Stereotypes and peculiarity

It is unusual that an historical documentary video incorporate only photos that correspond to the historical period. Photo credits:

  • top—Hermanos Mayo. Striking railroad workers, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 2-4 July 1958. Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 12609.
  • bottom—Hermanos Mayo. Striking railroad workers celebrate their victory, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 25 February 1959. Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 13313.

This tendency to use images stereotypically not only undercuts the credibility and excitement they can bring to the work it flies in the face of these artifacts' particularity. Although we are accustomed to seeing photos used as illustrations to represent generalities in TV productions and textbooks, they would be better used to present particularities. As opposed to words — conventional symbols that describe similarities — a photo can never be general. It always presents a specific moment, a particular fraction of a second. The forms of material existence and social relations which are revealed by photos — daily life, work, class, race, and gender relations — are never general. A photo can never represent, for example, "labor relations in the 1960s." A photo is not a synthesis, it is simply a slice of time in which this worker stood in front of this specific machine at this particular instant; a fraction of a second in which this group gathered in front of this factory to make these demands.

However, historical photographs suffer from a curious irony. If they are by nature necessarily particular, seen out of context, they become generalities. Without some way of reconstructing the specific situation presented in a photo, the riveter fabricating boxcars in the Nonoalco trainyard on the 8th of November, 1944, becomes railroad worker. (click to see image) Stripped of their contextual specificity, photographs become metaphors or symbols, myth instead of history. We need to bring the same sort of seriousness and discipline that we use in researching written documents to the search for and identification of photographs and moving footage.[11] [open endnotes in new window]

The degree to which even historians who work extensively with film assume that images have been used in a general, abstract, and illustrative way can he demonstrated in the following anecdote. When Hechos Sobre Los Rieles was shown at the 1987 Congress of the American Historical Association, the prominent historian-cineaste, John O'Connor (founder and editor of Film & History) was surprised to discover that, with few possible exceptions, the photos utilized in the tape all corresponded to the historical period presented. He found the fact so remarkable that he stated some way ought to be found to inform the audience of this.

I would also like to argue for a greater us of photos in place of the traditional reliance on moving footage that we find in so much film history. This proposition is based on several observations. The first is a question: What information is available in moving footage that is not present in photos? Though recognizing that there are certain elements in documentary footage that are less accessible in photos — body language, for example — the reliance on footage fills up screen time at an alarming rate. This reduces the variety of images that could be used. It's a situation made worse by the fact that the limited amount of footage available necessitates its "stereotypical" utilization in different productions.

Second, as graphic history goes beyond mere "illustrationism" — moving from representation to presentation — photographs offer greater possibilities for bringing the audience into an interpretive tension with the work.[12] Instead of being led along by the nose through a constant alternation of the moving image, the audience has the opportunity to view the photos and to reflect on them as well as on the interpretation which is being offered. (Of course, the aesthetic demands of video and history may be at odds, and what could appear to a video maker as an appropriate time for an image to be on screen might seem to an historian completely inadequate. However, this is the sort of tension that will be resolved as historians begin to develop their own language of video.)

Third, the working class has made many, many more images of itself in photographs than on film; these photos are fundamental in trying to tell as truthful a story about them as we can. Fourth, photos require a different sort of research than film, one which often brings historians into direct, continual contact with the people whose photos they are reproducing. As we copy and identify the photographs, we hear history told from the mouth of those who have lived and made it.

These considerations bring the triangulated relationship of the historian with the sources and the audience into focus. As is the case with the use of interviews, we understand and acknowledge our role as a prism between those who have lived history and those who are hearing and seeing it recounted. Finally, it is a good deal cheaper to copy photos than to reproduce film, a primary concern for historians who wish to use modern media.

Researching photographs

For the above-mentioned reasons, we made extensive use of photographs in "Hechos sobre los rieles;" and some of the methodological issues raised raised during that project may be of interest. In the first place, it is crucial to point out that historians who labor in photographic archives engage in essentially the same tasks as historians who work with written sources: finding, preserving, and utilizing documents to talk about the past. In general, this is a different situation than that of historians who employ television and film footage, something that can be appreciated in considering Pierre Sorlin's intelligent comments on the historian's role in relation to such footage. He stated that,

“audiovisual material[s]...completely alter the situation. [H]istorians have no monopoly over the material, nor are they alone in studying and disseminating it. For example, television has made most of the interesting material relating to the Second World War widely available. In this respect, the historian's task is no longer to compile otherwise unknown sources and make them available to all: he must learn instead to use material that is already widely available.”[13]

While Sorlin's argument in relation to television and film footage is essentially true (although we would want to consider the possible uses of home movie footage), this is decidedly not the case with photographs, and above all in a country such as Mexico. Extensive research is required in both public and private photo archives in order to unearth and identify images useful to the history which will be recounted. Further, the purchase and preservation of private archives by the Mexican government is often the direct result of historians' research and lobbying.

