Paula Luttringer: A Keeper of Memories

© Paula Luttringer from the series ‘El Matadero’ (the slaughterhouse) [detail] 1995

Making photographs provides a way to keep hold of a past that was not recorded, a past which was hidden, a past which intrudes into the present through these flashes of memory.


Traumatic experiences can scar the mind as well as the body. Psychologically, trauma overwhelms one’s consciousness with levels of stress that exceed one’s ability to cope. It becomes impossible to integrate the emotions involved into a rational and resolved understanding of that experience. The symptoms of psychological trauma can manifest as shock, confusion, anger, anxiety, shame, isolation, and a sense of hopelessness, disconnection, or numbness. These are highly subjective experiences and differ from one person to the next. It is consequently very hard to communicate the nature and impact of psychological trauma to others.

The experiences that are most traumatic are those that completely overwhelm and disempower the individual. These may have a natural cause, such as tsunami or bush fire, or they may be humanly inflicted, such as war. In those cases, the cause of the trauma is apparent, and the condition of the survivor can therefore be broadly understood. This may not make the trauma any less painful or long-lasting, but it does at least give it an historical context in the wider world. However, where the violence is clandestine, hidden from public view with all evidence destroyed, a survivor has no such public framework in which their condition may be comprehended. For them their psychological scars are doubly shrouded and seemingly impossible to assuage through sharing.

Psychological trauma and the challenge of communicating the deeply personal experience of that trauma to others, are at the heart of the work of the Argentinian artist, Paula Luttringer. In 1977, she was abducted by agents of the dictatorship that had come to power in Argentina during a military coup one year before. She was held in one of the secret concentration camps – known as Clandestine Centres of Detention and Torture or CCDT – operated by the regime. She fled Argentina immediately after her release and did not return until 1995.

The impact of that trauma was intense. But it was not until two decades later that she discovered that she could begin to share those experiences through a poetic use of photography as an instrument of metaphor, allusion, and memory. And, in doing so, she was able to help other women who had managed to survive similar experiences to tell their stories. It was through photography that she and they could begin to build a collective memory of those times from the piercing shards of recollection shattered by the impact of overwhelming trauma.

Alasdair Foster

© Paula Luttringer from the series ‘El Matadero’ 1995


How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’?

Before I was a photographer, I was a gemologist. I earned my living assessing precious stones. I used to look deep inside them with a magnifying glass. Some people have suggested that my approach to photography is similar: looking for what is hidden inside, scrutinising the detail not visible at first glance.

The experiences that inform your photographs occurred long before you became a photographer. What were the historical circumstances of those experiences?

From 1976 to 1983, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship. During that period, the dictatorship kidnapped, tortured, and murdered more than 30,000 people. From the beginning, their intention was to hide what they had done; to keep it secret. There were in Argentina in those years 520 Clandestine Centres of Detention and Torture (CCDT) kept hidden from the public. People abducted by the regime were taken to one of these centres. The agents of the dictatorship destroyed the bodies of the people they murdered and with them eradicated evidence of many of the lives of my generation. Babies born in custody were forcibly taken from their mothers to be ‘adopted’ by families that cooperated with the dictator’s regime. Everything was secret, everything was hidden. Those that entered a CCDT simply ‘disappeared’.

I was one of the disappeared.

© Paula Luttringer from the series ‘El Matadero’ 1995

I was abducted on 31 March. I was seven months pregnant at the time. In April and May, I was tortured and interrogated and, in early June, they took me to a military hospital where I had the baby by Caesarean section. After my daughter Luciana’s birth, I saw her once and they took her away. I didn’t know if I would see her again. Around the beginning of July, I was blindfolded and led to a car,  Luciana was put into my arms. I spent July and August in the CCDT with the baby.

Part of the terror for those who were disappeared is that they never knew what was coming next. We could not be kept indefinitely in a CCDT because each day more people were abducted, and space was needed to hold and interrogate them. Some people were kept one week and released. Others were killed and their bodies thrown into the streets. Some were put on a plane and sent to Spain, while others were dropped from a plane into the ocean.

