Writing on photography

Review: The Mexican Suitcase

Having just reviewed a small London show of Robert Capa photographs it seemed like a good moment for me to see The Mexican Suitcase, a 2011 film directed by Trisha Ziff. The film narrates the rediscovery of the titular suitcase, a cache of negatives taken by Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymor during the Spanish Civil War. Presumed lost, the suitcase was remarkably rediscovered in Mexico nearly seventy years after it was entrusted by Capa’s darkroom manager to Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, the Mexican representative to Vichy France.

The story of the case of negatives and it’s journey through France, across the Atlantic, and to Mexico is complex and forms only part of the film’s narrative, which really uses the suitcase more as a convenient lead in to discovering and discussing Spain’s coming to terms with the past (or rather it’s precise lack of coming to terms). The story of unearthing the suitcase is unfolded in parallel with the stories of other similar rediscoveries. For example a dig at the site of a Civil War era mass grave, and the reminiscences of a series of people who directly experienced the conflict, as fighters, civillians, refugees and exiles.

For me the interviews with these direct witnesses to the conflict are by far the most interesting aspect of the film. Having suggested in my earlier review of the Capa exhibition that it might still be too soon for his photographs to sell in galleries for thousands of pounds I found it quite moving to hear the accounts of people who lived through the events of the war. People for whom the past was clearly not just an abstract historical event or even a dormant memory, but something still experienced intrusively on a daily basis, even seventy years after the Republic was defeated.

Also interviewed are a series of academics, photographers and other professionals who are connected to the suitcase or the civil war, and who explore the continuing relevancy of Capa’s work, and the contextualisation made possible by the rediscovery of these missing negatives, many of which cover the latter stages of the war. The rediscovery of the negatives was clearly important, not just as a piece of photo-historical material, but because they visually demonstrated the scale, the barbarity and the human toll that came with the end of the conflict. Particularly interesting are Capa’s photograph of the exiles in France, dumped by the thousands into desolate concentration camps and Chim’s documenting of the passage of luckier Republican exiles to Mexico.

My main problem with the film is the lack of alternative views on either Capa or the Civil War, The Mexican Suitcase has it’s own clear historical bias in both regards. There are no interviews with anyone involved in the conflict on the Nationalist side, and regarding Capa many of the experts are attached to the International Centre of Photography, which clearly has an interest in perpetuating the Robert Capa myth. A few criticisms creep in, for example Capa’s overshadowing of Taro and Seymour, and even the places and events he photographed. Another interesting criticism comes from the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer, who quite convincingly argues that the suitcase has become as much a part of Mexico’s history as Spain or Capa’s, and criticises that the continued looting of artefacts from countries like Mexico for museums in Europe and North America.

Although made in 2011 this isn’t by any means a bad time to return to The Mexican Suitcase, with the process of de-Francoisation stalling and the question of which narratives of the past are sanctioned and which remain hidden back on the agenda in recession hit Spain. Equally although I generally find comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and the current conflict in Syria vacuous in the extreme, it’s hard to hear the story of the young Chim, Taro and Capa photographing their way to fame in the remains of Madrid and Cordoba, and resist the desire to draw parallels with the young, inexperienced freelancers heading off today to try and make their names in the ruins of Allepo and Homs.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography