RACHEL HERGETT, Chronicle Staff Writer | Posted: Saturday, January 7, 2012 At first glance, Paul Dix’s book of photographs may seem like another coffee table book chronicling the people of a Latin American country.The cover shows a 1986 photograph of Esteban Mejía Peña with his great granddaughters in La Esperanza, Nicaragua, taken when Livingston resident Paul Dix worked in the country as a photographer for Witness for Peace from 1985 to 1990.
But more than a book of portraits, “Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy,” tells the story of the horrors of war from the perspective of the people who have lived through it.
In Nicaragua, the book is a preservation of historical memory, Dix told the Chronicle Thursday. Here it’s quite different.
“It’s more of a political statement,” he said.
What Dix said began as a “frivolous” experience in Latin America, skiing and climbing mountains, slowly became politicized, as Dix followed in the footsteps of family members. His father was involved in the early fight against racial segregation in the south in the 1930s and 1940s. His brother rallied against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua ousted the Somoza dictatorship, leading to the rise of the Sandinistas, Dix immediately wanted to visit the country to document the changes.
It wasn’t until six years later, however, when Witness for Peace hired him, that he had the means to do so. “I was primarily photographing victims of the war which were victims of U.S. policy – our tax dollars at work,” Dix said. The 1980s gave rise to the CIA-backed Contras who opposed the Sandinista government in a conflict which killed over 30,000 Nicaraguans. “Public buildings and transport were sabotaged, public officials were assassinated, and civilians were raped, kidnapped, tortured, maimed and murdered,” states the introduction to “Nicaragua.”
Dix took thousands of photographs of the country’s inhabitants during five years of conflict.
“I was very impressed, not only by the images seen and trying to capture the truth, but by the words I was hearing from the rural people,” he said.
At the time, Dix said he recognized the need to tell the people’s stories with the images, but was tasked with a visual chronicle.
With partner Pamela Fitzpatrick, Dix began returning to Nicaragua in 2002, seeking out the subjects of 100 of his photographs. It took four trips and 18 months to find them, crisscrossing the country by all means of transportation. Some families he knew well, making the subjects easy to find. Others were just images without names.
One man, Marconi Valdivia Zamora was in the files of the Organization of American States as a landmine victim, giving the Dix and Fitzpatrick his hometown, a two-day bus ride from Managua, the capital. With more than a little luck, they asked the woman in the first house (of thousands in the area) if she knew the then 8-year-old in the picture. “Well, yes. He’s my son,” the woman said. Then, it meant another two-day bus ride and several days in Managua to find him in a sweat shop where he stood eight to 10 hours a day on one leg in front of an iron.
Now, he says he has gotten involved in the lives of his subjects, developing friendships with each return trip. “I just love Nicaragua,” Dix said. “I traveled a lot and have never found such a gracious, accepting, trusting hospitable people,” Dix said. They have a warmness not found anywhere else.” Plus, he said, they love to have their pictures taken.
His photographs, however, are not often joyful. They show the conflicts injured and its anguished survivors. “Especially in war their souls manifest on their faces, their hopes, their sadness, their grieving, their pain. It’s right there,” he said. The war and the images have also had their effect on Dix. “It’s in my psyche in a way,” he said. During one presentation in Arizona, Dix said he had to fight back tears. “Like most reports and photographers I try to distance myself,” he said. “I don’t do it well.”
The book was painstakingly translated from the original campesino (or peasant) Spanish to English, although each bit of text is printed in both languages. “In Nicaragua, when I said it was going to be bilingual, they said ‘well, of course,” Dix said. “It’s about us. It should be in our language.
“Nicaragua” is self-published, with only 3,000 copies in print. It was paid for by grants and donations and all proceeds, if there are any, will go to grassroots community organizations in Nicaragua, such as women’s centers.
The book, Dix said, takes over where the media leaves off. “Once the peace accords are signed, the media goes silent,” he said. “Of course, the impacts continue for generations in the aftermath of the war.”