"Our destiny may only be changed if we allow ourselves to imagine a destiny different from that which we were given."
This quote, by Martín Weber, is visually manifest in A Map of Latin American Dreams, his series of black-and-white photographs, begun in 1992, of poor and displaced Latin Americans, at the Silver Eye Center. Each subject holds a small chalkboard on which he or she has written a dream.
In a documentary style, Weber represents the subjects in what appear to be truthful, candid poses. This style is appropriate for his goal of depicting the evolution of another crisis in Latin America: In an exhibition catalogue from 2004, Weber tells how unemployment is driving the middle class into poverty. The gap between the poor and the rich is expanding and "conditions that create the pattern of cycles involving social fragmentation, political violence and instability are rising."
An Argentine born in Chile and now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., Weber is Silver Eye's 2008 Fellowship Recipient. Juror Ariel Shanberg, executive director of The Center for Photography at Woodstock, chose Weber's work from some 300 submissions. Weber received a cash award and this solo exhibition.
Weber photographs his sitters in Latin America, in poses that are overwhelmingly strong, even confrontational. These victims of poverty or political strife are represented not as mere sufferers, but as people we might be able to relate to. Few of us have been through a civil war or extreme poverty, but all of us have dreamed of something better.
A teen-ager sits on the roof of a ramshackle home in Medellín, Colombia. She looks out assertively at us and holds the chalkboard on which is written her dream: "That my parents smile again." Medellín has a reputation as a dangerous city; it was the headquarters of the infamous Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who organized the terrorist Medellín Cartel war against the Colombian government. Another young man from Medellín -- posed shirtless to reveal a scarred and burned body -- wrote: "My dream is to die."
Nearby, an acrobat in La Nina, Argentina, contorts for the camera, her sign reading, "I want to be a lawyer." In La Habana, Cuba, a teen-age girl holds a stuffed bear: "I want to marry an American." A young girl sits on the ground at Maclovio Rojas, on the Mexico/U.S. border, holding a sign saying, "I want to be a police woman." To either side of her stand two other children: One holds a toy pistol pointed at her, the other slumps in a sheepish, head-down pose.
Through the signs, Weber makes his photography a platform for his subjects to tell the viewer about themselves -- they are represented as people with goals, dreams, desires, rather than just victims. Yet, of course, pathos remains in the gap between the opportunities that we perceive these people to have and the dreams they express.
In the gallery at Silver Eye, Weber supplies a large chalkboard for viewers, so that we too can inscribe our dreams. The juxtapositions with the artwork can prove jarring, even sickening: Where one Weber photograph depicts a mother posing with her family in Son Onofre, Colombia, her sign reading, "That they return the remains of my son Jose Luis Olivo Cardena, victim of the paras [paramilitary]," a Silver Eye visitor has written: "That I owned the Steelers."
Such contrasts might make it seem unlikely that gallery-goers can relate to the dire circumstances in which so many impoverished people live. Still, in these poignant photographs, Weber has succeeded in giving "them" a platform to express an (often crushing) humanity in a way that, hopefully, causes thoughtful pause.
A Map of Latin American Dreams continues through March 7. Silver Eye Center for Photography, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1810 or www.silvereye.org