IAbuelas: How to imagine the face of a disappeared person
Between 1976 and 1983, during the dictatorship in Argentina, 30,000 people disappeared: they were mostly regime opponents who were detained tortured, and some of them killed in detention centers. It is estimated that at least 500 babies born during that brutality were retained and given to other families. The Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo organization rose to search for these grandchildren. To collaborate with them, the publicist Santiago Barros created IAbuelas, an artistic project that uses artificial intelligence to develop possible portraits of the grandchildren whose identity was erased.
By Marcela Vallejo
The Instagram gallery of the IAbuelas account is a mosaic of faces looking directly at you. They are women and men around 45 years old, mostly set against a dark background. They appear to be photos of real people, but upon closer inspection, you realize they are of a different kind.
The first is a portrait of a man or a woman; the next is a person of the opposite sex. Then, two old photographs, mostly in black and white, of a man and a woman. The caption indicates that the first two images correspond to the son or daughter of the people in the last two photographs. The text also provides an estimated birth date.
These are possible portraits of the children of people who disappeared during the dictatorship in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983: those whom the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo have been searching for for 45 years. During that dark period, detention centers functioned as clandestine maternity wards. According to the Abuelas organization, “about 500 children of the disappeared were appropriated as ‘war booty’ by the repressive forces. (…) In all cases, their identity was annulled, and they were deprived of living with their legitimate families, rights, and freedom.”
Abuelas is Argentina’s most important human rights organization, and over the years, they have managed to restore 133 identities. Publicist Santiago Barros wanted to contribute to this fight with an imaginative exercise. He had been experimenting with Midjourney for a while. He reached a point where he could create a third image based on two original images while retaining certain information from the source images.
When he instructs the application, he asks it to imagine a person based on the other two images. The result is these portraits that confront you with their direct gaze. When you see them, it’s impossible not to imagine who these people are, what they do, what they are involved in. But something else also happens, a poetic exercise of justice: in these posts, a family that was forcibly and violently separated is reunited.
In this interview, we talk to Santiago about this work, the relationship with the Abuelas organization, the process of generating the images, and the political importance of such a speculative exercise.
Castillo Ovejero Case
Where did the idea for IAbuelas come from?
On the one hand, I had been conducting some tests with artificial intelligence for my work, trying to understand the capabilities of various graphic tools, especially in image generation. I spent about six months testing, experimenting, and a bit of “evangelizing” because I told those around me, “Hey, look, this is amazing.” Another third has to do with my political activism. For me, what relates to human rights and, specifically, in this case, the disappeared has always been present. Part of my activism involves reclaiming those principles. The last third has to do with family history. In my family, we have a disappeared uncle. So, not so much for emotional reasons because he was a person I never got to know, but perhaps more related to the doubt and the inexplicable nature of the situation.
I discovered how to generate a new image from two previous images, ensuring it retained information from both. So, I decided to see what would happen if I did it with the faces of two people to see if a third could be generated following a logic similar to nature. In other words, we somewhat resemble one or the other of our parents.
With that premise, I searched for photos on the Abuelas website, where all the cases are uploaded, and started doing the exercises. I was quite amazed by the first result because it was the image of a very realistic person, someone who could exist, and one of the options was someone looking directly into the camera. I thought it had a significant impact because the fact that the person is looking at the camera makes you feel addressed.
So, behind the proposal, there is a political intention. What has been your process of political activism like?
I have been involved in a political group for almost ten years. It was a process that I found challenging to accept because precisely what having a disappeared person in the family implies is a message to the following generations not to get involved in politics because they will disappear. Understanding my place in the social classes also took me some time. I grew up in an environment that was not politicized. It’s not coincidental that 30,000 disappeared people caused at least two generations to become depoliticized. The message was very clear: if you get involved in politics, you will disappear.
Understanding my place in the social classes also took me some time. I was raised almost like an aspirational middle-class person, and it took me a while to realize that I didn’t belong to that class but rather to a lower class. All this confusion made me not really understand what rights I should fight for. 2015, I started actively participating in political activities, especially during Macri’s government. I thought everything that would happen would be much worse for society.
“The grandmothers have a very effective scientific method for detecting identities, so this was not meant to compete with or replace that. It’s an artistic exercise related to spreading the work of the Abuelas, the memory of the events that happened in Argentina, a call for justice, and a request to restore those identities.”
This project is not part of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo initiative. I read that you met with representatives of the organization. What was the Abuelas’ reaction?
On one hand, my connection with the organization is through my cousin, the daughter of this disappeared relative. The first thing I did when I had the idea was to check it with her. When she saw it, she found it very powerful but also functional. So, I moved forward, and meanwhile, we discussed presenting the project to Abuelas. But I started sharing it to protect the idea, not so much for dissemination but to reserve the Instagram account and upload some material so that it could be understood.
The account exploded much faster than I thought and reached Abuelas before I could present the idea. Initially, it generated some discomfort because they didn’t know who was behind the idea, what intentions were involved, or the level of certainty of the tool I was using. That’s when they called me for a meeting.
