copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Made on Rails in Mexico

by John Mraz

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 113-121
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

The most recent offspring from the mating of historiography and technological media, video history—like all later children—has been defined essentially in relation to its older siblings. Thus, in one of the few essays which has attempted to wrestle with some of the thorny issues raised by this emerging discipline, David Ellwood warned that video history "risks falling between two historiographical stools…oral history and film history."[1] [open notes in new window] Ellwood was perhaps the first to point out the necessity of specifying the parameters of video history, a task which daily grows more important. This article hopes to make some small contribution to that endeavor. However, I must admit that I am considerably less concerned with "historiographical risks" than in trying to determine what this form of discourse about the past and present offers to historians, and in asking how we might go about wrestling it from the monopoly maintained by both commercial and State television producers — with their mercenary and officialist ends.

I doubt that I will have to spend much time or energy to convince readers that the "TV history" which dominates television screens is much more interested in ideological control and technical perfection than it is in conveying a real sense of the past, particularly that of the working class and, above all, that of the working class in the "backyard" of the United States. Technical perfection is neither neutral nor cheap; it is very expensive, and the costs are not only in money. Through such perfection, historians are intimidated from producing their own video histories.

Thus the field is left to those who know little of history, but are most informed as to how to obtain the enormous sums necessary to produce such "histories." Obviously, the history they propagate serves the interests of the ruling elites who make that money available. Historians' reviews of the major networks' lavishly produced "TV histories" abound with criticisms of their anachronism, inaccuracies, and triviality — faults palpably evident in the most important Mexican example, the officialist Biografía de poder ("Biography of Power"), shown extensively during 1987. However, although I know that such cursing of the darkness has it uses, I would prefer to call upon historians to light their own candles and begin using this sensuous, convincing, and entertaining medium to communicate the knowledge and understanding they have developed through their years of studying and teaching this discipline.

Video history and oral history

Oral history now has enough of a tradition to have begun to define its disciplinary limits, and the use of videotape equipment in conducting interviews has apparently "engendered a great deal of controversy."[2] Evidently, much of this controversy has ranged around the manner in which the presence of videotape equipment "disrupts" the sensitive interpersonal context of an interview. While not wishing to minimize the effects of equipment presence, two observations of this criticism seem to be in order.

One: To assume such purity is to lose sight of the fact that every form of "rescuing" the past will have both limitations and advantages. Although video historians need to learn from the theoretical groundwork and methodological experiences of oral historians, the particular restraints imposed by recording and recounting the past with videotape will shape that historical discourse in specific ways. For example, it has been argued by some documentary filmmakers that the very presence of equipment and personnel necessary to film an interview can act as a "catalyst," what Jean Rouch described as a "psychoanalytic stimulant," that leads informants to take the situation more seriously and incites them to greater clarity and honesty — they become more, not less, of who they are.[3]

Two: The concern of oral historians with the phenomenological aspects of the interview situation may have limited their perspective of the ways interviews can he used to communicate about the past. It could he argued that they have tended to focus on the interview process, whereas the video historian is perhaps more concerned with editing those interviews into a history.

That is not to say, obviously, that video historians are unconcerned with the interview context. What goes on during the conducting of interviews is of great importance to the finished product, and I believe that "rapport" — that delicate, if difficult to describe, relation between interviewer and informant — is probably the primary mediation of video history's aesthetic. Poor rapport results not simply in a lack of information, it turns informants into wooden figures whose stiffness interferes with the audience's ability to learn from the history they are recounting. Oral historians commonly utilize their material in transcript form, a fact which saves them from the doubly-toilsome task which video historians have in fomenting the necessary rapport for interviews.

Hechos sobre los rieles / Made on the Rails

In a country such as Mexico, personal and family relations are indispensable in establishing rapport. During the making of Hechos sobre los rieles: Una historia de los ferrocarrileros mexicanos, the close personal relations which the interviewer, Gloria Tirado, had maintained with several key figures in the history of the rairoad union — for example, Guillermo Treviño, Valentín Campa, Elías Terán, Juan B. Gutiérrez, and Miguel Aroche Parra — were as crucial in establishing rapport as were her family connections in the railroad town of Oriental.[4] These affinities were the key which allowed these individuals to open up in front of the camera: recounting anecdotes, telling jokes, openly criticizing the railroad union, and talking in great detail about the events which they have lived and know so well. These relationships also provided access to private photographic collections, as various informants allowed us to copy their photos and provided us with important information on these images, which were an integral visual element of the tape's aesthetic.

