In 1996, the US Department of Defence released declassified excerpts of a manual entitled, The Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. The manual had been a standard textbook for students at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA): an American military training academy set up in Panama in 1946, which trained Latin American soldiers using techniques that were compatible with United States military customs and traditions.
The manual is specifically concerned with interrogation techniques, and advocates the use of fear, beatings, false imprisonment and executions. More than 60,000 Latin American soldiers have been trained at the School of the Americas, and in all, 11 dictators have attended its courses – among them, some of the region’s most notorious human rights abusers including dictators and death-squad leaders. Despite a truly shocking list of human rights abusing alumni, US army officials identify these men as “a few bad apples”, and the school still exists today.
This military training manual is an institutional record: part of an archive, one generated by the actions and processes of the implementation of power, the bureaucracy of warfare. Archives are time and space bound, perpetually connected to events in the past, yet they are often carried forward into new circumstances where they are re-presented and used – evoking Hal Foster’s description of the archive as a place of creation: “a move to turn excavation sites into construction sites.”
Here, the manual is deconstructed and re-presented with fresh meaning. Pasted over its pages are photographs from the University of Milwaukee Photography Archive – taken by two early to mid 20th century American geographers: Isaiah Bowman, and Eugene Vernon Harris. Bowman and Harris were using photography to chart, map and document Latin America on behalf of the American Geographical Society, and the US Foreign Service respectively, shortly before the formation of the school.
Bowman and Harris’ images are also presented in edited form and paired with extracts of text from the manual. This editing process can be associated with the “performance” that archivists enact on the archive. Hal Foster describes the nature of archives as at once “found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.” There is no fixed meaning of any archival document; we may know the action that created the trace, but its present and future meanings can never be fixed.
This project is part of a wider collaborative body of work entitled Is This Tomorrow? The project seeks to create a documentary-based intervention that reflects on the legacies of US cultural, economic and military actions in Latin America, and the role of photography within this. The project as a whole, draws on a huge mixture of both original and established material and research and includes a mixture of both journalistic and emotional responses.
The work has been made possible by the generous cooperation of the University of Milwaukee Photography Archive, where the photographs of Isaiah Bowman and Eugene Vernon Harris are housed.
Human Exploitation by George Selley