After five months, I was blindfolded again and put into a car with my baby. I thought they were going to kill me and send the baby somewhere, but another prisoner whispered to me that I was going to be transferred to a civilian jail. I whispered back to him that I wanted to die with him and the others, but he said no; that someone needs to tell our story. That day they transferred me to a regular police jail. I had no legal existence, and my daughter had no legal existence. For the police, trying to account for us without paperwork was troublesome for them, so I guess they decided to get rid of us. After a week the administrator told me that I had twenty-four hours to get out of Argentina, and that is how I left. I went to Uruguay for two years and then spent six years in Brazil. After I had recovered, I moved to France, where I now live.

I was lucky. I survived. I am one of the ‘reappeared’.

© Paula Luttringer from the series ‘El Matadero’ 1995

When did you begin making photographs?

In 1992, I returned to Argentina where, the following year, I visited an exhibition by the photographer Adriana Lestido. The photographs showed mothers in prison with their children. These images had a profound impact on me. In that moment, I came to realise that something I felt inside me – something I had not talked about for twenty years – was something that I could, perhaps, express through photography.

I went to a school of photography in Buenos Aires. There I saw an announcement that Adriana Lestido would be running a workshop for experienced photographers. I met with her, and I explained that I was forty years old and had never done photography before. Nonetheless, she encouraged me to join her workshop. When I developed my first rolls of film, they  were all transparent. I felt I had failed, but she urged me to persevere and she developed my next rolls of film herself.

© Paula Luttringer from the series ‘El Matadero’ 1995

What did you photograph?

I wanted to do work related to the Argentinian people, and I thought of the beef industry. I went to a slaughterhouse, to photograph the cattle being processed for the meat market. I had thought that this was all I was doing. But later, when I showed my photographs to my friends, they said that they could see I was actually telling my own story. These images of the vulnerable bodies of the animals being tormented and violated resonated with fragments of my own memory. It also resonated with the collective memories of many young people of my generation who had been kidnapped and disappeared. I called the exhibition ‘El Matadero’ (the slaughterhouse).

Understood metaphorically, these images became a first step for me toward recapturing my own history and truth.

The next body of work you made was ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ (The Wailing of the Walls). How did this series come about?

Since 2000, I have been going back to Argentina to visit the abandoned CCDT sites and photograph what remains. The walls are scarred and broken, just as the violence enacted in those places scarred and broke our bodies. I am a ‘reappeared’ woman, and I went in search of other women who survived enforced disappearance to talk with them about their memories. With their permission, their memories and their words became a part of ‘El Lamento de los Muros’.

“I went down about twenty or thirty steps and I heard big iron doors being shut. I imagined that the place was underground, that it was big, because you could hear people’s voices echoing and the airplanes taxiing overhead or nearby. The noise drove you mad. One of the men said to me: ‘So, you’re a psychologist? A bitch, like all psychologists. Here you’ll find out what’s good.’ And he began to punch me in the stomach.”

Marta Candeloro was abducted 7 June 1977 in Neuquén and taken to the Clandestine Detention Centre called ‘La Cueva’.

© Paula Luttringer Marta Candeloro from the series ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ 2000–2015

“Something strange used to happen at night, the screams of torture were different than those during the day. Even if the screams of torture are always the same, they sound different at night. And it’s also different when they come to get you at night. The noises and the screams are not with me always, but when I do remember them, it makes me very sad. I am paralysed by those screams, I’m back in that time and place. As somebody once said — and I’ve given this some thought and I think it is right — although life goes on, although some of us were freed, you never get out of the pit.”

Isabel Cerruti was abducted on 12 July 1978 in Buenos Aires. She was then taken to the Clandestine Detention Centre called ‘El Olimpo’.

© Paula Luttringer Isabel Cerruti from the series ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ 2000–2015

Any time I have the opportunity to enter another of the CCDT sites I go there to photograph what remains. Any time I find another woman who survived the CCDT who wishes to tell her story, I will listen and record her testimony.