The degree of photographic research necessary to produce a video-history can be appreciated in considering the variety of archives consulted in making "Hechos sobre los rieles." Among the principle repositories of the photographs used in the videotape were major public archives composed largely from the collections of photojournalists. The source most important for the period from the Mexican revolution (1910-1917) to 1940 was the well-known archive of Agustín Víctor Casasola which is housed in the Fototeca of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.[14] However, while the Casasola collection provided us with some lovely and powerful images, the fact that the archive is rather loosely catalogued placed us in a dilemma, above all given our position concerning the particularity of photographs. Of course, the photographs of the revolution were clearly recognizable; but, as we could not rely on the identifications of Casasola photos for the following periods, we were forced to utilize images from other sources for most of the succeeding "chapters".

Nonetheless, we faced a problem in the "chapter" on the Workers' Administration (1938-1940). We did have some photos from the private archive of Elías Terán, the first Director of the Administration; but we didn't have nearly enough to make the interview with Juan B. Gutiérrez visually palatable. Gutiérrez's statements were crucial to the tape and hitherto unknown to students of Mexican railroad history; but, his monotonal intonation and his refusal to look up at the camera or interviewer would have quickly alienated our audience. We found ourselves facing what we might call the "aesthetic imperative" of graphic history.

The way out of our dilemma was to locate photos in the Casasola archive that almost certainly had been taken in the late 1930s and which we felt expressed the energy and optimism of Workers' Administration experiment. (click to see image) One historian who has worked extensively with photographs, Michael Lesy, argued that,

"If photographs are to be used as data by the humane social sciences, they must be understood as documents of a particular era and its particular state of mind."[15]

Our aesthetic requirements seemed to justify this recourse to what we might call a "psychological correspondence." However, we remain convinced of the necessity to struggle against the "easy way out" of "illustrationism" that has given visual history the bad reputation it has so often richly deserved. Photos must be contextualized, and we continue to be committed to making every effort to find images that correspond exactly to the period depicted. In the case of the Workers' Administration, however, we were compelled, in the words of J.H. Hexter, to "sacrifice exactness for evocative force."[16]

Fortunately, the other public photo archives we utilized did not present us with this problem. Though probably the largest collection of negatives by a photojournalist collective in Latin America, the Fondo Hermanos Mayo of the Archivo General de la Nación has a catalogue for many of its images, providing data about specific dates and places.[17] Thus, for example, a number of the photos we chose of the 1958 railroad strike are found in the "Chronological" section of the archive, in envelope # 12609, on which is described the events occuring and the places where the images were taken on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of July. (click to see image) The Archivo General de la Nación also provided photos for the "chapter" on the Adolfo de la Huerta rebellion; these were readily identifiable as they were found in the Fondo Presidente Plutarco Elías Calles and clearly corresponded to that event. Other public archives included the Hemeroteca Nacional (National Periodical Library), where the newspapers photographed contain exact dates, and the collection of the Mexican Railroad Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores Ferrocarrileros de la República Mexicana), whose photos are accompanied by typed descriptions of dates, places and people. Finally, the few images we utilized from the Centro de Estudios de Historia de Mexico (CONDUMEX) were easily identifiable as pertaining to the revolutionary period which is the focus of that archive.

Private photographic archives were as vital to the video history as were the public depositories. As noted above, Elías Terán's collection provided us with several images of the Workers' Administration, and of his campaign for Secretary-General of the Railroad Union; our consultations with him made clear the contents of the images. However, the single most important private archive was that of Guillermo Treviño, for we were able to trace his career as a railroad worker and union militant through the extensive collection which began shortly after the revolution and continued up to 1987. Further, the lengthy interviews we conducted with him provided us with much information, as well as a general orientation in Mexican railroad history. These photos and interviews were particularly significant because, as a resident of Puebla (a city two hours from Mexico City), Treviño afforded us a perspective from the provinces so often lacking in histories of Mexico.