There was, as well, a political element in establishing rapport with the informants. With some exceptions, most of the national and local leaders interviewed were members of the Mexican Communist Party, a decision based on our desire to tell a very different story than is available in official histories, whether written or in the mass media. The fact that we came from the University of Puebla, an institution known for its leftist orientation, was important in allowing them to open up to us: they trusted us, and believed that the final tape would not betray that trust.

Here, it is useful to consider the texture offered by the variations between the interviews with those leaders and the rank-and-file workers we interviewed in the railroad town of Oriental. On the one hand, our intention was to develop a relation between the national history of the railroad workers and the micro-history of Oriental. On the other hand, it seemed to us important that the history we recounted was told not only through the mouths of the leaders, but from the perspective of the workers as well. One should not lose sight of the fact that several of those leaders came up through the rank-and-file, rising in the union through their militancy: for example, Campa and Treviño.

Nonetheless, there were significant differences between the perspective of the leaders and that of the Oriental workers. Perhaps the principle utility of the worker interviews was more that of revealing their "collective unconscious" rather than contributing to a specifically historical analysis. For example, although one of our intentions in the videotape was to demystify to some extent the exaggerated role assigned to Demetrio Vallejo in the strikes of 1958-59 (and the critiques leveled by Terán and Aroche Parra were of some use in this issue) the tendency of the workers to refer constantly to the "Vallejista Movement" reinforced the idea that those strikes were the work of one man. However, conscious of the importance of presenting what we might call a "popular historiography,"[5] and aware that an interview is a delicate relation, we chose not to contradict our informants and risk alienating them with questions that were not going to take us very far at any rate.

Video history and historical films

Such observations make us aware of the fact that video historians wear two hats. As oral historians, they have to be aware of the interview context, while as film historians they must focus on the medium as a communication tool. Nonetheless, I feel we should be careful not to be overly impressed with the apparent similarity of these two media. Film has much more visual resolution than video; in film, the image can "carry" the sound. With video, it is the opposite: sound is often of greater importance than the visual elements. It follows from this that video history is at least as closely allied with oral history as it is with film history, a position supported by the advantages which video offers when compared to film in conducting interviews. The great cost of doing interviews on film necessarily imposes limits. With video, interviewers can allow the interview to continue as long as they want, and they can conduct many more interviews.

Thus, it seems to me that, while film history will generally tend — and has in fact tended — toward the use of omniscient narration, it is the nature of video history to construct the historical narrative from interviews. Here, I would like to be as clear as possible about some of the implications of the differences between using omniscient narration and interviews (or participant narration). Although a narrative forged exclusively from interviews — as in cinema verité (the very name itself points to the danger) — may appear to be more objective, it is not. In fact, the very credibility which the interviews lend to the videotape may tend to interfere with the critical perspective which every good work of history ought to awaken in its audience. A narrative constructed from interviews may make it difficult to get beyond or behind the vision of those being interviewed. Thus, it becomes the task of the video historian to create a context which will distinguish between memory and history (a problem we will return to below).

It is also important to draw attention to the structural limitations that one confronts in attempting to construct a history through interviews. The director of the BBC series "The World at War," Jerry Kuehl observed that there is a tendency among informants

"to replace a candid, private version of events, with a sorter public version."[6]

For Kuehl, while interviews can appear to he very intimate, those which go into historical documentaries often make for a very formal and very public kind of history that is a good deal more circumspect. We like to believe that the rapport that we were able to establish with our informants in making Hechos saved us, to a large degree, from the generalized self-censorship that preoccupies Kuehl.[7] However, there was surely more than one occasion on which the fact that our informants were appearing before a camera conditioned their responses.

Another constraint in this discipline come from the sort of expectations that we have about what is a good screen presence; that is, the degree to which what we believe to be "good television" determines who we allow to tell the history. This issue of presence revolves around various considerations: For example, does the informant talk too fast or too slow? Do they speak clearly or are they difficult to understand. Is their's a popular or an academic language. Do you hear the "dental click" characteristic of many older informants? Do they move too much or do they appear to have no energy? Such questions make us aware of the fact that many times the people that appear on the screen to recount historical events are there, not because their interpretation is the best, but because their's is a TV presence to which we hay become accustomed. Finally, we must not forget the all-too-familiar phenomenon of informants who tell wonderful stories — passionate and colorful and full of anecdotes that illuminate the past and bring it to life — until the moment when we turn on the lights to begin taping them. Then, the faces become pallid and the histories monosyllabic. Obviously, they have been terrorized by the equipment, and cannot appear in the tape. Nonetheless, if it is necessary to be conscious of these structural limitations, it is important to remember that these are among the limits that define the discipline of video history.

