Decades after Argentina’s “Dirty War” took the lives of an estimated 30,000 people, Santiago Barros is using AI to generate images of what the children born in captivity to the desaparecidos, victims of the military dictatorship, might look like today. The unofficial social media project that has gone viral in the country aims to illuminate the ongoing efforts of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (“Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo”), made up of women who have been demanding the restitution of their grandchildren since 1977 while simultaneously searching for their sons and daughters. 

“I was looking for a tool to help share images of all the disappeared parents so that anyone doubting their identity could go to the platform looking for any resemblances,” Barros told Hyperallergic. Using photographs of the parents housed in the Abuelas’s archives, Barros then experimented with Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence tool, adding an aging filter to imagine what their children would look like today in their late forties. The AI-generated images, which stare hauntingly back at the viewer, are shared on the private Instagram account IAbuelas with the names of the person whose face it resembles and their parents as well as an estimated date of birth. 

IAbuelas’s AI-generated rendering of the son or daughter of Olga Cristina González and Maurice Jeger. The child was born in September or December 1975. (image courtesy Santiago Barros/IAbuelas)

Under Rafael Videla and his military junta (1976–1983) and with the support of the United States, Operación Condor was a Fascist government that took power by force and declared martial law in Argentina. Tens of thousands of people, almost all civilians, were accused of being political dissidents and forcibly taken to clandestine centers in different parts of the country to be tortured. They were workers, labor leaders, human rights activists, and students. Born in captivity, their babies were later given away to other families who hid their past from them. 

“I fell off my seat when I first saw these images,” Argentine artist and muralist Andy Riva, who has collaborated with the organization for the past 20 years, told Hyperallergic. Today, around 300 grandchildren, now in their forties, still live under a false identity and have not been found. 

“Even if the AI-generated face looks nothing like the person looks, someone who already doubts their identity might run into these photos while scrolling social media, which might push them to inquire further,” he said.“On the other hand, the downside is that some of these faces might look very similar to someone who isn’t a disappeared grandchild, generating confusion.” 

Andy Riva’s mural “Founding Mothers” (2021) portrays the three founding Madres de Plaza de Mayo holding the image of their disappeared children. They are Azucena Villaflor, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, and María Ponce de Bianco. They were kidnapped and disappeared in 1977. Standing in front of the mural is another founding mother, Taty Almeida. (photo courtesy Lucila Quieto)

A group of mothers desperate to know the fate and whereabouts of the children who were kidnapped from their homes during the military dictatorship gathered in 1977 in Plaza de Mayo, a central square in Buenos Aires facing the presidential house. Holding pictures of their sons and daughters and wearing white handkerchiefs in their hair, they sought answers. As more women gathered there every Thursday, begging for answers, they realized they were not alone. Ignored by a military government that censored the national press and called political opponents “guerrilla leaders” and “subversives,” they were nicknamed “las locas,” the “mad women.”

“Yes, we were mad,” one of the first founders, Hebe de Bonafini, said in the 2020 documentary Todos Son Mis Hijos (“They Are All My Children”). “Mad in fury, mad in our pain, mad in our passion to find our children and grandchildren.” During the 1978 World Cup, a Dutch journalist interviewed the mothers as they protested peacefully. “My daughter was six months pregnant when she was kidnapped. My grandchild should have been born in August, and I know nothing about him!” one of the mothers cries out on camera. By 1983, the small group grew into an official organization with hundreds of mothers and thousands of allies. 

To this day, 133 grandchildren have been found, and their real identities restored, but the search is ongoing. Claudia Poblete, one of the grandchildren who regained her identity in 2000, clarified in an interview with IP Noticias last week that although the new AI project is giving worldwide visibility to the search, only genetic testing can provide absolute certainty.

“Even though we celebrate the outreach it has created to aid our search, this art initiative was ideated by the artist and is not an official Abuelas project,” she stated. 

Currently, the Abuelas organization is working on an official project that will incorporate AI to digitize its archive of documents, photographs, and newspaper cuttings, making it more accessible to the public. In a press release, the group clarified that it is grateful for Santiago Barros’s support but urged people to remember that the art initiative is not scientific.  

Abuelas during an anniversary of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo march (photo via Flickr)

Poblete expressed concern that the newly generated images might create false expectations. “To be searching for a missing grandchild and suddenly seeing a face of how they might look is very powerful,” she said. “But these faces are imaginary and only one of the thousands of possibilities.”

There are also limits to what characteristics Midjourney can and cannot portray if it hasn’t been trained using the faces of Latin American people with Indigenous, Black, or mixed-race features.

“The technology tends to show faces with more European traits that could have nothing to do with the real faces of the grandchildren,” Poblete added. Demographic data points to the majority of Argentines having European ancestry, but the nation has a significant Indigenous population, much of which has been systemically disenfranchised. People of Indigenous origin have been counted among the desaparecidos during the dictatorship.

Today, there are around 14 abuelas left, and only six have enough strength to remain active, leaving most of the search to the next generation of Argentines.

“A lot of compañeras left us without ever getting the joy of meeting their grandchildren we fought so hard to find,” one of the founding mothers, Juana Meller de Pargament, shared in the documentary. “That’s what hurts the most.” 

IAbuelas’s AI-generated rendering of the son or daughter of Beatriz Haydée Neuhaus and Juan Francisco Martinis. The child was born in captivity in August 1976. (image courtesy Santiago Barros/IAbuelas)

Carolina Ana writes about art, grief, motherhood, and her relationship to the internet. You can subscribe to her newsletter for more thoughts on these things, or follow her on Twitter.