Another effective counterbalance to the dominance of Mexico City in Mexican historiography was supplied by the images of Oriental. By conducting an almost door-to-door search, we were able to turn up images that were crucial for telling the town's political history — such as its founding in 1917 — as well as being socially revealing, for example, photos of young boys posed on the fronts of trains during one sequence where informants describe how every male family member works for the railroad. Further, the use of family photo albums in Oriental was a critical element in addressing the imbalance present in the dominant form of History which focuses on great men and events; to observe that a "people's history" of Oriental could only have been told through such family images is to belabor the obvious.[18]

Hecho sobre los rieles' interviewer, Gloria Tirado, had family in Oriental. People there freely offered the filmmakers anecdotes and details about events they lived through. Photo: Couple in patio of train station, Oriental, Puebla, ca. 1950. Archive of John Mraz.

The role of the photos in communicating historical knowledge is worth considering. Essentially, the photographs function to enrich, enliven, and personalize the history which the informants are recounting. For example, when Valentín Campa explains that the railroad workers joined de la Huerta's rebellion because "he protected them from attacks by CROM goons, the main enemy of the labor movement," this statement is accompanied by an image of the CROM's despotic and ostentatiously corrupt leader, Luis Napoleón Morones, seated beneath the CROM banner and in front of a table ladden with rich foods and expensive liquors, his double chin oozing over his white collar.[19]

Photos can also render less polemical testimony. The very title of the tape, "Hechos sobre los rieles," comes from Treviño's statement that the Mexican revolution was "made on the rails," something apparent in photos of families housed on top of troop trains. (click to see image) Such images of the revolution also attest to the participation of women in that struggle, something generally more apparent in photos than in written accounts. We can see this same presence in one of the photos from Treviño's archive, where the banner of the Unión de Conductores, Maquinistas, Garroteros y Fogoneros is carried by his wife, Herminia, during the 1921 strike.

If women are often voiceless in historical accounts, photos such as this let us glimpse important aspects of their presence. Photo: Guillermo Treviño. Woman washing clothes beside old train cars that serve as housing for railroad workers and their families, Puebla, 1958. Archive of Guillermo Treviño, Instituto de Ciencias Sociales-Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

Treviño's collection also provided evidence of the poor housing conditions of the railroad workers and their families; for he himself took the images of the old railroad cars in which they lived, as well as of the woman washing clothes next to the track. (click to see image & another image) The demand for the level of housing promised by the 1917 Constitution was central to the 1958 strikes; and Valentín Campa makes clear in the tape that the expense this would have caused the multi-national corporations was one of the main factors behind the repression unleashed against the workers. Treviño's archive contained eloquent testimonies of the price paid for attempting to create an independent Mexican labor movement, as in images of him and other strikers being marched off to jail under military guard in 1959. The Hermanos Mayo photos of the army occupation of the railroad stations are also cogent and graphic proof of the Mexican government's determination to control the labor movement.[20] (click to see image) As an alternative to such repression, we utilized images of the jubilation of the railroad workers when they won the short-lived right to elect their own representatives, (click to see image) as well as photos from Terán's private archive where, during his candidacy for Secretary-General of the union, workers painted "Vote for Terán, He Won't Sell Us Out" on a water tower.

History and the past

It is useful here to remember that history and the past are not the same thing. The tendency to equate the past and its reconstruction is particularly problematic in an audio-visual discourse where the memories of informants easily become the equivalent of history, the headlines of newspapers can be taken to be what "really happened," and the visual images can be perceived as" reality." Conscious of this problem, and desirous of producing an educational videotape, we felt that the project's goal was not just to tell a history but to produce a critical response to that which we were recounting. We attempted to do that through certain self-reflexive tactics. For example, we incorporated comments by Elías Terán in which he refers specifically to the fact that he is participating in an historical reconstruction; he is also careful to qualify his perspective, "subjectifying" his remembrances. Through these comments, he distinguishes between "memory" and "history," two forms that are often conflated in cinema verité productions where the narrative is constructed largely through interviews.