I didn’t meet with the grandmothers but with restored grandchildren in charge of the press area. The reception was very affectionate, and they were mostly interested in knowing who I was and what interests were behind this. We agreed that this should be considered an artistic project. Framing it within this format helps eliminate any doubts regarding its scientific nature. The grandmothers have a very effective scientific method for detecting identities, so this was not meant to compete with or replace that.
It’s an artistic exercise related to spreading the work of the Abuelas, the memory of the events that happened in Argentina, a call for justice, and a request for the restoration of those identities.
What were the organization’s concerns?
One of the things they told me at Abuelas, which was crucial for me, is that the reputation of Abuelas was built on certainties. Therefore, any tool that could be attacked due to the lack of certainties could harm their reputation. In response, my initial reaction was, “Well, if this can harm them, I will deactivate the account because my idea is to collaborate in disseminating their work, not to harm it.” Finally, they told me that framing it as an artistic project would contribute to spreading their work.
No, I haven’t had any further contact with the organization, but everything is fine. I communicate with some family members who write to me directly. So far, all the reactions have been positive, there hasn’t been any negative feedback, and no family member has told me, “Hey, this is morbid” or “Take down my case because I’m not interested in participating in the account.”
Perez Astorga Case
I hadn’t thought about the idea of certainty. The truth is that your work has a speculative touch. I thought that perhaps the organization’s doubt could be related to protecting identities, but this is indeed a different exercise.
It has connections with what you mentioned, with the act of imagining. I mean, if instead of using artificial intelligence, I were an illustrator or, for example, I could have done it with Photoshop, I could have generated different images. In fact, when I was in the meeting with Abuelas, they told me about an action they had taken, which I didn’t recall.
It was a public action where they placed photos of the disappeared parents, and in the middle, there was a mirror. The idea was for you to stand in front of that mirror, see your reflection, and also see those photos to see if you looked like someone. In some way, there is a connection between those ideas. I think that when they discovered that there was a link between one level and another, it stopped bothering them about not revealing their identity.
But it’s still an exercise of imagination, thinking about how these people could be now. Ultimately, and very loosely because they are imagined people, if any identity were being revealed, it would be the crime of identity theft. In other words, these people have been the spoils of war from a conflict that occurred in Argentina since they were born until now. They are living every day with a crime that continues to be committed. Nevertheless, I felt that this wouldn’t change anything about the logic of Abuelas, but it could contribute to getting new people interested in the work, especially the younger generation.
What is the process you follow to generate the images?
I use Midjourney. Of the three I tried, it’s the one I liked the most regarding results because they are the most believable, the most imaginative, and have fewer errors in constructing people. Initially, when I started using it, it still had errors, generating extra fingers and teeth, but that has already been corrected in the latest version and works perfectly.
The material I use is publicly available on the Abuelas website. All the cases of appropriated children are there, sorted by the year of appropriation, and in most cases, there are photos of both parents. So, as input, I use public photos of both parents and what I do is upload these two photos to Midjourney and use a simple programming trick that the program has: once you upload these photos to the application, you ask it to blend them and generate a new photo from those two. In this case, I ask it to create a 45-year-old man or woman first, and then I do the other.
Something I understood is that the more information you give it, the more details you ask for, and the more chances it has to misunderstand your actions and misinterpret what you’re asking it to do. So when I managed to find a combination of words for the prompt that gave me a result I liked, and that seemed accurate because it maintained the features of both people while generating the portrait of a current person, I used the same text every time. The only thing I do is intervene when I see that it doesn’t replicate a specific feature.
The result is powerful; seeing the faces of these people on the Instagram feed manages to engage. And it also raises other questions for me. When I see the portraits, I start thinking about who these people are, what they do, where they live, and what they work on. In that sense, it’s a very powerful exercise of imagination.
Any artistic expression related to denunciation walks a very fine line. That’s why I wanted to be so careful. That is a susceptible issue in Argentina; many relatives of disappeared individuals and many family members search for appropriate grandchildren. I was concerned that it might have a negative effect or be seen as morbid because, ultimately, what ends up happening is that it also materializes something that you have in your head because you constantly imagine what that person might look like.
That’s an exercise that accompanies you every day: you wake up every day having a family member, a brother, a cousin, a child who is appropriated, so you constantly imagine how they might look at five, at eight, at fifteen. How might they look now? So, it’s an exercise that captures the image many of us have in our heads. That also made it not something morbid because it is a graphic representation of what any relative of a disappeared person can fantasize about. The word you use in the application to ask it to generate an image is “imagine,” and from that, you write everything you want it to imagine.
In particular, I needed to stop thinking of the grandchildren as children. When we talk about grandchildren, it makes us think of younger boys and girls, but these people are around 50 years old. And it has to do with putting an image to a collective doubt, and I think that’s where the strength of the idea lies. To illustrate that doubt is even part of the denunciation, it has to do with that: we had to give these people a face because they were taken from us, and we had to imagine an identity for them because it was stolen.