Falklands at last
By Marcos Brindicci
I was almost eight years old when the Falklands War started, and the first thing I remember about those days is seeing national flags flying from houses in my hometown in Buenos Aires province. It reminded me of the celebrations during the 1978 World Cup. Though only a child, I knew the government was not very popular in those years, so I was surprised and confused by the euphoria we felt when our troops landed in Port Stanley, the beginning of a war fought by many untrained conscripts.
As an Argentine I’ve been intrigued by the Falkland Islands since our military government decided to fight over them in 1982. I’d missed two opportunities in the past to travel there for Reuters and I was thrilled with the chance to finally go.
As I prepared the trip I began thinking about what the place symbolized, especially considering the renewed diplomatic tension with Britain and the upcoming 30th anniversary of the war. At the same time I kept thinking about the islanders because although we focus on the fight for possession, we rarely think about the islanders themselves. Even now, in the minds of many Argentines, they’re not part of the discussion.
To reach the Falklands from Argentina I had to go to Rio Gallegos in Patagonia and board a twice-weekly flight that begins in Chile and ends at the international airport in Mount Pleasant. I photographed a group of Argentine war veterans boarding the same plane, and that gave me an early start to the story. I wanted to get past the war aspect and focus on something else that was in my mind – that I was going to a place in which people actually live and call their home.
Going there as an Argentine citizen at a time of renewed diplomatic friction made the islanders’ patriotism and dissatisfaction with visitors from my country ever more obvious. I had hoped to blend in enough to be able to do a series of portraits of islanders. The sight of Union Jacks and the Falkland flag all over cars, shops and houses, made it all the more difficult.
Port Stanley is a city where you don’t see people walking around much, even less on the weekends, so I decided to begin by following the veterans to the cemeteries, war memorials and battlefields. Then I would start covering local issues as I got a better feel of the place. Argentine veterans had been advised of the displeasure that their presence would cause. I even thought it could be a problem if I took and filed a photo of them displaying their national flag at the cemetery in Darwin. They were going to do it not to make a show but because it means a lot to them.
I walked with them through the former Darwin battlefields, and then along Wireless Ridge and Apple Pie. I accompanied them to San Carlos Beach, where the British Army landed to retake the Islands. At San Carlos cemetery they even paid their respects to the British soldiers who died fighting them.
With that part of the story done I could start focusing on the rest – the islanders and their lives. I planned to shoot a series of portraits of people in front of their homes, and began with Judy White, who approached me at the supermarket when she saw me taking pictures. She asked me suspiciously, “Who are you,” and then the almost mandatory question, “Are you from Argentina?” Then she surprised me with another. “What are you people going to do with us, invade us again?” I answered that there was no way that could happen. After she accepted to be photographed as part of my project, we went to her home and it was there that I began to realize how the war had affected the islanders. She said she’d had a recent nightmare in which somebody knocked on her door and when she opened it there was an Argentine soldier outside. This dream came 30 years after the conflict.
There were quite a few “nos”, some of them very polite, from islanders refusing to be photographed. But I did manage to find some interesting people to take portraits of, and not only people born and raised in the Falklands. Among them was Alex Olmedo, a Chilean chef that immigrated to the Islands 21 years ago and now manages a hotel.
Argentine Nancy Mansilla, married to islander Joseph Reid who was born there a year before the war, moved to Argentina right after the conflict, and then returned with his family to Port Stanley just a few years ago.
Phil Middleton, a teacher from England who arrived 35 years ago.
Willy Bowles, a school traffic agent who I dubbed the lollipop man.
Trudi Felton, a policewoman who told me she had a couple of friends who were Argentine veterans.
Derek Howatt, who had been Falklands Financial Secretary for many years and now keeps busy growing his own vegetables at home.
Coleen Biggs, the librarian of Stanley who has a Union Jack painted on the roof of her house because as her mother put it, “It’s our only flag.”
Many, or most, Argentines will not agree with me, but I think there is a profound matter that needs to be addressed. The place I visited has no aspect that resembles Argentina, or at least not at this moment. I left the Falklands with that feeling, since I define a nation as a group of people that have something in common and live together rather than as an occupied territory. That’s just my opinion after the visit, and I accept all arguments as valid, of course.
I also left with the feeling that I didn’t get the photo that shows what it is really like down there, although I realize now that perhaps a single picture of a house could tell the story.
By the way, there’s been no sign of Prince William, but everyone knows he’s there, somewhere.
(View a slideshow of images from the Argentine side of the Falklands war here)