Further, if the use of interviews and a cinema verité narrative do not necessarily assure greater objectivity, they do allow viewers to see and hear actual participants, and they may provide more historical detail: for example, information about the informants' sex, age, race, and class (something that can be gleaned from their clothing, as well as from their forms of speech.)[8] Moreover, interviews can provide access to elements absent from written sources, such as body language and voice intonation, volume, and rhythm. These may tell us more about meaning than about facts.[9] For example, Miguel Aroche Parra provides a trenchant description of the significance attached to the greatest setback in the history of Mexican labor when he states,

"The railroaders' defeat in 1959 was a defeat for the labor movement, a defeat for the democratic movement, a defeat for the anti-imperialist movement, a defeat for the peace movement. That is the magnitude of the 1959 defeat."

Whether one agrees with Aroche Parra's hyperbole, it is indicative of the psychological impact of that event on its participants, something reinforced by the emotional charge evident in his vehement tone and passionate gestures.

Aroche Parra's use of significant pauses, the lowering and raising of his voice, and his kinetic body motion — one hand cutting knife-like into the other as he recounts how U.S. President Eisenhower ordered his Mexican counterpart, Lopez Mateos, to "strike against the labor movement" — are an articulate demonstration of the feelings still moved by those memories. His intonation and movements are also a revealing embodiment of an expressive style typical of Mexican labor militants. Hence his physical presence conveys an element at once important to understanding the history of the Mexican railroad workers and impossible to convey except through the medium of a video (or film) interview.

Yet another instance during the filming of Hechos where an informant's reaction provided an interesting insight into Mexican culture occured during the interview with Guillermo Treviño. When I asked Treviño why the 1959 repression had been so brutal, I did so knowing that it he was going to he made uncomfortable by having to respond to me, a gringo, that it had been a result of Eisenhower's pressure on López Mateos. And, that is what happened: he said,

"Although I'd prefer not to have to say it, I think that the U.S. had a lot to do with what happened."

As a Mexican caballero of the old school, Treviño did not want to insult his "guest." But, as a tireless defender of social justice, he had to answer with what he thought was the truth. Here, the interview context served as a catalyst, provoking a behavior very typical of elder Mexican men.

Utilizing the interview as the narrative structure of a video history does not, however, assign to it a value such that the historian ought to fear "interrupting" the "flow of memory," as Ellwood noted some "extreme defenders" of oral history do.[10] In all forms of history, materials are selected by the historian in accordance with what he or she perceives as the truth to be conveyed. But, some oral historians have argued against the use of the "TV history" form in which "cutaways" to moving footage or photographs are usual. Here, the distinction between the "stereotypical" and the "particular" is of utmost importance. Producers of "TV history" are little concerned with communicating the particularity — i.e., the historical — of the specific event and period presented. They conduct a minimum of graphic research, and the result is the use of photos and moving footage time and again to illustrate some thesis, with little respect for the real context out of which these historical artifacts have been ripped.

Stereotypes and peculiarity

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 photo) 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]

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. (Photo # 2, 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 photo) 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]

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 photo) 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.

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 photo & next photo) 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 photo) 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 photo) 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.


1. David W. Ellwood, "Archivo Nazionale Cinematografico Della Resistenza, Torino — Oral History and Film History: the Use and Misuse of Interviews," in History and Film: Methodology, Research, Education, edited by K.R.M. Short and Karsten Fledelius, (Copenhagen: International Association for Audiovisual Media in Historical Research and Education, 1980), 21-32. [return to text]

2. Joel Gardner, "Oral History and Video in Theory and Practice," Oral History Review 12 (1984), 105.

3. See Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 253-262; and the interview with Jean Rouch in Documentary Explorations, edited by G. Roy Levin (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), 137.

4. Hechos Sobre Los Rieles: Una Historia De Los Ferrocarrileros Mexicanos is the result of a collaboration between Gloria Tirado and John Mraz from 1984 to 1987. In 1988, it was subtitled in English as Made On Rails: A History Of Mexican Railroad Workers. In 1988, the videotape was given the "Award of Merit in Film" by the Latin American Studies Association and the Hubert B. Herring Award" as the "Best Videotape, Film, or Non-Print Media" by the Pacific Coast Council for Latin American Studies, It is distributed in the United States by The Cinema Guild (1697 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019) and, in Mexico, by the Centro de Información by Documentación de la Cultura Audio Visual (CIDCA V) of the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

5. See Michael Frisch, 'The Memory of History," in Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, ed. Susan Porter Benson, et al. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). 5-17.

6. Jerry Kuehl. "TV. History," History Workshop 1 (Spring, 1976), 129.

7. Ibid., p. 130.

8. See Lola G. Luna, "El video aplicado a la memoria de la mujeres latinoamericanas, Boletín Americanista 38 (Barcelona, 1988).

9. See Alessandro Portelli, "The Peculiarities of Oral History," History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn, 1981).

