Liborio Justo’s Photographs

Rosendo Fraga

The photographs exhibited today at the Isaac Fernandez Blanco Museum reflect accurately and without sentimentality what the Great American Depression in the 30’s was all about;  in addition, they also mark the final testimony of their creator:  Liborio Justo.

Born into a family that gave him every opportunity for a comfortable and prosperous life, he abandoned his medical studies, driven by his desire to help the dispossessed. Although his father was at the time Minister of Defence for President Alvear, in his twenties Liborio went to work as a logger in a remote maté  plantation in  the Paraguayan Chaco, thus identifying with the most exploited members of society. This experience originated one of his pseudonyms, "Quebracho" (TN:the wood from the Argentine"quebracho" tree is as hard as steel ), symbolizing his indomitable fighting spirit.

In 1930 he won a scholarship from the New York Institute of Education, which was withdrawn after a public speech at Willamstown University where he denounced Washington's policy in  the Caribbean .The photographs  exhibited today were taken during another trip to USA, in 1934, in the midst of the Depression. They are the images of an artist but equally of a political activist who used his art as an instrument of protest and as a social weapon.  This is what characterized Liborio's personality, or that of "Lobodon Garra", another pseudonym he chose as a fiction writer (TN: The "Lobodon" was a prehistoric creature that roamed Patagonia, "Garra" is an animal's claw).

They are clear, direct, eloquent images. He captures his subjects’  expressions without  manipulation, conveying  through  them the  fleeting message of a gaze. There are no smiles - only loneliness and despair. Over seventy years later, many of the photos Liborio took in the streets of USA resemble those of Buenos Aires at the beginning of the XXIst century. Scavangers rummaging through rubbish bins, people sleeping in the streets, endless queues for charity meals, vacant looks, hopeless waiting.

The harshness of the social crisis is reflected in his subjects' images and expressions. If Liborio's intention was to communicate a message, I believe that he successfully achieved this through the timeless universality of his photographs. A testimony of this is their power to bridge across two  different countries and two distant eras suffering from a similar social drama.

 Their same spirit of protest pervades all of his fiction, from his short stories on Patagonia, "La Tierra Maldita"("The Cursed Land")(TN: name given by Darwin to Patagonia), published in 1932, to his autobiography, "Prontuario"("Criminal Record") written in 1938, when he had not yet lived even half of his long life, his exhaustively researched books on Argentine and Latinamerican history as well as his critique -very often justified - of Argentine literature where he dissects some of our  most established writers in a very frank and incisive manner.

On his return to his country after his 1934 trip to the States, his father, General Agustin P. Justo, had become president of Argentina. During his administration, Liborio was an active militant against his government. When President Roosevelt visited Argentina in 1936, it is Liborio’s voice which irrupts, loud and clear, from a gallery in Congress, denouncing Yankee imperialism. Just as he did in other circumstances throughout his life, demonstrating yet again  his identification with those who suffer most and have the least. He was arrested and confined  to a distant “estancia” (cattle ranch) by his father.

During his father's presidency, he founded in Argentina the Liga Obrera Revolucionaria (the Revolutionary Workers' League), partisan of the Trotskyite Fourth International, an  ideological stance which caused him polemical enmity both with socialism and communism. As a man who had all he could wish for to lead a comfortable, prosperous and successful life, he chose a difficult path - that of  sacrifice and total commitment to his cause.. He had the strength to renounce the privileges of the class he was born into in order to unequivocally dedicate himself  to his vocation.

His most recent books, those he himself published as an old man, also reflect his preoccupation with the social situation at the dawn of this century. He remained lucid and active until his death at the age of a hundred and one. The last time I visited him, some months before his death, he talked to me with his characteristic enthusiasm, determination and conviction,  about  his patriotic feelings toward his country, about  its future and its frustrations. He gave me a copy of the book he considered his most important work - even if not greatly known -  "Pampas y Lanzas II" ("Pampas and Spears II"), published in 2002, in which he exalts, from the Araucano Indians´ perspective, their armed confrontation against "civilization". On his mantlepiece he kept a grey stone, a "toqui"  -  a symbol of enormous value to him -  which had been given to his maternal grandfather, General Liborio Bernal – after whom he was named – by an Araucano Indian chieftain as a token of friendship. He touched it with emotion and great fondness, as an object of profound significance which linked his ancestors with the Indian chieftains they had fought against and for whom he had the deepest admiration. As his father's biographer - a father with whom he undoubtably had  a difficult relationship - he confided in me as to the complexity of his affection for him, harshly criticizing him from an ideological and political perspective.

The initiative of the Fernandez Blanco Museum to hold this exhibition  is a well deserved recognition of  the significance of Liborio Justo's life and work, showing us the lesser known facet of his vast output, that of photographer.

And so begins the reappraisal of a figure who lived for over a century and who from his youth to his last breath was driven by his fiery passion  for his country.

Rosendo Fraga


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