ASUNCION – Spanish photographer Aurelio Gonzalez’s long-lost trove of images of Uruguay in the lead-up to the country’s 1973-1985 dictatorship is on display in Paraguay.
Born 85 years ago in then-Spanish-ruled Morocco, Gonzalez told EFE he ended up in Uruguay by chance after stowing away on an Italian ship that made a stop in the Canary Islands en route to Montevideo, where he had to survive on his wits without money or a passport.
His career as a photojournalist grew out of a gesture of kindness toward a fellow Spaniard in Montevideo who needed a place to stay as he recuperated from tuberculosis.
To repay his host, the other man taught Gonzalez how to use a camera.
In 1957, Gonzalez began taking photos for pro-communist newspaper El Popular, and he was often assigned to cover protests, strikes, student uprisings and the activity of urban guerrillas, as well as the military’s response to dissidents.
The armed forces, with support and encouragement from the political right, seized power in 1973.
Gonzalez, in the weeks and months following the coup, visited factories, ports, universities, hospitals and rail yards to document resistance to the new regime by workers and students.
“When I arrived at occupied factories, people wanted to know what was happening in other places. So I proposed to the journalists and photographers of our daily that we transform ourselves into oral newspapers and go to the factories spreading the news,” he recounted during an interview in Asuncion.
Fearing that El Popular’s archive of more than 57,000 negatives might fall into the hands of the junta, Gonzalez decided to hide the images in the shaft of a disused elevator at the newspaper’s offices in Montevideo’s Lapido palace.
The secret police grabbed Gonzalez in 1975, torturing him without success to reveal the location of the hidden photos.
When the police came for him again a year later, the photographer escaped via the roof of his home and fled to the Mexican Embassy in Montevideo.
He obtained asylum in Mexico, traveling from there to Spain and ultimately to the Netherlands, where he published the few photos he had managed to smuggle out of Uruguay to expose the nature of the dictatorship.
With the end of the junta in 1985, Gonzalez returned to Uruguay “consumed by anxiety” over the fate of the hidden negatives.
He went to Lapido palace, but the building’s new owners had remodeled the structure and the negatives were no longer where he had left them.
Random chance intervened again in 2006, when a former building employee at Lapido told Gonzalez that he found at the opening of a ventilation duct a rusted tin containing more than 30 rolls of film.
The employee said that while the duct held thousands of tins, the conduit was too narrow to extract them.
“And I thought: the tins are metal, we will pull them out with a magnet,” Gonzalez recalled.
The recovery of the photos inspired the 2007 documentary “Al pie del arbol blanco” (At the foot of the white tree), which is being screened here as part of the El Ojo Salvaje photography festival.