50 Years After the Coup CULTURE History of Chile NATIONAL

Chas Gerretsen depicts Chile’s most tumultuous year in over 300 photos

After working in South East Asia for almost a decade, war photographer Chas Gerretsen ended up in Chile in 1973. There, he was a witness to Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état. In his new book “Chile: The Photo Archive 1973-1974,” he unveils hundreds of pictures taken during the most turbulent months in Chile’s history, some of which have never been seen before.

In order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup, war photographer Chas Gerretsen decided to realize a long-lived goal of publishing a photobook from his time in Chile.

“Chile: The Photo Archive 1973-74” is the result. The book contains over 300 pictures, many of which were never published before, and shows Santiago between January 1973 and September 1974. It includes photos of the well-known, violent events that took place during these tumultuous years, but also depicts day-to-day life.  

“I am Pinochet”

Augusto Pinochet is sitting on a chair. Behind him stand his loyal generals. The recently installed dictator has his arms crossed, legs straight, with his military hat resting on his lap. He is wearing black sunglasses and looks straight into the camera with a defiant look: “I dare you to challenge me,” he seems to say.

Every Chilean knows this picture. With its somewhat aggressive look, the photo became the symbol of his dictatorship. It was used for propaganda purposes by both Pinochet loyalists and opponents, either for being the embodiment of strength and authority, or of repression and authoritarianism.

The photo was taken on Sept. 18, 1973 by Dutchman Chas Gerretsen, a war photographer, who had worked in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma) and several Latin American countries before arriving in Chile in early 1973.

On this particular day, international press members were invited to the Iglesia de la Gratitud Nacional in Santiago. Pinochet, his closest generals and lieutenants, and two of Chile’s former Presidents were present in the church that day for the commemoration of the Day of the Glories of the Army, celebrated a day after Chile’s independence day.

Whereas other photographers took wide-angle photos, to capture the whole scene, Gerretsen decided to take individual portraits of the junta members present at that moment. Turning to Pinochet, he suggested the general take off his prominent, dark sunglasses. Pinochet refused, simply saying, “I am Pinochet.”

Chas Gerretsen

Between January 1973 and September 1974, Gerretsen took thousands of photos showing daily life in Santiago.

He depicted people waiting in endless queues in front of stores, hoping to buy scarce life essentials (a result of the failing Marxist policies by then-President Salvador Allende), and the almost daily riot’s between Allende’s leftists supporters and right insurgents.

Gerretsen was around during the Tank Putsch (El Tanquetazo) in June 1973, the lesser-known first attempt to overthrow Allende through a military coup. On that day, Gerretsen unknowingly photographed Pinochet for the first time, who then stood on the government’s side to suppress the rebellion.

On Sept. 4, 1973, tens of thousands of people gathered in front of Chile’s presidential palace at La Moneda to celebrate the third anniversary of the election of President Allende’s Unidad Popular government. Only a week later, their happiness was brought to an abrupt end, when a successful coup by Pinochet put an end to the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist government. 

Gerretsen immortalized both events with his camera. His footage of Sept. 11 was later used to reconstruct the coup d’état for the movie “The House of the Spirits,” based on a book by Isabel Allende, a niece of the late president. 

The photo Gerretsen took of Pinochet on Sept. 18, Day of the Glories of the Army, went on to become the most famous picture of the dictator. That same year, it earned him the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal for the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.”

“Chile: The Photo Archive”

On his Kickstarter page, where donors can help Gerretsen finance this book, he explains that the idea for a book sprouted in 2019, when he posted old pictures on his Instagram page.

The reaction of Chilean followers was overwhelming, he writes. For some of them, it was the first time they could picture the stories of 1973 told to them by family members. For others, it was a way to relive those climatic months from their youth. They encouraged him to publish more photos, because they were “an important memory for future generations.” 

According to Gerretsen, it was the first time in his life that he felt like his photos had served a purpose. “The people of Chile have given me the feeling that I have done something worthwhile. This book has been a labor of love that I have for them.”

More about 1973: 

Increasing sympathy for 1973 coup d’état, survey says

The links between Kissinger at 100 and the Pinochet coup at 50

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