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Through the lens of his camera, acclaimed photojournalist Pedro Valtierra has explored crucial chapters in the recent history of Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Valtierra, 62, is known for capturing iconic moments with an emphasis on periods of conflict that shook Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s, including the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the guerrilla movements in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico.
“Being in a war is very exciting,” Valtierra said Thursday during the opening reception of an exhibition of his work at the Mexican Cultural Institute at Hemisfair. “You feel more alive, more intense, you feel that your work is worth it.”
Titled Pedro Valtierra: Imágenes en Conflicto, the exhibition also is an official event of Fotoseptiembre USA, an international photography festival that takes place every September in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country.
Valtierra was the photo editor of La Jornada newspaper in Mexico City in the mid-1980s and worked for Unomásuno in the early 80s.Today he is the co-owner and founder of not only the CUARTOSCURO magazine, now in its 24th year, but Mexico’s leading news photo agency in its 32nd year. He has received numerous international journalism awards.
Onstage at the exhibition’s opening, Valtierra was joined by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, whose long journalism career includes working as a foreign correspondent in Central America covering the region’s civil wars during the 1980s for Newsweek magazine. The conversation between Valtierra and Rivard was conducted in Spanish.
Although both men covered the same conflicts in history, they did not formally meet until years later in San Antonio when Rivard was the editor of the San Antonio Express-News.
Rivard’s photographer from Newsweek was killed in 1983 in an ambush outside San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city. During a visit to New York City to attend a memorial service, Rivard came across a book of Mexican photography. The powerful image of a ranchero boy hugging a fighting gamecock prompted him to buy the book, and he always wondered about that photographer from Zacatecas. Years later, two photojournalists from Mexico visited Rivard at the Express-News.
“I asked him if he knew that talented photographer from Zacatecas and that I had bought that book in New York City,” Rivard said in Spanish. “I showed him the book, and Pedro said, ‘That’s me.’ I bought a copy of that photo and it is still in my ranch. That’s how we met.”
Valtierra’s exhibition at the Mexican Cultural includes more than 100 black and white photographs and offers a striking and up-close view of warfare. The face of a girl with bare feet can only be seen from behind a gun that someone helps her grasp. Children laugh and play as war is waged around them. A Sandinista soldier leaves his weapon on the side to cool off in the water after combat.
The images provide a hint of humanity within conflict.
“The exhibition ‘Imágenes en Conflicto’ represents much more than war or the struggle itself,” said curator Lucía Cuevas. “It is, without a doubt, the most solid expression of the work of a war correspondent, yes, but also the gaze of someone who seeks to capture the profound sense of humanity in front of pain, anguish, and terror.”
Valtierra’s exhibition in San Antonio was especially curated for the Mexican Cultural Institute, said Mexican Cultural Institute Director Mónica del Arenal.
“It’s very unique,” del Arenal said. “We are hoping the exhibition is shown in other cultural institutes under the Mexican consulates in places like Washington or New York.”
During the Thursday discussion, Valtierra and Rivard reminisced about the danger, the adrenaline, and the stories they got to tell during times of conflict in Latin America. One of the many struggles for families of war correspondents, Rivard said, is the fear that their loved ones might not come home.
Asked how he coped with the sound of bullets and feeling of imminent danger, Valtierra said that “the habit and the need to tell stories” is what pushed him forward.
Another striking element from the ’70s and ’80s, Valtierra and Rivard said, was that readers abroad were not used to seeing women participate in war. The stories and photographs that they published made quite an impact.
Valtierra has seen how his images have become emblems of certain social movements and how his work – even today – has continued to transcend borders. But it hasn’t always been easy.
“There was one occasion in 1994 during the Zapatista movement that we went to Ocosingo, in Chiapas,” he said. “There was a massacre in the market and many Zapatistas had died. Walking there, I saw a wounded man, and his gaze was so intense that I could not take photos. Still, as journalists, it’s important that more than sympathizing with a movement, you have to portray what is happening.”
Over the years, Valtierra has confirmed the importance of photojournalism in not only informing the public but providing a window into realities that may be hard to grasp from miles away. This is why, he said, words and photographs are so powerful.
“I never thought that my images would be mounted in a museum,” he said. “I always worked with the idea of providing a service for readers and people. I see that after so many years, my photographs have lasted and I am very grateful.”
Valtierra’s exhibition will be on display through Oct. 22. The Mexican Cultural Institute is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.