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Photographic Memory: Gentile's 'Wait For Me' Recalls 1980s Central America Conflicts

In a photo taken by Bill Gentile for Newsweek magazine, a Salvadoran paratrooper fires into a  San Salvador barrio during an offensive by the country's Marxist guerrillas in 1989
Bill Gentile
Wait For Me
'BE CAREFUL NOT TO BECOME A MACHINE' In a photo taken by Bill Gentile for Newsweek magazine, a Salvadoran paratrooper fires into a San Salvador barrio during an offensive by the country's Marxist guerrillas in 1989.

In an interview about his memoir, acclaimed photojournalist Bill Gentile discusses how aggressively but sensitively war and conflict need to be covered.

In the 1980s, Miami was preoccupied with violence — not just cocaine cowboys here, but the civil wars in Central America, whose players and intrigues so often dwelled in South Florida.

Few journalists were a bigger part of that Reagan-era, Central-American scene than photographer Bill Gentile, who has just published a memoir called "Wait For Me: True Stories of War, Love and Rock & Roll."

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Gentile today is a journalism professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

He spoke from there with WLRN's Tim Padgett — who worked with Gentile in Central America when they were both with Newsweek magazine — about his book and how the issue of U.S. intervention in developing countries like Nicaragua, and Afghanistan, still resonates today.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:

PADGETT: You grew up the son and grandson of Italian immigrants in a Pennsylvania steel town. You say in the book that journalism became your "ticket." What did you mean by that?

GENTILE: My grandfathers, my father, my uncles, my brothers and I all worked in the steel mills at one time or another, and I needed a ticket to get out of there. But I also wanted a tool — and I found journalism could provide both of those for me. It could get me to places that I would never have been able to go to — I mean, I've been to the Galapagos, the Arctic Circle, the heart of Africa, I've been to the mountains in Central America — and it was my job to tell the rest of the world what those places were like through pictures.

Wait For Me.jpeg

In the 1980s, few photojournalists covered the war between Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista regime and U.S.-backed contra rebels as aggressively but also as sensitively as you did.

In one striking chapter of "Wait for Me," in a matter of hours you photograph a bloody ambush in the Nicaraguan jungle, then a dead soldiers' very somber wake. Tell us first about the experience of being squarely in the middle of a firefight like that.

Yeah, so we're climbing a hill with these soldiers and the jungle at the top of the hill just explodes. And I never saw any of the people who were firing at us. You know, all I saw was people around me dropping to the ground, either because they were hit or because they wanted to keep their heads getting blown off.

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Bill Gentile
Nicaraguan troops evacuate a wounded soldier after a jungle firefight during the country's civil war of the 1980s.

And this is what I was there for, to document the war. But if you're not careful about this, you run the risk of turning into kind of like a machine just out there for fame and fortune, if you will, and you lose some sensitivity toward people. I came really close to that line, I think, but I pulled back from it.

If war photographers aren't careful, they risk turning into a machine just out there for fame and fortune, and you lose sensitivity toward people. I came really close to that line. I pulled back from it.

Which brings us to one of your most memorable photos at the dead Nicaraguan soldier's wake, his indigenous wife breastfeeding their baby by his coffin. Can you read a piece of that scene for us?

Sure. "As I'm looking through the camera composing the shots...I see that the wife of the dead militiaman is staring straight at me. She is the only person in the group who makes eye contact with me. And it's more than just a stare. It's a piercing connection that cuts past everything else in the picture ... And I can hear what she's saying to me then and now (his voice cracks with emotion) ... Look what they've done to my life. Show the world what happened here."

Sorry, it's kind of obvious that pictures like these still have an impact on me even today.

Bill Gentile
A dead Nicaraguan militiaman surrounded by family and fellow soldiers, including his wife breastfeeding their baby at his coffinside, at his wake during the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s.

I'll admit that photo still haunts me today, too, when I look at it in your book "Nicaragua."

You traveled Nicaragua in an off-road vehicle you called La Bestia — The Beast. I went on more than few reporting trips with you in that thing. But in the book it's also a reminder of your efforts not just to photograph Nicaragua but to inhabit it. What do you hope your work conveyed then and conveys now, not just about the war but the place itself — and places like it?

That the people there have real lives, real dreams — that they want the same things we want. Stability, decent jobs, raise families, make love, drink some cold beers on the weekends. And that we're neighbors and we have to learn to live with these people, you know, whether they're there or here.

Some of the more destructive U.S. policies executed in Central America at that time, the bitter fruit is still showing up at the gates of the U.S. southern border because some of those countries are still so unlivable. I want people to understand that.

Scott Wallace
Gentile standing next to La Bestia while covering Nicaragua's civil war in the 1980s

You saw fellow photographers killed in Central America; and in 1989, the ultra-violent Marxist guerrilla group Shining Path threatened to execute you and Newsweek correspondent Joe Contreras as "spies" after they abducted you in Peru. As a journalism professor today, what do you teach your students about taking risks when covering conflict?

Yeah, Joe Contreras and I were very, very lucky. We were doing a story on the connection between the Shining Path and narco-trafficking; and we found that connection, but almost lost our lives doing it. The Shining Path were Maoists, so while we were being interviewed by one of their top political guys, Joe [convinced him we were journalists] by reminding him even Mao gave interviews to American journalists back in China. The next morning we were put on a boat across the river and freed — and the guys who had taken us across the river before were shocked: they'd never expected to see me and Joe Contreras alive again.

But, Tim, the question about taking risks today is a really important one. As a matter of fact, this week we're going to have a webinar about this. I tell my students the world today is much more dangerous than it was when I was covering Central America in the 1980s. At that time, journalists were considered professionals. That's changed.

Now you have people like Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines, you have Ortega in Managua — you have all of these authoritarian leaders using this, the same language of "fake news," and "journalists are enemy of the people."

But you don't have to go to Nicaragua and El Salvador. You can go to Oregon, you can go to Washington, D.C. to see people attacking journalists in the streets and online. I mean, it's a different world now.

Gentile's photo of Nicaragua contra rebels on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1987.

Newsweek magazine in the 1980s called Miami "America's Casablanca" in no small part because so many of the people and so much of the intrigue involved in Latin America's conflicts could be found there.

Right. When I came to live in Miami after the Nicaraguan war, my next door neighbor in Miami Beach told me that regularly in the 1980s he'd be woken up at 3 o'clock in the morning by a propellor plane flying right over his house. And he said after making some inquiries, he found out it was one of the planes flying under the radar, so to speak, to help resupply the contras in Honduras.

But you remark in "Wait For Me" that covering Central America's wars was "worth the risk because America's intervention in these developing countries needed to be addressed and challenged" by journalists. Later, you also worked in Afghanistan. So right now, after the U.S.'s troubled exit there last month, do you still feel strongly about this?

Absolutely. Our job is to go there and tell people about the flaws of the policy or if the policies are being successful. You know, we're the canaries in the coal mine.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.