Photojournalist tells how his image helped reveal an illegal CIA operation
It’s not every day that one of your images helps uncover major government cover-ups. However, the work of photojournalists often does reveal such secrets. It’s this aspect of the job that makes it so vital and helps keep authorities accountable.
A socialist regime
Dematteis explains how he was in Nicaragua, covering the Contra war in the mid-1980s. The country was being run by the socialist government, the Sandinistas. However, the Reagan administration was actively fighting communism at that time and included the socialist regime in their list of communist threats.
Dematteis went to Nicaragua to see for himself what was happening and uncover the truth. The truth, it turned out, was murkier than he imagined.
The Contra rebels were actively involved in trying to destabilize and take down the government, and a US trade embargo with the country only added to the hardships experienced by the Nicaraguan people. By 1986 US Congress had forbidden the Reagan administration from further funding of the rebel group.
There were suspicions, however, that the US government was still supplying arms and ammunition, “but there wasn’t any proof,” says Dematteis.
Cargo plane shot down
A cargo plane with supplies to the rebels was shot down en route to the rendezvous point. It just happened to be carrying U.S. mercenary Eugene Hasenfus. He apparently wasn’t supposed to have a parachute on board in case anything went amiss. However, Hasenfus ignored that and packed one anyway.
He escaped from the crashing plane and walked straight into enemy territory. Dematteis got a call telling him there was an American in the jungle, so he jumped straight on a helicopter to go and photograph what was happening.
Proof of US involvement
Dematteis’ photograph was the only one shot that day that proved the involvement of the US government in arming the Contra rebels. The image showed Hasenfus being led away by the Sandinista soldier who had shot down the plane.
“That photo ran all around the world, it ran everywhere. In fact, the head of Reuters Photos in Washington asked me ‘Why I was the only one who had that photograph.’ And I said: ‘I don’t know why, but I know that I got it, and if other photographers didn’t get it that’s unbeknownst to me’,” Dematteis says in the interview.
The power of photography
Afterwards, the photograph helped expose the whole operation. It turned out that the CIA was using money obtained by selling arms in Iran to fund the rebels in Nicaragua.
This became known as the Iran-Contra affair, and the resulting scandal led to the conviction and resignation of several Reagan Administration officials, most notably Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.
“One of the jobs of a journalist is to discover the truth,” says Dematteis. “I think it’s an example of what…photography can do,” says Dematteis, adding that he probably saved thousands of lives by helping to end the US involvement in the rebel funding.
This is how powerful photography can be at its very best. Watch the whole video; it’s a fascinating insight into the whole conspiracy and how one single photograph helped to reestablish the imbalance of power.
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe