Jean-Marie Simon’s photographs have appeared in publications such as Time, The New York Times, Harper’s, and the Wall Street Journal. Her widely acclaimed book Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton) tells the story of government-sponsored repression in Guatemala through photojournalism. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School.
When I first traveled to Guatemala in 1980, an Army-directed government campaign of terror was morphing from selective State-sponsored killings to unbridled violence directed against a civilian population, many of them Mayan Indians. As a result, I assumed that my photographs of that brutality would reflect the iconic images that defined Central America’s conflicts of the era: pitch battles between Army and Leftist guerrillas; hacked bodies; horrified civilians; and gun toting death squad assassins poised for action. Yet at the same time, the four images chosen for the “Envisioning Human Rights” exhibition are bereft of drama: quiescent Mayan schoolgirls; a postcard perfect village enveloped in mist; an unremarkable Mayan Church procession; and a paunchy Army colonel directing a local parade.
Admittedly, each of the four photographs also suggests another story that redounds of the era. The portrait of the Ixil schoolgirls, for example, was made just after photographing the riddled corpses of four dead suspected guerrillas at the local army garrison up the street. The second image, Nebaj at dawn, was made during a trek over the mountain to Acul, a neighboring Ixil village where the Army had, in 1982, randomly killed 46 men, separating them into groups of “heaven” and “hell.” Those who went to “heaven” were forced to bury those who went to “hell.” The third, a village procession in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, was serendipitous: I was shopping for weavings as the celebrants exited the church. The last photograph, a solemn feast day procession in Nebaj, was made two years after the Army had subjugated that population into a choice of submission or death. Not by coincidence, Nebaj made international headlines in 2013 when it became the prosecution’s linchpin in its successful criminal trial for war crimes against a former head of state.
Thirty years later, and to my surprise, these four images now comprise part of a larger series I made from 1980-1990 of daily life in Guatemala beyond the scope of war. Taking photographs of rather mundane scenes in the middle of a brutal conflict may seem pointless. I certainly thought so back in 1980. However, at first I had no choice. I made pictures of the ordinary because, initially, it was hard to get images of conflict. When I arrived in Guatemala in 1980, the list of contacts that Amnesty International had carefully culled for me shrank by the day as people either fled for their lives or opted to live clandestinely.
To make matters worse, people were suspicious. Why would a foreigner be in Guatemala when everyone seemed to want to get out? For its part, the Army associated Americans with President Jimmy Carter’s (“Jimmy Castro”) reviled human rights agenda; the guerrillas suspected 26-year-old photographers of being CIA confederates; and civilians equated the click of a camera with a death sentence. Accordingly, I filled time taking pictures of women washing clothes lakeside; children laboring in coffee fields; raucous pre-Lenten discotheque parties; strip clubs; and life in urban slums.
Eventually, I gained good access to the army and the guerrillas and things in between, and I took pictures of those scenes. At the same time, however, to my surprise, my disdain for the ordinary image became upended when I realized that those same pictures now stood in stark counterpoint to the brutality of my later photographs of Guatemala, and, moreover, underscored the poignancy of a people under siege.
Each of these photographs of ordinary circumstances in the middle of a war stands on its own, not because they are great images – a tourist could have made the photo of the Church procession or Nebaj at dawn – but because they document a way of life that, through longitudinal subjugation, the economics of poverty, or merely the march of time has changed Guatemala’s landscape forever. Indeed, I did not imagine that in just a few decades, what I saw throughout the 1980s could change so radically. The Mayan huipil blouses in the photographs, for example, are now worn with day glow tee-shirts and sequined jackets; cell phone towers have replaced cornfields; remittance money from the U.S. has resulted in the construction of concrete houses that melt into concrete front yards; and the Army no longer micro-manages Mayans’ sacred festivals.
The other factor that I underestimated thirty years ago was how few photographs were being taken of Guatemala and especially of the countryside even into the late twentieth century, as Guatemala’s war raged. Guatemala’s miniscule wealthy class, the only one that could afford cameras, was about as interested in photographing a Mayan market as I was in capturing Disneyland. For the rest of the country, cameras were an unaffordable luxury, as inaccessible as an automobile. Even if one had a camera, it still meant taking the film canister to a photo store three or four hours away, a process that itself was daunting for the time and expense involved, let alone the inherent dangers in having to negotiate a dozen army road blocks along the way. Such difficulties today seem inconceivable: Guatemalans now send JPGs from villages located six hours from the nearest dirt road that then make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook in South Africa and Seattle two minutes later. Indeed it seems impossible that less than two decades ago such a feat would have been inconceivable.
When I first started posting photographs of “ordinary Guatemala” on Facebook and on my Website, I anticipated little reaction from Guatemalans. Surprisingly, however, people liked the ordinary Guatemala as much as the blood and guts Guatemala. In Nebaj, for example, where I spent a lot of time, people find their deceased relatives in the images, or they comment on how a particular house belonged to their uncle. They are astonished at how seemingly devoid of activity Nebaj was back then. Someone commented, “Where are all the cars?” Well, there were none. In places like Guatemala City, where the landscape is less changed, people use the photographs to show their children what Guatemala looked like under siege. Just as often, however, they love to recall what was ordinary. Once I posted on Facebook a photo that I thought quite silly, of an ice pop vendor asleep in downtown Guatemala City. People loved it; they went on about how cheap ice pops were in 1980. Another time, I posted a picture of a skeletal, malnourished baby who died the day after I took the photo. That image resonated with urban Guatemalans, who were genuinely astonished that such extreme poverty could exist in their own neighborhood.
Most surprisingly, a photo that has survived the now three editions of my book on Guatemala is a snapshot I made of a Mardi Gras crowd at a discotheque in downtown Guatemala City in 1980, as war raged just outside the capital. I included it in all three editions of Guatemala only because getting photographs of Guatemala’s wealthy class was more difficult than gaining access to a guerrilla camp. Rosina Cazali, a prominent Guatemalan curator, chose the discotheque photo as the subject of a talk she and others offered on my photos in 2008. I was surprised: I asked her why she liked that badly lit photo so much, why didn’t she go for an image that depicted repression and death or at least one that was beautiful? Rosina answered that, to her, that was the horror of war – that life could go on, with people wearing floppy chicken costumes and sipping drinks with pink umbrellas popping out without acknowledging what was happening under their own eyes.
The photographs I took in Guatemala between 1980 and 1990 provide no wisdom with respect to the past nor solutions to the problems that Guatemala confronts today, namely unbridled common crime and a porous border that has resulted in Guatemala becoming the next frontier in drug trafficking. At the same time, however, they offer the opportunity for Guatemalans to reflect on the war and its effects and to use the photographs as a means of remembering the past; honoring the victims; and recreating as accurately as possible a repository of historical memory for the next generation.