I have interviewed seventy-five ‘reappeared’ women. I asked each one, “why did you survive?” Every one said she did not know; she had done nothing different from others who were killed. As far as any of us know, we were randomly selected to live. Like other ‘reappeared’ women, I have built my life on the scars of that trauma. Collecting testimonies and photographs is not an artistic project for me, but a life project.

‘El Lamento de los Muros’ is about a painful and challenging issue: the violence brought against women under the dictatorship and the continuing ways in which the survivors cope and live with the aftermath. How was this funded?

I was very clear in my mind that I only wanted funding from women. I asked one hundred donors to fund the gathering of the testimony of one hundred survivors. This was a project by a woman, for women, wholly supported by women.

“Ants used to come in and out, and I would watch these ants because they were coming in and then going out into the world. They were walking across the earth, the outside world, and then coming back in again, and watching them I didn’t feel so alone.”

Ledda Barreiro, who was held at ‘La Cueva’ Clandestine Detention Centre.

© Paula Luttringer Ledda Barreiro from the series ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ 2000–2015

“And this marks you, it’s a wounded feeling that stays with you the rest of your life. You’re left with this dual task: you have to be constantly working out what comes from the trauma and what from normal life. I have this dual task in life. I have to decide which feelings are the result of the trauma and what there is beneath of less intensity, more diluted, which is what comes from normal life. So I talk to someone who was never in a clandestine prison and then I play the role of a normal person and I realise what that involves, I step into normality. These are things that happen to all of us who were victims of repression…”

Liliana Gardella was abducted on 25 November 1977 in Mar del Plata. She was then taken to the Clandestine Detention Centre called ‘ESMA’

© Paula Luttringer Liliana Gardella from the series ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ 2000–2015

What kind of response to the work have you had from the women who shared their stories with you?

Some people are now well-known as survivors of the dictatorship, but I looked for the women who have remained in the background; the ones who don’t often talk about their experiences. When the women who collaborated with me in making this work came to the exhibition, they saw young people looking at the photographs and they told me that this made them realise that their words were important. Through their words, the next generation could understand what had happened in their country.

What kind of response have you had to this work from audiences internationally?

People come to find me and tell me about similar experiences in their own countries. They tell me the stories of what happened to their grandmothers, or of others who came before them. I have come to understand how this work can awaken memories of other stories; of similar things that happened at other times and in other places.

This ‘archaeology of memory’ continued with ‘Cosas Desenterradas’ (things unearthed). How did that work come about?

One of the most notorious CCDT in Buenos Aires was the so-called Club Atlético. In the late 1970s, it was demolished to make way for the construction of a freeway. The basement rooms had been used as torture chambers. Twenty years after the building had been demolished, a team of young archaeologists and anthropologists discovered some objects in the remains of those rooms. These were possessions that had once belonged to people in the CCDT: both those who were abducted and detained, and those who tortured and imprisoned them.

Objects hold memory. Survivors hold memory, even though trauma causes ruptures in its continuity. When people see a picture of a sweater, a button, a shoe that had been worn by someone who ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship, the very style of the object confirms its truth. We were young people in the 1970s. We enjoyed the fashions and spirit of our time. We had been students living in the era of flower power… Then, suddenly, with the military coup, everything changed. The dictatorship had tried to hide all evidence of what they had done to us. But these disinterred objects are proof of what had been hidden and denied.

In Bosnia, people visit mass graves. In Argentina, we have no graves. In Rwanda, people cherish the bones of those who were massacred. In Argentina, we have no bones. These objects are the only things we have left to connect us with the people who were abducted, tortured and made to vanish. Seeing photographs of these objects is one way we can pay our respects to those who were ‘disappeared’.

[Left] © Paula Luttringer ‘Lignum Mortuum No. 1’ 2015–2017
[Right] © Paula Luttringer ‘Lignum Mortuum No. 3’ 2015–2017

Your next series is called ‘Lignum Mortuum’ (a Latin phrase meaning ‘dead trees’) . It seems to take a new direction. How did it come about?

