Documenting the Artifacts of a Revolution

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Kevin Kunishi
Raul with an AK-47, WiWilí, 2010. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

It is said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the aftermath of internecine conflicts, when a nation sundered must attempt to become whole again. Civil wars are sordid affairs, the terrible secrets of which must be carried by victim and perpetrator alike, without the easy salve of jingoism to dull the pain. Kevin Kunishi’s new book los restos de la revolución (Daylight) is a chronicle of these faded soldiers, phantasms captured against the vibrant colors of the Nicaraguan campo.

Initially propelled both by his longstanding fascination with the Nicaraguan Revolution and the work of artists like Rubén Darío, Gioconda Belli and Susan Meiselas, Kunishi set off for Nicaragua in 2009. Traveling by bus and thumb, he made his way through the countryside, seeking out veterans of the United States-funded insurrection that roiled this small Central American nation throughout the 1980s.

Searching for “artifacts, both physical and psychological,” Kunishi focused on two areas of the Nicaraguan hinterlands, Jinotega, a Sandinista stronghold, and Nueva Segovia, near the Honduran border, home to the CIA-backed Contras that once made up the self-described “Nicaraguan Resistance.” Kunishi is quick to point out that many of his subjects never had the chance to tell their stories, so as word spread of his intentions, he found these veterans more than forthcoming. They would show him war artifacts and offer to dig up long-buried weapons caches, seemingly as interested in unearthing their experiences as he was.

Kunishi was often surprised at what he found. “I was shown an old, exploded U.S.-issued Claymore mine that two kids had found while chasing an iguana,” he recalls. “It’s incredible how much stuff is still out there.”

Reading los restos de la revolución, one is naturally drawn to the human portraits, but photographs of ordinance tell a story just as compelling. Through these “devices whose original purpose was to maim and kill, and which are now rusted, discarded and forgotten,” Kunishi provides context that urges a deeper understanding of the Nicaraguan conflict. His work is not only about Nicaragua, he says, but “also about American history. The United States has been involved in dictating the destiny of Nicaragua for over a hundred years.” U.S.-issued M18A1 Claymore mines, U.S.-issued M67 fragmentation grenades, Argentine rifles purchased by the CIA and diverted to the Contras—the rusted plumbing of American imperialism in Latin America—tell their own sad stories.

Though the cease-fire agreement that ended the war mandated that the Contras turn in their weapons, many “chose to turn in old rifles, weapons taken off the dead or broken firearms,” Kunishi relates. Looking at the impossibly lush hills Kunishi photographed, one is forced to remember that those green expanses still carry the dark fears of a generation, just under the surface.

His “fading soldiers” seem to mirror that dichotomy. Contra and Sandinista walk amongst one another in their daily lives, but under those facades, turmoil remains. In Kunishi’s portraits some survivors are enveloped in shadow, others are bathed in light, but their eyes always seem to be elsewhere, gazing off into a distance only they can fathom. Their stories, which appear in an index of plates at the back of the book, are intensely personal, and yet they are the stories of all civil wars: The burning village, the murdered child, the barbaric torture, the mutilated corpse, and the pregnant silence of those who cheated death by scant inches and precious seconds.

Kunishi found these men—and they are almost all men; despite the record of women serving in combat on both sides, he found few women who wanted to share their experiences—in a variety of circumstances, some affluent, some destitute, most scraping by, but all connected by their shared experiences.

Some of the former Contras “were disgruntled the American military never invaded or that Congress pulled their funding. They still admire Reagan for ‘standing up to the communists,’ and of course Oliver North is a hero down there.” The Sandinista veterans were “just as proud,” Kunishi says. “However, I found some of the older Sandinista veterans, who were fighting Somoza in the 1970s all the way through the Contra war in the 1980s, were somewhat disillusioned with the way things have unfolded recently with the presidency of Daniel Ortega.”

Kunishi describes his approach as “minimalist and organic, relying totally on soft, ambient light.” Understanding the particularly “fragile ground” that he was treading with his subjects led him to change his equipment during the project. “Initially I was using a modern digital SLR. Most modern SLRs almost look and feel like weapons; after someone confided a personal account or traumatic experience, the last thing I wanted to do was point a giant lens in their face and rattle off ten frames per second,” Kunishi explains. “I began to restructure my entire process, even changing the terminology I was using. I stayed away from words like ‘shooting’ or ‘taking’ photographs.” Kunishi “embraced the use of older medium-format film cameras,”— an old Hasselblad and a Rolleiflex—feeling the “meditative” aspect of the slower process more appropriate.

He also eschewed as many electronics as he could, knowing that laptops and CompactFlash cards would be a liability in the torrential rain and suffocating humidity of rural Nicaragua. Electricity was often scarce, so Kunishi stored film in a friend’s refrigerator in the nearest town. The jungle challenged not only his equipment but his body as well. He lost 22 pounds after contracting an intestinal virus from contaminated water and is still battling the disease’s debilitating effects.

Kunishi is in the process of mapping out a multimedia piece for the project that will make use of some of the hundreds of images not in the book. He’s also creating an exhibition, which he envisions as a mix of images, documents, audio and possibly video elements, that will open in the fall in San Francisco. A tablet version of los restos de la revolución is in the works as well.

Related Article:

Kevin Kunishi Photo Gallery

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