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Work / Photography

Juan Brenner documents the 500-year-old scars of war and colonisation in Guatemala

Born and raised in Guatemala, photographer Juan Brenner spent ten years in New York City working in the fashion industry but it’s his home country which takes centre stage in his recent series Tonatiuh (the son of the sun). A break from his fashion and commercial photography, the series documents the Central American country in the wake of 500 years of “disadvantage and unfair conditions”, revealing the scars left behind by war, natural disasters and colonisation.

“I’ve been shooting for 20 years now (I started very young) and since the beginning, I’ve wanted to do projects that I felt were going to change me as a person,” Juan tells It’s Nice That. With a propensity for thorough planning and research on themes he’s interested in, in the last three years “I’ve been drawn to topics of social impact in Central America, like violence, gender issues and migration,” he explains.

Tonatiuh (the son of the sun) is the most recent of these research projects and one Juan’s been working on for a year. A mammoth project (hopefully published in May 2019 as a book), it features a series of images which analyse the burden on a country and its people of half a millennium of suffering. “The Guatemalan highlands and their immense beauty are the perfect stage for my research and a series of trips looking for situations that create a personal connection with the neglected reality of our society,” Juan outlines.

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

Over the course of a year, Juan visited more than 50 towns across the country, mainly in the highlands, following the journey of Pedro de Alvarado – the conquerer of Guatemala and Central America. “Almost 500 years have passed and I want to create a narrative that puts in perspective issues of the past, the present and a very sombre future our country expects,” he explains.

In tracing this exact route, Juan underwent a process of creating relationships to stories of old, attempting to understand the plight of those before him. “The area has been under very complex social situations,” he tells us, “first with the Pre-Columbian reigns in constant battle for land and control, the conquerors invading and completely bashing their history with war and slavery, a very hard to understand 400 years, stamped with colonial domination, a 36-year internal war (1958-1994), a horrible earthquake that destroyed 80% of their infrastructure (1976), massive migration to the US (mid 90s) reshaping the social structure of the most recondite villages, a defenceless position against a blatant drug trade (a great amount of the drugs transported to the US are smuggled through the Mexican-Guatemalan border) and, nowadays, a post-colonialist presence that taints the beautiful landscape with US flags, even on the most unusual places.”

Juan’s images document the residue of these events in small instances which, together, provide a panorama of modern-day Guatemala. With intimate portraits and apparently disparate scenes, the series is held together by the journey Juan replicated, forming an honest response to the trip. “I come from fashion and the theatrical dynamics of having 100% control over the photographic performance is where I feel the most comfortable,” Juan concludes, “this new project is completely different, I went back to a documentary practice and although it has been the project I researched the most and obsessed the most about, I tried to approach making those images in the simplest way possible.”

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)

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Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh (the son of the sun)