El Salvador’s Children of War

Photographer Donna De Cesare traveled to El Salvador in 1987 to “witness and report on war, with all the earnest idealism and naïvete of youth,” as she puts it in her new photo book Unsettled/Desasosiego. What she couldn’t have known at the time was how the experience would shape the next 20 years of her life. She visited refugee camps in Honduras, Jesuit killings on the campus of Central American University, a morgue in Guatemala City. Her work—like that of Larry Towell and Susan Meiselas—is essential to understanding a chapter in Central America’s history that is too often whitewashed or denied.


“Be a human first and a journalist second,” Donna De Cesare once told me.

Even before she became my professor at the University of Texas, Austin, I had been well aware of De Cesare’s work and the recognition it had earned her — like a Fulbright fellowship and the Dorothea Lange prize from Duke University — so I was pretty daunted by the time I enrolled.

As a photojournalist, De Cesare has spent decades documenting the effects of war and gang violence on youth in Central America, from former child soldiers to imprisoned gang members, as well as the war-related diaspora in Los Angeles.

“We don’t think about the long-term effect war has on people, especially children,” she says on the phone. “Once a war ends, we are thinking about the next war.”

Donna De Cesare’s Lens On Central America, Children And Civil War

Photo Credit: Donna De Cesare/University of Texas Press


Award-winning photojournalist Donna De Cesare on understanding children in a world of gangs.


Lecture Thursday night @ the Open Society


Visual Storytelling and Violence: A Conversation with Donna De Cesare and Fred Ritchin

Award-winning photojournalist Donna De Cesare’s new bilingual book, Unsettled: Children in a World of Gangs, examines the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youth in Central America and in refugee communities throughout the United States. 

Dart Center and the Open Society Documentary Photography Project in conversation between Donna De Cesare and Fred Ritchin about De Cesare’s personal and professional journey documenting a history of repression, violence, trauma, cross cultural identity and the human experience in the Americas.

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Violence and Central America’s Migrant Children

Since June of this year an emergency at the U.S. Mexico border has been unfolding. The most immediate cause is a spike in the numbers of unaccompanied children picked up by the border patrol after making the dangerous and arduous journey from Central America to the United States. But the roots of this humanitarian crisis run much deeper. The stories the children tell involve such shocking violence that The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma was prompted to publish an online resource for journalists that references my own work of more than twenty years reporting and photographing the impact of gangs, violence, and migration on children living in Central America. 

Gang violence and organized crime mayhem are major factors in the level of citizen insecurity behind the recent migration trends. Although most news stories have focused on Central American children, it is worth noting that rate of unaccompanied children from Mexico—while lower—is also increasing. A recent report by Mother Jones combines data on the magnitude of the surge in numbers of migrating Central American and Mexican children, discussion of the combination of extreme violence and poverty that these children are fleeing, compelling personal stories, and some discussion of the kind of monitoring and trauma counseling those who are able to stay here will need if they are to thrive. 

El Salvador / Hondoras border, El Poy, El Salvador, 1988. Salvadoran families make their way to the village of Guarjila in a caravan of buses, after leaving the Mesa Grand refugee camp in Hondoras. Copyright © Donna De Cesare. From Unsettled/Desasosiego.

Read more from award-winning photojournalist Donna De Cesare.