El Salvador villagers view photos at a community forum. 
Courtesy of Laurie McGinley
El Salvador villagers view photos at a community forum.

Courtesy of Laurie McGinley
Laurie McGinley has a love/hate relationship with El Salvador. "El Salvador is a very violent, very destroyed, very mean place to be, but I fell in love with it," she said. "I've been there half a dozen times in the last five years. I've been obsessed with the country."

McGinley served as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador for two years, staying another year to work at a newspaper. She's been home in the Twin Cities for a couple of years but keeps going back.

Last summer McGinley spent two months in San Salvador, the capital city, working on a project with Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, or the Museum of Words and Images, which collects newspapers, posters, audio recordings, films and other memorabilia that help tell the story of El Salvador's complicated and bloody past. The museum's collection includes more than 35,000 photographs from 1872 to the present. There are pictures of the nation's indigenous tribes, its colonial days and its more recent civil war. Working on the project allowed McGinley to combine two of her loves: the people of El Salvador and photography.

"[Initially] little to nothing was known about many of the images," she said. "Names or notes were written on Post-its and stuck to pictures. Sometimes, print had been scribbled in margins or on the back of pictures."

McGinley organized forums for villagers to view images projected onto a large screen. Community members shouted out the names of people they recognized and told stories about what was happening while museum staff recorded the information to add to the archives.

Most of the photographs were tragic and graphic, portraying images of El Salvador's civil war, which started in 1980 and ended in 1992. "Many Salvadorans," McGinley explained, "haven't talked about the pain and horror that they experienced. The forums [got] people talking about things they hadn't talked about in years and [began] to create some healing.

"My culture and life experiences had never prepared me for what I heard at those forums," McGinley said. "It was horribly emotional. The stories were terrible. I had never, never heard things like this before."

McGinley recounted an especially poignant moment from one photo forum. "There was one man who shouted out, 'That's my brother!' Here he was, this machismo man in a cowboy hat and boots … he started to talk about his brother and suddenly he was crying." His neighbors were silent as he cried for 10 minutes. "These people see him every day, but I honestly don't think they had ever heard him speak about the pain he felt because he had never been able to bury his brother."

McGinley and noted local photographer Terry Gydesen, who traveled with her last summer, will share their pictures and stories at a coffee-hour discussion on Nov. 11.

"If people come to this event," McGinley said, "they will see what none of us see on CNN [or the] evening news … real stories of real people who have lived through real war. I have struggled for years to come to terms with what my country did in El Salvador. I think this is one of the reasons I kept going back.

"I need to talk about it, to tell people what I know and what I've learned," she said, explaining her impetus for organizing the upcoming coffee-hour discussion. "I have a waterfall of emotions and information, and I need to let it fall."

FFI: Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen's website can be viewed in English or Spanish at www.museo.com.sv. View photos by Laurie McGinley at www.lauriemcginley.com.