Screening: The Mexican Suitcase + Q&A

November 6, 2012

By Sally Ashley-Cound

Trisha Ziff Q&A - The Mexican Suitcase, Frontline Club

The Mexican Suitcase Director, Trisha Ziff

On the 5th of November filmmaker Trisha Ziff brought her widely acclaimed film The Mexican Suitcase to the Frontline Club. Thought lost since 1939, the group of three boxes full of negatives by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymour, known as The Mexican Suitcase, was uncovered in Mexico by Ziff in 2007 with help from the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

Mexican Suitcase Box

The Mexican Suitcase

The film charts the journey of the Mexican Suitcase after it left the hands of Capa’s assistant Chiki Weisz in Paris as the Nazis approached and in turn the journey of the Spanish people who were exiled in Mexico after the war. Ziff started the Q&A by telling the story of how she came across the story of the Mexican Suitcase:

“I happened to be in ICP in New York, we were doing a show … that was coming to Mexico, and Brian Wallis [chief curator at the ICP] said to me ‘oh by the way we have these letters on file from this guy in Mexico, maybe he has these photographs and because we’re going to Mexico would you be interested in seeing if you can find him?’”

“[Ben Tarver, the man who had exchanged letters with the ICP] met with me and he came with three photocopies of three negatives that were clearly real … he allowed me to photocopy the photocopies of the contact sheets and then I scanned them and sent them to ICP. That’s when we knew that it was really real and within 8 months of me getting involved in the narrative, the negatives were in the hands of the estates of the three photographers.”

The film focuses heavily on the idea of memory and closure for the Spanish people who were exiled in Mexico and an archaeological dig at a mass grave in Spain.

“For me there was this whole thing that came into my head at the mass grave that putting these images in frames and white mounts, it kind of takes you away from it. The literal digging into the earth for me was like this notion of going behind the emulsion some how.”

One of the most common questions Ziff is asked is about whether the suitcase contains any clues to the context of Capa’s photograph The Falling Solider:

“That was the first question off the lips at ICP, “is it there, is it in the box?” … my fantasy of why there was this ambivalence to find the Mexican Suitcase on the part of Cornell [Capa, Robert Capa’s brother] and ICP [they had had the letters from Tarver for over 10 years] was about the closure of the Fallen Solider. Were they going to find it? Was it going to give new answers, was it going to enhance the debate?”

“There’s one square in the box where there’s nothing, people can fanaticise that that’s where the fallen solider might have been. It’s not there, so who knows? We’ll never know. And in a way, who cares?”

And finally, on bringing the suitcase to New York Ziff faced much criticism from an opposition of photographers and historians who said that it should stay in Mexico:

“It was controversial, quite a few photographers didn’t respect me for it … People are very proud in Mexico, of Mexico’s role in relation to opening its doors to the refugees … Mexico also doesn’t have an infrastructure to really take care of those kind of negatives other than the foundation of Televisa which is a private TV company and if they’d have gone there then no-one would have seen it … all the images have been scanned, the negatives are basically in a fridge in New York … Capa’s brother Cornell was alive, he held those boxes in his hands before he died, for me it was a non-argument I would actually do it again tomorrow.”

Trisha Ziff on bringing the Mexican Suitcase to New York: