Lori Berenson – The 15-year assignment
By Mariana Bazo
On Monday, after several attempts, Lori Berenson finally managed to leave Peru for her native New York. And although it was a full year since she had been freed on parole, a total of fifteen years had gone by since the first photo I took of her. Peru has changed enormously since then. I still remember clearly the face-to-face encounter I had with her at the interview with Reuters the day after she was paroled.
I left my car badly parked and ran to the appointment in an old building in downtown Lima. I got lost, entered a slow elevator, and in too much of a hurry to realize exactly where I was headed and with whom I was to meet, the door opened and I was suddenly face to face with her. It was 15 years since I first met her, but it was the first time that we shook hands. The attorney asked, “Do you know each other?” I answered, “Well yes,” and I blurted out my name.
Fifteen years earlier I was awoken in the middle of the night to be told that something strange was going on in the Molina neighborhood. The word was that soldiers had surrounded a street. During times of the armed civil conflict that was enough information to race to Molina. I jumped in the only vehicle I could find on short notice, my own brand new car. Although new, I quickly left it badly parked in the area where there were army tanks and soldiers, and we could hear shots. Something big was happening. They had surrounded one house in particular. Photographers ran to the place in a group for protection. I saw a blue light flash between my legs; it was a bullet. We didn’t fully understand what was happening, but as the dawn sky brightened we learned that they had arrested a group of the rebel Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), and that among them was an American girl. It was Lori. The shots ceased and I returned to my car only to find it bashed by a tank. Nobody paid me for the damage.
In the days to come the arrest became a big story. We knew they would present the American to us at any moment. In January, 1996, we were summoned to the DINCOTE (Anti-terrorist police). Lori appeared for the first time to us, shuffling between two guards. She was highly agitated when I took my first picture of her.
They sentenced her to 20 years in prison. I realized that hers was a story to follow for a long time, and that’s exactly how it evolved. She never stopped being news. I traveled with her parents to Puno when they transferred her to the Yanamayo jail at 4,000 meters above sea level. I even helped them translate her Christmas card to them, which she had been forced to write them in Spanish. I saw her many times behind bars during her long trial in 2001.
We learned that she had married and had a child in prison. We stood waiting hours and hours for her to appear at the women’s prison in Lima. We watched as she was transferred by car between prisons, and were told that they had stopped en route so she could see the ocean. Suddenly in 2011 they released her on parole and she granted us the interview. I saw her leave the courtroom a free woman, but not free from all the journalists and photographers that mobbed her.
This last day covering Lori was different. It was 2011, just the two of us face to face, no prison bars nor journalists. Fifteen years had gone by, and she had granted Reuters an exclusive interview. I was mostly the same, doing the same job, but she had changed. She was calm, and now had a son.
I greeted her politely, and with nothing to converse about I simply took pictures. I felt it was a delicate situation. I observed her and listened to the interview. No judging. I just photographed.
When I take portraits of someone I want to know them. I try to observe and understand the person. To me, Lori was an immense enigma. I couldn’t reach her, and it was understandable. I could sense the suffering and hardship of all those years. In the first photo I took of her in 1996, she was beside herself. Later on she had explained that she was like that because she had been tortured. Now I looked at her and tried to feel her as a subject, but I continued to feel the same distance as on that first day. As a photographer, I can respect that.
I imagined that it will take time for her to feel free from all the weight of what she lived in Peru, and the hounding of my colleagues. I left the interview with the feeling that the story was not yet over. I returned to my car, badly parked as 15 years ago, this time with a large parking ticket but no scratches.