The dictatorship not only destroyed the lives of many people, it also destroyed parts of the ecosystem of Argentina. During the dictatorship, the infrastructure of the region around Lago Epecuén [a saltwater lake] was not properly maintained. In 1985, after a season of heavy rains, flood waters broke through the neglected dam and the town below was submerged under ten meters of saltwater. It remained underwater for over twenty years, until shifting weather patterns led to a drought. In 2009, a ghost town began to re-emerged from beneath the receding waters.

In 2015, I began to photograph the trunks of the trees in the area. They had become baked white like bones and glistened with salt crystals. When I saw the contact sheets for these photographs, I saw what looked like a forest of dead trees trudging onward. The trees speak to me of the way people who have suffered trauma continue to move forward in their lives, while something inside of them has already died.

[Left] © Paula Luttringer ‘Entrevero No. 3–1’ 2015–2017
[Centre] © Paula Luttringer ‘Entrevero No. 1–3’ 2015–2017
[Right] © Paula Luttringer ‘Entrevero No. 4–1’ 2015–2017

This led to a second body of work called ‘Entrevero’. How did that series evolve?

I shot many rolls of film while making ‘Lignum Mortuum’. One day, I accidentally put three rolls of exposed film into the pocket where I kept unused film. The next day I used those rolls again. As soon as I developed the film, I realised what I had done. At first, I was furious with myself, and put those films aside. Later, I returned to those films, curious about the tangled images of dead trees. When I printed them, I saw different worlds superimposed on one another; haunted landscapes of broken trunks and unearthed roots, layered like memories.

I think that a kind of chaos or chance played a role in the creation of these images. The Spanish word entrevero has many meanings, with no equivalent in English. It can mean confusion, disorder, a brawl. When gauchos have been drinking and start to fight, their word for that is entrevero. I see the double exposures – the trees layered and twisting around each other – as a kind of entrevero.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this work?

Survivors of political violence share some problems in common. We have gaps in our recollection, and sometimes we get unexpected flashes of memory. These flashes are not words but images, mental pictures. We cannot choose when these mental images come to us. We cannot erase the mental pictures that arrive, and we cannot change what they reveal. If we try to shut them out, they insist. The flashes of memory arrive during good moments in our lives, when we are relaxed. They come to mind when we are happy, when we are working on other things, when they are least expected. They burn in our minds, yet they cannot be shared with anyone else.

Photography allows me to create images that suggest what is in my mind. The photographs are not illustrations of what is in my mind, but they are reminders… suggestions. Unlike flashes of memory, photographic images can be shared with others. Making photographs provides a way to keep hold of a past that was not recorded, a past which was hidden, a past which intrudes into the present through these flashes of memory. The images that come into my mind are not the same as the images that arrive in another woman’s mind, but sometimes my photographs have reminded other survivors of their own memories.

I am, in my way, a keeper of memories.

“It is very hard to describe the terror of the minutes, hours, days, months, spent there. At first when you’ve been kidnapped you have no idea about the place around you. Some of us imagined it to be round, others like a football stadium with the guards walking above us. We didn’t know which direction our bodies were facing; where our head was, where our feet were pointing. I remember clinging to the mat with all my strength so as not to fall, even though I knew I was on the floor.”

Liliana Calizo was abducted on 1 September 1976 in Cordoba. She was then taken to the Clandestine Detention Centre called ‘La Perla’

© Paula Luttringer Liliana Calizo from the series ‘El Lamento de los Muros’ 2000–2015

Biographical Notes

Paul Luttringer was born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1955. In 1999, she was chosen by the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires as one of the twenty photographers of the ‘New Generation’. In the same year, she won the Best Portfolio Prize at PhotoEspaña, Madrid, for her project ‘El Matadero’ and, one year later, she was awarded an artist’s grant by the National Arts Fund of Argentina to begin a new project, ‘El Lamento de los Muros’. In 2001, she was awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Her work is held in the permanent collections of both the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas; George Eastman House in Rochester, New York State; Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Washington State; La Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris; and the Portuguese Photography Centre in Porto. She currently lives and works in Argentina and France.

Photo © Diana Blok

This article was first published in Chinese, in the November 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme was Ways of Seeing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in March 2020.