In 1524, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala, having travelled south from the newly conquered Mexico. His arrival marked the beginning of a two-hundred-year period of violence in the country as the Spanish began taking over native territory and imposing their colonial rule which would continue until Guatemala’s independence in 1821. Upon arrival, it is said that the locals mistook de Alvarado for the Aztec sun god Tonatiuh because of his blond hair and red beard and nicknamed him for the god.
It’s this moment of convergence between Aztec mythology and the legacy of colonialism from which photographer Juan Brenner takes the name of a new photobook Tonatiuh. Through a series of lush photographs set against the immense beauty of the Guatemalan landscape, in Tonatiuh Brenner delves deeply into the lasting scars left on the land and peoples after centuries of conquest and colonialism.
Taken over the course of a year, the photographs come out of a journey Brenner took through his homeland, following the pillaging route taken by de Alvarado 500 years prior, documenting what he found. The result is a stunning portrait of modern-day Guatemala set in the context of its troubled history. Through a recurring motif of the gold embellished hands and mouths of the local people, Brenner explores the lasting repercussions of Spanish greed and the importance of gold in the conquest of the Americas.
Born and raised in Guatemala, this tribute to his homeland is Brenner’s first photobook and it has already been making a splash in the industry, being shortlisted for Aperture’s First PhotoBook award, while Brenner was chosen as one of LensCulture’s 2019 Emerging Talent. Here we speak to Brenner about growing up, Guatemala’s troubled history, and the role of gold in today’s society.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Juan Brenner: I was born and raised in Guatemala City, in Central America. I'm from a middle-class working family, nothing fancy, very little art and culture, just a normal Guatemalan family.
Guatemala had an internal civil war for more than 30 years and it's inevitable that those years weigh heavily on the way my generation was shaped, the context of those years are and will be a major factor on how we think and understand society.
Our country is, hands down, one of the most beautiful places in the world, but we have to deal with so many negative things on a daily basis. Corruption, violence, and poverty are so normal in our social dynamics we're becoming almost immune to all those problems.
Have you always been interested in photographing the people and landscapes that surround you?
Juan Brenner: Not really, I was always attracted to shooting people and faces, even before knowing what a portrait was. I moved to NYC in 1998 after understanding that what I needed (inspiration mainly) was a very scarce luxury in Guatemala. I started assisting fashion photographers and became obsessed with all those dynamics, it was surreal and extremely chic.
Did the way you saw Guatemala change when you started photographing it and looking at the land and people through the camera lens?
Juan Brenner: I used to say I was never going to shoot the type of work I'm doing right now. I was so influenced and drowned in the whole ‘fashion aesthetic,’ I think I lost a little of the social documentary sensibility I started with. Guatemala being such a tourist destination, it became a ‘landscape porn’ kind of place, so I tried to stay away from that for a long time.
This project was very important on a personal level, in a way I connected with a bunch of realities and ideas I kept putting away and trying to ignore; ideas of origins, heritage, and racism were things that didn’t matter as much to me before.
I’ve been shooting for over 20 years now (I started very young) and from the beginning, I wanted to do projects that I felt were going to change me as a person. I use photography as a way of dealing with anxiety and obsessive compulsion, I sometimes overuse it and have to take my distance from it for a while.
When did you start working on the images for this project?
Juan Brenner: The idea came to my mind in 2015 while travelling through Peru and Ecuador, it brewed for almost two years until I started investigating. From there, everything just snowballed in my head. Although I knew from the first minute that I wanted to make a book, the whole idea transformed me and itself in the process, it was crazy.
Over the time that you have been working on the project has that idea evolved?
Juan Brenner: Yes, so much. In the beginning, I wanted work around the topic of indigenous power in Guatemala (after witnessing that phenomenon in South America) but reality hit me very fast. After I started talking to indigenous leaders and sociologists I understood that power is still controlled by the white man in Guatemala, by the coloniser, so I shifted to the genesis of the problem; the conquest of the Americas by the Spaniards.
How do your photographs engage with the history of Guatemala?
Juan Brenner: The whole idea of making this project was to get as close to history as I could. The conquest of the Americas was a very important moment in the development of society, so much gold and riches were obtained from that endeavour, It changed history forever.
Even though I focus on the territory known as Guatemala today, there are so many archetypes and small details that repeat themselves in conquered/colonised countries. It's crazy when the investigation starts revealing all these amazing similarities, you start understanding why so many things are the way they are around the world, especially in third world countries.
Why did you single out gold as one of the focuses of your photography? Particularly when it interacts with bodies?
Juan Brenner: Nowadays, the Guatemalan highlands are evolving into very powerful and rich communities, the business of agriculture, religion and drug trafficking are the main activities people make money from. Knowing that, I grabbed my camera and ventured into the mountains to shoot all the rich indigenous people wearing fancy gold chains and jewellery – but I didn’t find any of that.
Instead, I found people wearing gold on their mouths, everywhere! They get grills done even on the street, it's amazing. But the most amazing thing is that the Mayan royalty (our ancestors) embellished their teeth 2000 years ago with bone, jade and conch as a symbol of power. Modern Mayan descendants are doing it again with gold, not as a homage to their inheritance, but again as a symbol of power and richness. People are so obsessed with precious metals in the highlands that they wear vintage high school graduation rings or even second-hand wedding rings.
Juan Brenner: Tonatiuh is the nickname the inhabitants of Mexico gave Pedro de Alvarado (conqueror of Guatemala); his blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes fascinated the natives of the New World.
Tonatiuh is the Sun God of the Aztec mythology, there are claims that Pre-Columbian people mistook the newly arrived conquistadors for supernatural beings that arose in the 1530s, and became associated with Quetzalcoatl in particular in the 1540s when people in the New Spain were looking back and trying to explain what had happened to them.
I’m fascinated with the idea that native morale or will to resist was undermined by awe at the Spaniards’ divine powers, it was one of many compelling and probably false ‘solutions’ to the problem of how a newly arrived elite from Spain had come to exercise so much power in the region.
Tonatiuh is published by Editorial RM and launches on November 8 at Paris Photo fair.