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Donna DeCesare captures children in a world of gangs

From the war zones of Central America to the ganglands of Los Angeles, children are caught in the middle.

Photographer Donna DeCesare first started documenting the effects of civil war on toddlers and teens in El Salvador. She made her first trip more than 25 years ago:

"I had covered conflicts in Northern Ireland, I'm part Irish, I'm Italian. I was doing a story for a newspaper in Ireland and met some Salvadoran refugees who were living in sanctuary in Berkeley, California in 1984. That's what got me really interested in El Salvador. I thought, I really should go there."

She witnessed the aftermath of a government firing squad enforcing a curfew, the execution of Jesuit priests and images of young children unfazed by the violence around them. DeCesare documented child soldiers, often orphaned:

"That there were child soldiers in the insurgency wasn't so shocking, children were orphaned and often if their parents were killed by the army, the only family they would have were the guerillas. To see children involved was tragic, but it wasn't surprising to me as to see children involved in the army. These were young boys who hadn't joined voluntarily, they'd been taken off of buses. One child came up to me and told me that his mother must be worried about him because he never came home from visiting his grandmother."

Many Central American immigrants fled to Southern California and DeCesare followed how young lives continued in the states after such violence.

She found that the scars of their youth translated into their new lives as Americans:

"Many of the children who came here witnessed human rights abuses, some of them saw their own parents killed in front of them, sometimes they had histories of being involved as child soldiers as well. So that traumatic legacy is something that people carry with them. Anyone who experiences war carries the impact of that for the rest of their lives, but the kids didn't have anyone they could talk to about this stuff, and most of the parents didn't want to talk about it. So it was among themselves, the gang members together, that was the place where it was safe to talk about their experiences to each other. Many of the kids that I met when I started doing this work were that first generation who had experiences of tremendous childhood trauma."

These conflicts and their aftermath are the subject of DeCesare's new book, "Unsettled."

One of the most stunning images is of a 3-year-old girl, Esperanza, holding a pet pigeon next to a gun (Image 5):


"This was a moment that occurred when I was talking to her grandmother. I saw out of the corner of my eye that the child was jumping on the bed. The door they lived in a very tiny apartment in Watts, and the light was flooding in and I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye a gun on the bed. That alarmed me. She was jumping, and as she went down on the bed the gun got closer to her from that movement and then she grabbed the pigeon that was in their house. She told me afterward that the pigeon was named Giovanni for her uncle who was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. But she also asked me if I wanted to see the other guns. And I said no."

DeCesare captured a powerful image of a young girl standing next to a man killed for violating curfew (Image 8):


"That was the morning after and that man, according to the people who I had talked to, had been killed by a military death squad the night before. That little child standing there looking down the street, I think what got me most about it was the expression on her face, there's a kind of wary look on her face. Not a shocked look, so she's already seen a lot of death, so that's first of all what that tells me, but that she's more concerned about what's happening out of the frame than what's actually in front of her. It makes you feel that there's a sense of danger still. That she's concerned about what else might happen."

Donna DeCesare will speak on May 9 at the Annenberg Space for Photography from 6:30 to 8 p.m., as part of the Iris Nights Lecture Series.

 

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