It’s interesting that we’re talking with you today in Guatemala because this is actually the first country to visited as a photojournalist, correct?
I initially came to Guatemala to learn Spanish in 2001, and it happened that that was around the same time I became serious about photography and discovered documentary photography. I decided to come to Guatemala and try and shoot a project. I didn't know how, but I decided to make a go of it. I came and I brought a bunch of film, and a couple of cameras, and did what I thought photographers do: made a set of pictures. Some of them I still value and still make it into my edits in my work. I had traveled to quite a few countries at that point as a traveler — as a tourist. I had been interested in these places, and interested in looking for something in these places and I'm not sure what it was, but I had never been to a place that wore itself on its sleeve like Guatemala does. I'd never seen a place where you could see right in front of you, every day, so many expressions of its difficult history. I was drawn to that and I was drawn to trying to understand it. And trying to make pictures of it. So that was much more complicated than I initially thought it was going to be, and I keep coming back until I've said what I want to say I think.
I've shot human rights violations in Guatemala for years and documented the effort to not only reclaim historical memory lost in those violations, but also to demand justice for the victims of those violations. And in Guatemala the violations rose to the level of genocide. In other places they don't, they're human rights violations that don't fit this political definition of genocide. I'm not sure that I feel like one is necessarily more important than the other, I believe a violation of anyone's human rights is a tragedy and a travesty. But it's true that genocide, as a historic phenomenon, is hard to wrap our minds around, but it is important to try. And I value my time here trying to understand the genocide in Guatemala and trying to say something about it, trying to make sure that it's not forgotten. And do our best to help and not happen again. So I find myself here yet again.
Members of the Mara 18, El Hoyon prison. Image courtesy Victor J. Blue
It’s become a really complicated story. How do you deal with the really complicated stories like the one your telling about Guatemala?
I think that it's important for photographers to be focused and clear in the story they want to tell. The smart thing to do for me is to break really big complicated stories up into smaller pieces. Every time I make a trip to Guatemala, I have an idea for a shorter-term story that I want to do that fits into this larger project. Each time I come I have another idea, or another focus.
I started photographing here in 2002, and the project's gone through quite a few title changes. Right now I call it The Darkness After the Dawn, or Darkness After Dawn, because I came to Guatemala in 2002, which was six years after the signing of the Peace Accords when the wounds of the warriors were still kind of open and only beginning to scarify. And the signing of the Peace Accords was the idea of a new beginning for Guatemala. But, as Guatemalans have seen, it's actually been a slide backwards. So I'm trying to say something about this increasing darkness that came after this moment of real optimism.
I came in 2002 and spent time with ex-guerilla combatants growing coffee, because I wanted to see what their life was like after the war. And I came back in 2003 to cover a political campaign of the former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. I also became interested in land issues, and issues of land conflicts. And then, I was introduced to the process of exhumation and reclamation of historical memory by the victims of the war through the work of the Guatemalan Friends of Anthropologists. So I started what's been a long collaboration with them, photographing their work for years, starting in 2003. I came here for one reason in 2005, and quickly realized that the repression of the gangs, the wave of violence known as the social cleansing, was the most important story at the time; sometimes you're here and a story presents itself. In 2007 the violence had ebbed, so I came back and I concentrated on an area of Guatemala that's been the focus of large-scale immigration in the United States and I photographed there and in California, where I was living, to try and get both sides of that. In 2011, I came back to photograph the ascendance of Otto Perez Molina, the current president, who was the former military intelligence chief in the war years, and the irony of former military leaders responsible for some of the worst years of the repression becoming the president of Guatemala again. And then in 2013 I came back to document the opening of the Genocide trial against Rios Montt. So every time I come it's like another chapter that I'm trying to work on and I'm trying to add to this broader project.
"I’ve created a body of work. I’ve created evidence. Not just evidence,
I’ve created a document to help people understand..."
Hearing you talk about Guatemala, it seems you have a deep knowledge and care about the place. Do you hope your photojournalism will ripple through the political world to help change these sorts of situations?
One of the main ambitions that I have for my work in Afghanistan — which concentrates on the implementation of the counter insurgency doctrine in Afghanistan with Obama’s two surges into that country — is I want to have a place in the policy debate. I read widely and deeply about military policy in Afghanistan. I spent years coming to Guatemala photographing the effects of counter insurgency as it was implemented here, and when I first started to hear military leaders are going to implement a counter insurgency program in Iraq and in Afghanistan, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’ve seen the mass graves. I’ve seen the human rights violations. I’ve seen the villages burned to the ground. I thought, “Well, that doesn’t sound like a good idea.” But then, as I read about it, I realized that there had been a serious reassessment of the doctrine. And the way they were going to implement it now sounded like a good idea. But I wanted to go see if it was or wasn’t. And there’s a raging policy debate around the counter terrorism versus counter insurgency approach. Of course that debate’s been a little bit put to bed as we wind down these two theaters of our global war on terror, but I want a place in that debate. And as I read, I recognize what is missing from the debate is found in my photographs. I recognize how much there is to learn about counter insurgency in Afghanistan from looking at the pictures. I’ve created a body of work. I’ve created evidence. Not just evidence, I’ve created a document to help people understand what it meant to implement this doctrine in Afghanistan and what it means for conflicts that we will inevitably be involved in in the future.
"I love that the world consistently surprises me. Every time I show up and I think I know how this is going to go down, every time I show up and I think I know who these people are and what they’re going to be about, they have no shortage of surprises in store for you. It never gets old."
Do you think that becoming a photojournalist has changed your perspective on the world?
Absolutely. It changes the way I see the world over and over again. One of the reasons I keep doing it is because I love that the world consistently surprises me. Every time I show up and I think I know how this is going to go down, every time I show up and I think I know who these people are and what they’re going to be about, they have no shortage of surprises in store for you. It never gets old. And so yeah, it’s changed the way I look at the world. I love being a journalist. I try not to do it too much, because it’s untoward, but it’s amazing to sit around a dinner table and people talk about issues or events in the news that they haven’t had the opportunity to be first hand witnesses to and understand how much more profoundly you understand those things that they do, because you go see them first hand.