Powerful images are unforgettable. Brassaï was absolutely right when he said this, because certain photographs have the innate quality of staying with us, in our memories, as witnesses, documenting the past and ensuring an understanding of the present. Countless photographers acknowledge the powerful role of photography in conflict, and dedicate their professional life to creating archives that preserve these moments, even if too painful to remember. Photographs taken during armed conflicts or civil wars belong to this category of mnemonic devices that can also be used to reconcile with a past of widespread abuses and violations of human rights.

A Salvadoran army unit advances on guerrilla positions in the capital's poor neighbourhood of Cuscatancingo, March 1982. 

A Salvadoran army unit advances on guerrilla positions in the capital's poor neighbourhood of Cuscatancingo, March 1982. 

This is the case of the photographs taken by Mike Goldwater during the Salvadoran Civil War, a 12-years long conflict resulted in the death of more than 75 thousand people and the displacement of over one million. The war was fought between military-led government forces and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, an umbrella organisation of five left-wing guerrilla groups, and ended with the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. At the height of this conflict, Goldwater travelled to the small Central American nation in order to extensively document the role of the rural poor in the revolution, as well as the unrest in urban areas such as San Salvador, the capital.

Teresa de Jesus Serrano, aged 22, with her young son. She made uniforms for the FPL guerrillas. Chalatenango, February 1984. 

Teresa de Jesus Serrano, aged 22, with her young son. She made uniforms for the FPL guerrillas. Chalatenango, February 1984. 

A family collect the body of their daughter - killed during a Salvadoran Air Force bombardment around the town of Carolina, Morazan. Badly injured, she had been evacuated by the army but was returned three days later in a coffin, March 1984. 

A family collect the body of their daughter - killed during a Salvadoran Air Force bombardment around the town of Carolina, Morazan. Badly injured, she had been evacuated by the army but was returned three days later in a coffin, March 1984. 

Photographs acquire the value of historic documents once they have been circulated and accepted as genuine depictions. This often takes place years after conflicts have ended, which is why they must be decoded and analysed bearing in mind their original context and the circumstances in which they were taken. The exhibition “El Salvador: Between War and Revolution” in the National Media Museum in Bradford represents an effort to reconstruct history and to give a voice to the memories of victims in the communities that were affected by this conflict.

Goldwater worked extensively in Chalatenango, in the northern part of El Salvador, where he documented the struggle of rural people to advance the cause of a different, fairer society. These images have been revisited three decades after they were taken, alongside images made in 2014 by members of Chalatenango’s Historical Museum for Memory, who used Goldwater´s pictures as a platform to begin conversations about the consequences of the conflict, starting a difficult, yet much-needed path to remembrance.

Families displaced by army invasions into territory contested by the FMLN guerrillas take refuge at a temporary site in the small town of Berlin, March 1982.

Families displaced by army invasions into territory contested by the FMLN guerrillas take refuge at a temporary site in the small town of Berlin, March 1982.

The group has approached these photographs to discuss the feelings they evoke and to document their memories for the Salvadoran youth. The result is an exhibition that builds bridges between past and present, thus providing the opportunity for a reflection on community and humanity as forms of resistance.

What we do with photographs becomes important when there is a major task ahead of us: to use these parcels of time to transform pain into reconciliation, and generate a long-lasting positive impact for generations to come. There is no way to undo the past, but photographs can help us understand and learn, and hopefully prevent similar violence in the future.

Salvadoran troops cross the river Torola into guerrilla-held territory in Morazan province in the north east of the country. The river marked the dividing line between areas controlled by government and territory under the command of guerrilla forces, February 1984. 

Salvadoran troops cross the river Torola into guerrilla-held territory in Morazan province in the north east of the country. The river marked the dividing line between areas controlled by government and territory under the command of guerrilla forces, February 1984. 

Looking at photographs not so much as products, but more as processes can provide a more profound understanding of the importance of this medium in building the archive of the world, in other words, the memory of mankind.

The exhibition “El Salvador: Between War and Revolution” is open until 17th October at the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Words: Astrid Scheuermann

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu

Photography: Mike Goldwater