Daily Picture Show

Donna De Cesare's Lens On Central America, Children And Civil War

  • Three-year-old "Esperanza" named her pet pigeon after her wheelchair-bound teenage uncle in Watts, Los Angeles. He was shot by a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting, 1994.
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    Three-year-old "Esperanza" named her pet pigeon after her wheelchair-bound teenage uncle in Watts, Los Angeles. He was shot by a rival gang member in a drive-by shooting, 1994.
    Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • During the rebel offensive in November 1989, civilians in a zone held by insurgents flee their working-class barrio after three days of aerial bombing by the Salvadoran air force in Soyapango, El Salvador.
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    During the rebel offensive in November 1989, civilians in a zone held by insurgents flee their working-class barrio after three days of aerial bombing by the Salvadoran air force in Soyapango, El Salvador.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • A Holy Week procession passes by walls marked with graffiti of the gang that dominates the zone in Jocotenango, Guatemala, 2001.
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    A Holy Week procession passes by walls marked with graffiti of the gang that dominates the zone in Jocotenango, Guatemala, 2001.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • Gang graffiti in English begin to appear in barrios in San Salvador, 1993.
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    Gang graffiti in English begin to appear in barrios in San Salvador, 1993.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • After Jose Bola–os was murdered, his youngest brother, Edgar, tattooed a tombstone memorial on his back and began hanging out in gang crash pads in Apopa, El Salvador, 1995.
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    After Jose Bola–os was murdered, his youngest brother, Edgar, tattooed a tombstone memorial on his back and began hanging out in gang crash pads in Apopa, El Salvador, 1995.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • In the 1980s, El Salvador had one of the Northern Hemisphere's worst human-rights records. This victim was allegedly murdered by government death squads for violating curfew during a guerrilla offensive.
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    In the 1980s, El Salvador had one of the Northern Hemisphere's worst human-rights records. This victim was allegedly murdered by government death squads for violating curfew during a guerrilla offensive.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • Bugsy tattoos Baby Face with the homeboy stigmata. A teardrop may represent a year spent in prison, or it can signify a murderous settling of scores. San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, 1993.
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    Bugsy tattoos Baby Face with the homeboy stigmata. A teardrop may represent a year spent in prison, or it can signify a murderous settling of scores. San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, 1993.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • Suspected of being involved with gangs, these immigrant youth are targeted for deportation by agents with the Violent Gang Task Force, Westside, Los Angeles, 1994.
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    Suspected of being involved with gangs, these immigrant youth are targeted for deportation by agents with the Violent Gang Task Force, Westside, Los Angeles, 1994.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • Immigrants protest Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny education and health care to adults and children in this country illegally. The initiative was ultimately defeated, but it marked hardening attitudes toward immigrants and their children. Los Angeles, 1994
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    Immigrants protest Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny education and health care to adults and children in this country illegally. The initiative was ultimately defeated, but it marked hardening attitudes toward immigrants and their children. Los Angeles, 1994
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press
  • A gang member in an isolation cage — in the special block for prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates — at the maximum security prison Granja Penal de Pavon, Guatemala, 2009.
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    A gang member in an isolation cage — in the special block for prisoners who have been threatened by other inmates — at the maximum security prison Granja Penal de Pavon, Guatemala, 2009.
    Courtesy of Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press

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"Be a human first and a journalist second," Donna De Cesare once told me.

Even before she became my professor at the University of Texas, Austin, I had been well aware of De Cesare's work and the recognition it had earned her — like a Fulbright fellowship and the Dorothea Lange prize from Duke University — so I was pretty daunted by the time I enrolled.

As a photojournalist, De Cesare has spent decades documenting the effects of war and gang violence on youth in Central America, from former child soldiers to imprisoned gang members, as well as the war-related diaspora in Los Angeles.

"We don't think about the long-term effect war has on people, especially children," she says on the phone. "Once a war ends, we are thinking about the next war."

Donna De Cesare (second from left) and the family of Carlos Perez, who took the photograph. De Cesare met Perez when he was 18 years old and was involved with gangs, and they became close friends. He became her photo assistant, slowly eased out of gang life and is now a working artist. i i

Donna De Cesare (second from left) and the family of Carlos Perez, who took the photograph. De Cesare met Perez when he was 18 years old and was involved with gangs, and they became close friends. He became her photo assistant, slowly eased out of gang life and is now a working artist. Courtesy of Carlos Perez hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Carlos Perez
Donna De Cesare (second from left) and the family of Carlos Perez, who took the photograph. De Cesare met Perez when he was 18 years old and was involved with gangs, and they became close friends. He became her photo assistant, slowly eased out of gang life and is now a working artist.

Donna De Cesare (second from left) and the family of Carlos Perez, who took the photograph. De Cesare met Perez when he was 18 years old and was involved with gangs, and they became close friends. He became her photo assistant, slowly eased out of gang life and is now a working artist.

Courtesy of Carlos Perez

Her new bilingual book, Unsettled: Children In A World Of Gangs, includes 145 black-and-white images and a first-person narrative, spanning those 30 years of reportage.

And the first-person narrative is a big part of it: One thing De Cesare explains both directly in the classroom and indirectly through her work is that the role of a journalist isn't as simple as being an objective observer. Over the years, she has developed profound relationships with the people she photographs, often blurring the line that separates photojournalist from friend.

"Why are we telling these stories to begin with?" she asks. "We can't really change the world — but we can change the world we are in by making choices."

For example, her book contains an image of "Pato," a former child soldier in El Salvador, holding his daughter with bronchitis in a car in Los Angeles. After taking the image, De Cesare drove them to the nearest clinic because Pato didn't have medical insurance.

"Our responsibility as human beings is to intervene," she says. "Do the least harm, and doing some good is not a bad thing either."

Editor's Note: Lizzie Chen is an intern in NPR's multimedia department. She studied under Donna De Cesare at the University of Texas at Austin, and recently interviewed her about her new book.

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