visiting Chile, where I witnessed – with my cameras – the arduous journey that led to the 1988 plebiscite on whether Pinochet should remain in power.
Long spells in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba followed, where I covered the Contra and civil wars in the two Central American countries and the achievements of the revolution on the Caribbean island.
By 1992 I had crisscrossed Latin America many times, gathering material for my first book The Forbidden Rainbow, a selection of over one hundred images from across the continent. It featured an introduction by my late friend and colleague Eduardo Galeano, as well as essays by renowned Latin American writers and activists such as Ariel Dorfman, Daniel Moyano and Rigoberta Menchú. The book was published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the European colonisation of the Americas.
The following years brought major change, as I started a family and was blessed with two children. This affected my appetite for chasing armed conflict so I started to work more regularly with NGOs, which took me to other parts of the world. I was in South Africa surveying the early successes of the ANC government of Mandela, in Western Sahara, where I was hosted by the Polisario Front and War on Want, and in the Philippines after Cory Aquino’s victory. I also covered development, gender and social inclusion projects in India, South East Asia and China.
After being awarded a World Press Photo First Prize in the Environment category, I produced The Four Elements, a touring exhibition on ecological issues.
My long-term project on children’s play around the world, Toys, was published in four languages in 2006 and won a UNICEF award. It has been exhibited as a touring display in many countries.
I have long been involved with NGOs in the practice of photo-voice, a form of participatory image-making that involves training participants from community groups to take their own pictures and work on self-representation. In collaboration with NGOs, I have facilitated these workshops with grassroots communities in many countries around the world.
For the past year, I have been working with CARE, the Center for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation, at the Faculty of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. The project centres on multimedia documentaries and developing the photo-voice practice with migrant workers and other marginalised communities in the region.
This current experience in South East Asia has turned my life full circle by giving me the opportunity to share the skills and experience accumulated throughout my career and, through the medium of participatory practice, to contribute to the empowerment of the less privileged groups in society.
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015)