In the central square of a seaside village south of Rome, a stone slab stands as a monument to i cadutti, that is, to the citizens of the town who were killed in WWII. The town is Terracina, my father’s hometown. Dozens of names are etched into the monument, including those of my widowed grandmother, Piera La Rocca and my aunt Paolina, who were killed in an air raid when my father was 9 years old. My orphaned father and his siblings faced poverty, hunger, homelessness, and long-term emotional struggles. Even so, my father immigrated to North America, started a family of his own, and built a career as a computer engineer. We returned to Europe as often as possible and my father’s family remains deeply connected, celebrating births, mourning deaths, and sharing our joys, sorrows, failures, and successes.
As a child, I spent much of my time 6,000 miles from Terracina, in my mother’s family home in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Some of my happiest memories are of playing in the yard with my cousins and my grandmother’s dogs, of birthdays and holidays, of my grandmother making arroz or reading in her favorite chair. But neoliberal policies, the repeated devaluation of the peso, and the drug wars had egregious effects on my mother’s hometown. After my grandmother’s death, her family home was sold and most of the family has migrated north. Our once tightly-knit family is now scattered, and with the exception of a few hard-won visits, we communicate our continued affection mostly by phone, text, e-mail, and social media.
My family is not so different from other families. All families have tragic stories to tell and most bear the scars of the aftermath of conflict. We must, many of us, “move out of war’s desperate struggle to survive, and begin another equally mighty struggle – that of learning to live again.” These are the words of Sara Terry about her work in post-war Bosnia and the genesis of The Aftermath Project: War is Only Half the Story. The project manifests what may be photography’s noblest role, that of bearing witness, of testifying to and bringing to light that which might otherwise remain largely unseen.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag’s 2003 book-length essay about the imagery of atrocities and war, she wrote, “What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.” Recovering from trauma requires the articulation of a story about how it happened that frees us from denial, shame, anxiety, disconnection, and despair. The photographs that comprise The Aftermath Project lock in our minds a narrative of mourning and healing.
Like much of the most powerful art, The Aftermath Project evolved into a growing body of work that has taken on a life of its own. Each photographer who has participated has contributed a unique perspective that forms an essential element of the whole. And that is the beauty of art: the particulars are so truthfully and lovingly examined that each of us can recognize our own stories there.