With a Camera, a Backpack, Books, and Illusions

A Letter to Narco News Readers from Manuela Aldabe in Italy

June 7, 2004

Rome, June 2004

Hi. I'm 28, from Uruguay, and I live in Rome.

To make a contribution to support Manuela's scholarship, use this link.
My road from Montevideo to Rome has been a long one. I'm a natural born traveler and my curiosity tempts me frequently to pack my bags and feel the beautiful breeze of new paths╔

I like to discover and remember: I'm a photographer, and a history student.

In 1992 I began studying photography in the Visual Dimension School of Montevideo. Entering the darkroom for the first time something changed inside me forever. Here, my space, we where, as I draw the light and count one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, I dance and discover images that bloom little by little until they sign themselves on paper while I delicately move the acid to obtain the contrast that the photo deserves.

The darkroom and entire afternoons at the movies in Uruguay brought me closer to images in movement. In 1994 I met the director of TEBA (a workshop-school for bachelors of arts), who after seeing my portfolio invited me to study at the school with a scholarship, paying for my studies by working in the administration. Living at TEBA I learned the first steps of video production. It was an excellent experience (although I only took the course for one year). It was in that context where I produced my first video-clip collaborations, and my first minute of video animation. That was selected to be shown in the category of the best youth videos of the year in the International Cinema Festival of Uruguay. My first work hit the screen with the title of Abrazos (Embraces).

In Uruguay, I began a documentary: "Sembrando: A Community Radio Station." Sembrando was a pirate radio station on the outskirts of Montevideo, a radio station that, every night, when the transmission ended, had to be taken apart, to keep the police from seizing the equipment. The community defended it, hiding it each night in a different house. The next day it would be armed anew, and would begin to broadcast again. The fieldwork was very hard: It is not easy to walk for three months with a video camera through a poor barrio of Montevideo and film people naturally.

I believe that alternative information from below is very important, and Radio Sembrando is a good example. My documentary lasted 25 minutes (I paid for the production by working in advertising), and with the help of friends (cinematographers, audio technicians, editors) we finished the work.

My ambitions to better my craft, my love for Italian cinema, my curiosity and audacity brought me to Rome in 1998. Here I attended a photography school: "Scienza e Tecnica," learning to do reporting.

Each day I would go out into the street to observe, at every chance to follow, a demonstration. One day there was a demonstration by Kurds. I didn't even know who they were. I went to see what it was about: a people who called for the liberation of their leader: Abdullah Ocalan.

They were Muslims, women seated on one side, men on another, and it was difficult to communicate with them. But we did it through glances. There after a week of working, a week of permanent protest, sharing everything with them, a Kurd led me to a place and said that there I would find the information I needed to report the story. I went running and when I arrived at the door, do you know who opened it? Ocalan! The youths introduced me to him. He grasped my hands firmly. His eyes glistened. They explained to me that I could not take photos, that this was a very delicate situation. I understood. They gave me the information I needed to write my article. It was already unimportant to photograph him. I had beautiful photos of his people demonstrating, people who came from all over Europe. The tenderness that they communicated to me led me to understand that it was a humanizing moment for my reporting. Something stayed in my heart, something that would be told through my photos, the photos from the street. All of Europe and Turkey (whose police captured him one month later and he is still a prisoner today) were hunting for him, but he was there, at peace, and although I knew that photo could open the doors to my career I preferred not to take it. I preferred to offer respect.

As the immigrant that I am, the news of clandestine landings on Italian coasts cuts close to home: With Kosovo at war I could not help but get on a train, without even knowing what I was seeking, while speaking with the people I moved from train to train and arrived at Otranto, the point in southern Italy closest to Albania. There I found the Centro de Accoglienza Regina Pace, an aid center only in name. It was a center for sheltering immigrants, above all immigrants who had escaped from wars: from Kosovo, from Palestine, from Kurdistan. They didn't let me in. They didn't allow photographs. For two days I rambled through the town seeking permission but nobody would give it to me. It then occurred to me to present myself as a volunteer, not to take photos, but to work, to help.

I began one morning preparing breakfast for more than 400 people, baby bottles, bread with milk for some very old people. In my free hours I spoke with the people, always with my photographer's pants with a lens in each pocket, and my camera hangin on my belt. By the third day I felt like a fish in water, and I began to photograph. In between giving Italian lessons to the recent arrivals, and kitchen work, I also began to report. After five days I had the story, and I got back on the train toward Rome to develop the photos.

I've done other reporting (about drug addiction on the streets of Rome, among other themes), but those two I just described are the ones that stayed in my soul, because if each time I look through my Nikon I learn something about others, those situations gave me humanity, a reason to do it. To photograph the eyes of an old lady who has lost everything in the war, who has only one set of clothes, her veil, and plastic bag in her hands, those eyes are a commitment to life that I can't resign from.

In Italy I collaborated with the Centro Sperimentale di Cinemtografia helping to direct a documentary about human rights in Argentina, specifically about the group H.I.J.O.S., filmed in Rome and in Buenos Aires.

After two years in Italy I traveled to Berlin, where with a photographer friend we began a video-and-photo documentary project about occupations of buildings in Europe: In Berlin, in Amsterdam and in Rome. We looked at different kinds of lives, communitarian lives. For more than a year in Amsterdam I dedicated myself to film the squatters movement.

In 2001, I returned to Italy, and began a stage in the Associated Press news agency. The original job was for three months, but I stayed for a year. It was a very positive experience, above all for understanding what I want out of my photography. I felt like a photo-taking machine, without time or possibility to analyze what I was doing.

From there I enrolled in the University, majoring in Science History, studying land and international aid programs. In this I realized that, photographically, I had reached a good point, that my photos finally were publishable on the front page, but I felt a need to grow in the field of reporting.

I don't care about taking a photo at any moment if I can't communicate beyond the news. I don't want to lose my sensitivity under the media bombardment. My protagonists are beings who deserve to be respected, treated as they are, and not like merchandise. One example of this is when I reported from Genoa, the unforgettable Genoa of the G-8 Summit and protests. My photos are not stained with blood. My photos are filled with smiles and hopes. They are of youths who are fighting for a better world. There are no dead bodies in my photos. In my photo of Carlo - the youth who was killed there - Carlo is still alive. It is a photo that I never sold.

I made an important decision: I left Associated Press to dedicate myself fulltime to studying history. In each book, in each class, I discover cultures, peoples; I learn to analyze, to investigate. This was an important decision economically, too. In order to have all the possible time to study I work as a waitress in a restaurant on weekends, which puts me on a very limited budget.

My goals in journalism leave me without peace. So I also participate in the editing of Radio Ondarrossa, a free radio station that has been on the air for 25 years, where I collaborate with the news reporting about human rights in Latin America and reports about the housing problems in this city.

Throughout my travels I have met many fine people and done things like those I have been telling you about, on this long and intense road. To gather with the journalists of Narco News it is very important for me to continue, to share my experiences, my work, to learn from the others, to open more doors to the journalism that my heart tells me is the right one╔ to begin to draw closer to my beloved Latin America.

That is why I am writing to all of you╔ because today I need your help. The School of Authentic Journalism can't pay for my travel from Rome to Cochabamba. So we need the help of all of you.

You can send your donation to:

The Fund for Authentic Journalism
P.O Box 71051
Madison Heights, MI 48071 USA

Or you can make a contribution online (see below).

We are many who want to change the ways of telling, because we are not alone.

Abrazos,

Manuela Aldabe

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Manuela Aldabe's scholarship, use this link:

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