"This place is an explosion of colour and richness. This is the richest country you can imagine, you can throw corn anywhere and they'll grow and feed you well... It's the second country with the most microclimates in the world after Indonesia."
On humid Friday morning, I stare at my screen waiting for Zoom to load up for my interview with photographer, Juan Brenner. Around 17,000km away in Guatemala City, Juan was doing the same in the evening glow of a Thursday night. Even though I was technically ahead of his time, I knew I had much to learn from him on the topic of Guatemalan culture and traditions. Becoming a photographer was a pleasant accident for Juan and getting his hands on a camera set off his creative instinct, leading him to move to New York in 1998. Working in fashion for over a decade, he says he became consumed by the heady lifestyle that the city is notorious for and found himself slowly losing touch with his home country. For his mental health, he left and returned to Guatemala City; New York was pushing him away and at the same time, his homeland was pulling him back. It’s safe to say that he hasn’t looked back since then.
In pursuit of reconnecting with his roots, Juan looked beyond what was just in front of him, back almost 500 years to the time when Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, savagely scoured the Guatemalan territory, resulting in violence and wars that lasted until 1821, when Guatemala finally obtained independence. In his first published book, Tonatiuh - the nickname the inhabitants of Mexico gave de Alvarado - he retraces the conquistadors steps in order to track the undying impact this conquest had on the history and culture of Guatemala. Juan is self-taught; his career began on the streets of his hometown with camera in hand and curiosity in the other. It’s a sweet trick of life to see that his work has come full circle to his humble beginnings. As I sat in my morning and him in his evening, I asked him a few questions about the journey he underwent for his book, his own personal journey and the beauty and history of Guatemala…
How did this project come about?
I was away and living in New York for almost twelve years, so it was a long time for me away from Guatemala. I kind of felt that I didn't know my country, my territory, my society, so it was kind of obvious to me that I wanted to do something that brought me back to my roots, in order to reintroduce myself. It’s cliché, but I had to do it. The idea for the project really came to me in 2015 when I was travelling around Ecuador and Peru. In my time there, I started identifying all these archetypes and it inspired me to focus on indigenous power in Guatemala, but with years of research and investigation and speaking to indigenous leaders, I quickly realised that the power was still in the hands of the colonisers, the white man.
Knowing this, I decided to rewind back to what I thought was a crossroads of our culture - the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish Crown. I did a lot of research and investigation on this to mark out a journey that was doable and accessible and funnelled it down to Guatemala.
How did you see yourself as a photographer and native interact with these historic lands and people?
It’s crazy because I was doing a project about colonialism, condemning it, yet I was out there with a camera documenting these places and people, which is one of the most colonialist things you can do. Initially, I didn’t want to capture portraits, but focus more on scenery because of two reasons. First reason: it's because I was really afraid of not being able to build that rapport, to build that connection with people. Second reason: it's really dangerous. Guatemala is a dangerous country. It's very volatile and very dark. Sadly, history made us that way. We had a 36-year internal war, so people up in the Highlands are very private, they can be very reckless, and they don't they really don't trust anyone, you know what I mean? So I was kind of afraid of that. I expected the camera to close doors for me within the Highland communities, that they would refrain from it, but it was the opposite. People were curious and gravitated towards the camera. I started taking a bunch of polaroids and one day I saw them all and I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ and refocused my project on portraits. I ended up shooting stuff I never, ever thought I would.
What can you tell us about Guatemala and its history?
Guatemala... it's a super, super complicated place. It's a small country, it's a very small country: there’s only around 18 million in total. We were colonised 500 years ago, we had a colonial project for 350, almost 400 years. Then, in the mid 50s, the war started. The CIA created this coup d'état here throughout the leftist government; we had a war for almost 40 years that destroyed us. In the middle of the war, there was this huge earthquake that killed around 100,000 people. So, the country was extremely run down by the 70s. The country was gone. I speak and work in the Highlands so much because everything I'm talking about happened in the Highlands. The conflicts happened in the Highlands, the war and the most affected areas were in the Highlands.
Can you describe the Highlands to someone who's never been?
It’s so fertile, so rich. There's so many people living there. I'm 100% sure that it defines us, defines us as a country. It defines us as a territory. The people are not 100% Mayan here. Why? When the Mayan culture collapsed, people came down South from all over Latin America. People came from the northern part of the country and collided with Mexican tribes in the south. Now, we have 28 different languages spoken in the country. It’s crazy diverse.
Syncretism and conquest gave us this identity that was developed in the Highlands. With the feudal masters that came with colonialism meant they owned slaves. However, these masters had to put uniforms on their slaves. They just gave their people fabrics and cotton and a few colours and it just exploded. Every single little town had an expression and it was an expression of belonging. They developed all these amazing, beautiful textiles. When the Germans came with coffee, they brought chemical colours. So, it just became crazy. This place is an explosion of colour and richness. This is the richest country you can imagine, you can throw corn anywhere and they'll grow and feed you well. It's beautiful. There's so much water. The rivers are incredibly strong and flowing. We have around 27 volcanoes and 5 of them are active. Guatemala is insane in terms of natural beauty. It's the second country with the most microclimates in the world after Indonesia.
I understand that in your journey around Guatemala you wanted to uncover the significance of gold to the land, the people and the history. What did you uncover?
I wanted to see gold because that's the main reason why the Spaniards came. But the thing is that Pedro de Alvarado, he conquered Mexico before coming here and he heard that this territory was really rich. He didn't do his research though, so he didn't know that it was rich, but not in gold. It was rich in bird feathers, jade, bone and cotton. That was more important than gold at that time. He went on a rampage of genocide and war, because he was so crazy about gold but he couldn't find it. He thought we were hiding the gold from him. In my project, I decided I had to also take the stance of the conquest and so, I also looked for the gold.
Of course, I didn't find any gold. But then I started seeing people's mouths and saw that there was gold in them. This naturally progressed into me photographing people’s teeth and is the next project I’m working on now. I'm so fascinated by it because it's a circular story: the Mayans 2000 years ago would embellish their mouth with jade and bone as a symbol of power.
What can you tell us about your next project?
I’m in the middle of shooting now, but I’ve progressed from looking at the past to focusing on the present. How is Guatemala now? What is happening on the ground? How are we interacting with the world? My photography looks at globalisation, the dark side of the beauty industry here, the youth. Everything is so diverse here, diversity defines us and it defines our territory.
Tune in tomorrow for the next part of Juan’s interview where we talk about Guatemala as it lives and breathes now.
Photography: Juan Brenner