Photojournalist captures struggle of gang life

As a child, Edgar witnessed the brutality of Salvadoran death squads. In Los Angeles, he grew up in a world of gangs. Later
As a child, Edgar witnessed the brutality of Salvadoran death squads. In Los Angeles, he grew up in a world of gangs. Later he found his destiny on the streets of San Salvador. Photo: Donna DeCesare

Associate Professor of Photojournalism Donna DeCesare has a keen appreciation for the visual. The diminutive, green-eyed blonde appreciates the visual irony of her experiences living among war refugees, convicts and gangs, such as the notorious 18th Street Gang of Los Angeles and El Salvador.

As a photojournalist, DeCesare spent two decades photographing the final years of the Salvadoran Civil War and its aftermath -- the Diaspora of Salvadoran and Guatemalan youth affected by gangs and the spread of U.S. gang culture to Central America.

Told in images with bilingual text on DeCesare's interactive Web site "Destiny's Children: A Legacy of War and Gangs," the stories follow the lives of Carlos and Ivonne, Jessica and Carlos, and Edgar as they struggle with limited opportunities and the lure of gangs. Each vignette is an intimate portrait DeCesare created during years of building relationships as the individuals moved in and out of gangs.

In some respects it was the struggles of DeCesare's immigrant family chasing the American dream that enabled her to identify with the people she documented.

"My grandfather emigrated from Italy to Brazil in the early 1900s where he shined shoes and sold newspapers in order to send money home to his family back in Italy," said DeCesare, whose grandfather later immigrated to the U.S. to live with his wife, whose siblings had immigrated to New York from Italy.

Ultimately though, there were two pivotal events that set DeCesare on her career path.

"During my graduate studies in England, two friends from Northern Ireland invited me to their homes to spend Christmas -- one was Catholic, the other Protestant," DeCesare said. "Despite being friends at school, the Northern Ireland conflict prevented the Irish friends from visiting each other's homes over the break. So I went to each of their homes separately and took photographs for the other to see."

The second event took place at a photography exhibit titled "El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers." The exhibition -- now part of the permanent collection at the Harry Ransom Center -- featured images from the Salvadoran Civil War with the intent of raising awareness about the crisis.

"Upon seeing that photography exhibit, I felt that my life experiences up to that point had been preparation for what I was meant to do: go to El Salvador to bear witness to the human tragedy and suffering, as well as the struggle for justice," she said.

DeCesare prepared herself to cover the Salvadoran conflict by living among the indigenous people of Costa Rica and the peasants of Nicaragua. She arrived with a command of Spanish and an appreciation for cultural nuances, such as eye contact. This level of preparedness enabled her to put a more intimate human face on the suffering.

During her four years photographing the civil war for news organizations such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, editors often noted that DeCesare's photographs were different from what other war photographers were providing.

When the Salvadoran war ended in 1992 she turned her attention to the Diaspora refugee crisis in the U.S. More than 25 percent of El Salvador's population had migrated during the war.

Many of those refugees -- including former child soldiers -- settled in Los Angeles and scores of young people turned to gangs. DeCesare's online, interactive exhibit "Destiny's Children" tells four of those stories.

"I built the site to educate audiences and inspire them to action -- by volunteering their time, promoting activism or contributing resources," said DeCesare, whose photographs have appeared in Aperture, Mother Jones and Harpers. "The site directs visitors to organizations in need of resources and volunteers, or those that promote activism."

DeCesare is raising funds for the second phase of the project, which she hopes to launch later this year. "I want to develop workshops to train young people how to report on their community and tell their own stories through writing and photography."

According to DeCesare, many of those stories have yet to be told. She knows a number of former gang members who have been able to turn their lives around.

"One is currently working toward a master's in social work, another is working for a violence prevention project," she said. "But because their citizenship status is unclear, or because there is still stigma attached to publicizing a gang past, I don't want to jeopardize their safety or progress by publishing those stories until they decide the time is right to come forward."

Read two articles written by DeCesare titled "Pushing Past Technology to Reach Enduring Issues" and "Destiny's Children: A Legacy of War and Gangs."