A different strategy designed to produce a critical response to the videotape was that embodied in the use — and reflection on that use — of newspaper headlines. Each "chapter" of the videotape is introduced through headlines that serve to orient the audience about the events which they are going to witness and hear about. For example, the "chapter" entitled "The Strikes of 1958-1959" is preceded by headlines and texts from newspapers of that period that provide a basic framework for following the major events of those strikes. However, in spite of the usefulness of these headlines in quickly orienting the audience as to the history they were to witness, we did not want to give the impression that what appeared in the newspapers — or in the videotape — was truth incarnate. For that reason, towards the end of the videotape we utilized a statement by Valentín Campa where he asserted that the 1958-59 strikes were smashed

"principally by the great political confusion that was sown by all the news media in insisting that the movement was directed by the Soviet Embassy."

By juxtaposing this statement with headlines such as that decrying the "Railroaders' Plans for a 'Workers' Revolution,'" we hoped to draw attention to the subjectivity of one of the sources that we were employing to tell this history.

Now, while the strategies we employed with some of the interviews and the newspaper texts may have served a bit to remind the audience that history, to paraphrase Korzybski, is a map of the past and not the past itself, we were not able to incorporate such distanciation in our use of photographs. We feel that this is regrettable, because, as Eric Margolis has argued,

"Photographs tend to overpower our critical faculties and our ability to question the image before us."[21]

Thus, it is perhaps the creation of a disjuncture between words and images that offers the greatest possibility for "cracking the videotape apart at the seams" through internal contradiction, and stimulating a critical reaction to both the visual images as well as to the tape as a whole.[22] To a limited extent, we attempted to do this by juxtaposing photos of happy couples embracing in the Oriental train yard at the same time that an informant describes the complete lack of social life in that town. Of course, this juxtaposition also showed the plurality of perspectives on small town life, for the fact that those couples had such images taken provides insight into their feelings about the railroad — what they "were proud of, thought interesting, and what they wanted to show to others."[23] In general, however, we were not able to go much beyond "illustrationism." If the photographs do enrich the history, they still remain essentially picturizations of the events presented rather than function to incite the public to take on a critical stance and question both the images and the history which is being recounted.

A methodological problem

Having noted the utility of photographs, as well as our limitations in employing them, it is necessary to draw attention to problems created in the use of "cutaways" during interviews. In what we might call the "classical" form of TV interviews, ellipses were covered up with cutaways. It was felt that to cut within the interview was unaesthetic, because it resulted in the informant's head suddenly jerking from one position to another. This seems to have changed recently, and we now often see cuts within the interview visually presented by the "jerking head," or with "wipes." While I applaud television networks for this apparent move toward objectivity — though suspicious that it only functions to disarm the audience and make the noxious ideology they serve up more credible — we chose not to follow this trend, and decided to cover ellipses within the interviews with cutaways. This of course poses the question of whether every cutaway is an ellipsis. Though we are cognizant of the methodological problems this creates — and aware once again of the way that aesthetic demands shape video history — we were nonetheless willing to sacrifice the apparent objectivity of the "jerking head" for the power and grace that were available in as seamless a web as we could construct on a most limited budget,[24] where members of the Mexican working class recount their experiences.

Video and labor history

The implications of using videotape to record and recount working-class history are complex. On the one hand, it would seem to be the most appropriate medium for this discipline. It gives a voice and image to the "inarticulate" allowing for the incorporation of their photos — whether from private collections or as the work of photojournalists, who earn their daily bread by recording history in the making — and it facilitates the use of music related to that class. These arguments are particularly convincing when we discuss the working-class history of an underdeveloped country such as Mexico, where illiteracy is high and most workers are far from being able to write of their experiences (although one notable exception in the tape is Valentín Campa).[25] However, video history is expensive; it requires training and experience which few workers have the time or money to receive so that they might develop their own forms of talking about their past in this medium. Nonetheless, experiments in revolutionary situations, such as Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, indicate that it may be easier for workers to learn basic videotape production skills than it would be for them to acquire the capacity to write their own history.[26] We may, then, be not so terribly far from that day when, as Eric Hobsbawm told us,

"working people can make their own life and their own history."[27]

In sum, the battle is joined: videotape histories will be produced, whether historians do so or not. To some historians, certainly, it will seem a weak medium for conveying the complexities of history; but I would remind them that it is not a question of "translating" a written text into a visual discourse, but of exploring the new ways of talking about the past which this medium makes available. And, I would argue that there is a sensual expansion obtained through seeing and hearing actual participants talk of their experiences, through looking at photos and footage of events, and through listening to music from the period which provides a stimulation as much intellectual as emotive and aesthetic. We witness the living proof of history, a proof which — if it does not provide as many answers — pricks the mind to ask the questions.

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