Photographic memory: Gentile’s “Wait For Me” recalls the conflicts in Central America in the 1980s
In the 1980s, Miami was preoccupied with violence – not just the cocaine cowboys here, but the civil wars in Central America, whose actors and intrigues so often resided in South Florida.
Few journalists were more a part of this Reagan-era Central American scene than photographer Bill Gentile, who has just published a memoir titled “Wait For Me: True Stories of War, Love and Rock & Roll”.
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Gentile is now a professor of journalism at the American University in Washington, DC.
He spoke from there with WLRN’s Tim Padgett – who worked with Gentile in Central America when they were both with Newsweek magazine – about his book and how the issue of US intervention in countries developing countries like Nicaragua and Afghanistan, still resonates today.
Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:
PADGETT: You grew up the son and grandson of Italian immigrants in a steel town in Pennsylvania. You say in the book that journalism has become your “ticket”. What did you mean by that?
KIND: My grandfathers, dad, uncles, brothers, and I all worked in steel mills at one point or another, and I needed a ticket to get out of there. But I also wanted a tool – and I found journalism could provide me with both. It could take me to places I could never have been – I mean, I’ve been to the Galapagos, the Arctic Circle, the heart of Africa, I’ve been to the mountains of Central America – and it was my job to tell the rest of the world what those places looked like through pictures.
In the 1980s, few photojournalists covered the war between the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the US-backed rebels as aggressively but as sensitively as you.
In a gripping chapter of “Wait for Me”, you photograph in a few hours a bloody ambush in the Nicaraguan jungle, then a very dark wake of dead soldiers. First tell us about the experience of being squarely in the middle of a firefight like this.
Yeah, so we climb a hill with these soldiers and the jungle on top of the hill explodes. And I never saw any of the people shooting at us. You know, all I saw were people around me falling to the ground, either because they were hit or because they wanted to keep their heads exploded.
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And that’s what I was there for, to document the war. But if you’re not careful with that, you run the risk of becoming some kind of machine right there for fame and fortune, if you will, and you lose some sensitivity towards people. I came very close to that line, I think, but pulled back.
If war photographers aren’t careful they risk turning into a machine of fame and fortune, and you lose all sensitivity to people. I came very close to that line. I withdrew from it.
Which brings us to one of your most memorable photos of the vigil of the dead Nicaraguan soldier, his native wife breastfeeding their baby near his coffin. Can you read us an excerpt from this scene?
Sure. “As I look through the camera that makes up the shots… I see the deceased militiaman’s wife looking me straight in the eye. She is the only person in the group to make eye contact with me. And it’s more than just It’s a piercing connection that goes beyond everything else in the image … And I can hear what she’s saying to me then and now (her voice breaks with emotion) … Look what they have done to my life. Show the world what happened here. “
Sorry, it’s pretty obvious that images like these still have an impact on me, even today.
I admit that this photo still haunts me today, when I look at it in your book “Nicaragua”.
You traveled to Nicaragua in an all-terrain vehicle you called La Bestia – The beast. I took more than a few reporting trips with you on this thing. But in the book, it’s also a reminder of your efforts not only to photograph Nicaragua, but to inhabit it. What do you hope your work conveys then and what it conveys now, not just about war, but place itself – and places like it?
That the people there have real lives, real dreams – that they want the same things that we do. Stability, decent work, raising families, making love, drinking cold beers on weekends. And that we’re neighbors and we have to learn to live with these people, you know, whether they’re over there or here.
Some of the most destructive US policies executed in Central America around this time, the bitter fruit still appears at the gates of the southern border of the United States because some of those countries are still so unlivable. I want people to understand this.
You have seen fellow photographers killed in Central America; and in 1989, the ultra-violent Marxist guerrilla group Shining Path threatened to execute you and Newsweek correspondent Joe Contreras as “spies” after they kidnapped you in Peru. As a journalism professor today, what do you teach your students about taking risks when covering conflict?
Yes, Joe Contreras and I were very, very lucky. We were doing a story about the connection between the Shining Path and the drug trade; and we found that connection, but we almost lost our lives doing it. The Shining Path was Maoist, so while we were interviewed by one of their top politicians, Joe [convinced him we were journalists] reminding him that even Mao had given interviews to American journalists in China. The next morning we were put on a boat to cross the river and released – and the guys who had taken us across the river before were shocked: they never expected to see us alive again, me and Joe Contreras.
But, Tim, the issue of risk taking today is very important. In fact, this week we’re going to be hosting a webinar on it. I tell my students that today’s world is much more dangerous than it was when I covered Central America in the 1980s. At that time, journalists were considered professionals. It’s changed.
Now you have people like Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines, you have Ortega in Managua – you have all these authoritarian leaders using that, the same “fake news” language and “journalists are the enemies of the people”.
But you don’t have to go to Nicaragua and El Salvador. You can go to Oregon, you can go to Washington, DC to see people attacking reporters on the streets and online. I mean, it’s a different world now.
Newsweek magazine in the 1980s called Miami “America’s Casablanca” in large part because so many people and so many intrigues involved in the conflicts in Latin America could be found there.
To the right. When I came to live in Miami after the Nicaraguan War, my neighbor next door in Miami Beach told me that regularly in the 1980s he was woken up at 3 a.m. by a propeller plane flying over his house. And he said after making inquiries, he found out that it was one of the planes flying under the radar, so to speak, to help refuel the contras in Honduras.
But you notice in “Wait For Me” that covering the Central American wars was worth “the risk because America’s intervention in these developing countries had to be addressed and challenged” by reporters. Later, you also worked in Afghanistan. So now, after the troubled US exit there last month, is this still close to your heart?
Absoutely. Our job is to go out there and tell people the flaws in the policy or if the policies are successful. You know, we are the canaries of the coal mine.