10. Ellwood, op. cit., p. 31.

11. I have argued this point in the following articles:" Más allá dc la decoración: hacia una historia gráfica de las mujeres en Mexico," Politica y cultura 1 (Fall 1992); "Imágenes ferrocarrileras: una visión poblana," Lecturas Históricas de Pueblo 59 (Puebla: Gobierno del Estado de Puebla, 1991); "Some Visual Notes Toward a Graphic History of the Mexican Working Class," Journal of the West 27:4 (October, 1988); "De la fotografía histórica: particularidad y nostalgia," Nexos 91 (July 1985).

12. See John Berger, "Another Way of Telling," Journal of Social Reconstruction 1:1 (January-March, 1980), 60.

13. Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1980), 4.

14. The Casasola collection is composed of some 400,000 glass plate and plastic negatives. The best published introductions to this archive are:Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, ed., Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond: Photographs by Agustín Víctor Casasola 1900-1940 (New York: Aperture, 2003); and Flora Lara Klahr, Jefes, héroes y caudillos: Archive Casasola (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986).

15. Michael Losy, "The Photography of History," Afterimage 2:8 (February, 1975), 3.

16. J.H. Hexter, "The Rhetoric of History," Doing History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 19.

17. The Fondo Hermanos Mayo contains some five million negatives. See John Mraz, "CloseUp: An Interview with the Hermanos Mayo, Spanish-Mexican Photojournalists (1930s-present)" Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 11 (1992); and John Mraz, "Foto Hermanos Mayo: A Mexican Collective," History of Photography 17:1 (Spring, 1993).

18. On the use of family albums, see David Russell, "Any Old Albums? Building a people's history," Camerawork 16.

19. CROM are the initials of the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (Regional Confederation of Mexican Workers), the first national union in that country.

20. An interesting experience illustrating the importance of the ideological control of images is that which occurred while I was mounting a photographic exposition on "The History of the Mexican Labor Movement" for the Centro de Estudios Históricos del Movimiento Obrero Mexicano (CEHSMO), a research center affiliated with the Secretaría de Trabajo (Department of Labor). I had only recently arrived to live in Mexico, and had selected several of the more powerful photos by the Hermanos Mayo of the army intervention in the 1959 strike. However, I was quickly informed that under no circumstances could images showing the military occupation of the railroads be included in the exhibit.

21. Eric Margolis, "Mining Photographs: Unearthing the Meanings of Historical Photos," Radical History Review 40 (Jan. 1988), 35.

22. I am here paraphrasing from the famous discussion of Young Mr. Lincoln that occurred in the Cahiers du Cinéma. See Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, "Cinéma / Ideology/ Criticism," in Movies and Methods 1, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California, 1976), 27.

23. See Marie Czech, "At Home: reconstructing everyday life through photographs and artifacts," Afterimage 5:3 (Sept. 1977), 11.

24. Given the gratuitous access provided by the Puebla State TV station (IMEVISION-PUEBLA) for editing the final version, the cost of the videotape is difficult to calculate; the total amount spent was somewhere around $2,000 to $3,000 dollars. We were only able to rent recording equipment for two days and to tape a total of seven hours of interviews. Other very minimal expenditures include the price of the photos, the slide film on which to copy them, and the costs of musicalization.

25. See Campa's autobiography, Mi testimonio: memorias de un communista mexicana (Mexico: Ediciones de Cultura Popular, 1978).

26. See Alfonso Gumucio Dagrón, "Nicaragua: cine obrero sandinista," Cuadernos de comunicación alternativa 1 (May, 1983); and the interview with him in Cinema and Social Change: Conversations with Filmmakers, ed. Julianne Burton, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).

27. Eric Howsbawm, "Labor History and Ideology," Workers: Worlds of Labour (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 14.

Photo identification

  1. Hermanos Mayo; Riviters making boxcars, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 8 November 1944. Archivo General de la nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 1679.
  1. Riviters, Mexico, ca. 1930. Fondo Casasola, SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional del INAH.
  1. Women on top of railroad cars, Mexico, ca. 1915. Inv. 643154, Fondo Casasola, SINAFO-Fototeca Nacional del INAH.
  1. Guillermo Treviño; 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.
  1. Hermanos Mayo; Soldier and striking railroad worker, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 6 August 1958. Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 12636.
  1. 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.
  1. Hermanos Mayo; Striking railroad workers celebrate their (short-lived) victory, Nonoalco train yard, Mexico City, 25 February 1959. Archivo General de la Nación, Fondo Hermanos Mayo, Chronological Section, 13313.
  1. Couple in patio of train station, Oriental, Puebla, ca. 1950. Archive of John Mraz.
  1. 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.


To topJC 54 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.