My memories of a dictator
Buenos Aires, Argentina
By Marcos Brindicci
Former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla died on May 17 at the age of 87 inside his cell in a prison near Buenos Aires, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He was the first President and most emblematic figure of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during the so-called “Dirty War” years. Human rights organizations claim that around 30,000 people disappeared during those years, and Videla never repented about the kidnappings and murders ordered by the state.
His death of old age got me thinking about one of my first memories of him, and also, one of my last ones.
When I was about five years old my mother took me to Iguazu Falls for a winter vacation and we ended up staying at the same hotel where Videla, as president, was staying. I was running all around the hotel and, at one point, I was stopped by members of his guard and led back downstairs. My mother later told me what was going on and that Videla was the guy I had seen on TV. It is a candid memory of someone I learned to loathe for what he had done and what he represented, as most Argentines do.
That former army commander was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for human rights abuses under his rule, but was pardoned in 1990 by then-President Carlos Menem. Some years later, when I became a photojournalist and more Dirty War cases were opened in Argentina, I got a few chances to take pictures of him, usually through the window of a car as he arrived at a courthouse or from a distance as he was led out of it.
But one time, in 2010, when I was in Cordoba covering the Volleyball World League finals, I was also assigned to cover a hearing there of one of his trials inside the courthouse. The ideal situation for a photographer is not to be noticed at all but, even when I know this is not very ethical, this time I admit that I wanted him to see me. It is well known that he and most of the so-called “repressors” on trial don’t like being photographed in that situation.
I had my 400mm lens for the volleyball matches and decided to take it to the court, even though I expected to be as close as a few feet from him. It was nothing compared to what my colleagues had the opportunity to shoot during the dictatorship – society’s repudiation of him and his fate in the hands of Justice. But just noticing that he was bothered by my presence and my weapon (my camera and massive 400mm lens), and getting the close-up shots I wanted, felt like a small victory in front of a man who made life and death decisions over an entire country.