After a rich and tumultuous ten-year-long career working in fashion in New York City, photographer Juan Brenner returned to his home country of Guatemala to find peace and reconsider his homeland. His work is a study on the legacy of centuries of colonisation and oppression on the people of his country, and a reckoning with a history of injustice and erasure. With his two most recent projects, Tonatiuh and Genesis, he explores the renaissance of a young, Indigenous generation in the Guatemalan Highlands, through his mastering of the portrait, intricate details and more recently, landscapes. An incredibly beautiful, powerful and bittersweet ode to his people.
Lovely to finally get a chance to sit down and chat to you! I’ve been following your work for a while now and I am such a huge fan. You’re currently in NYC and I’m in Paris. Can you tell us what you’re doing there?
I’m here in NYC for a week scanning film. It’s practically impossible to do it in Guatemala, so I usually fly over to NYC or Los Angeles. As you can imagine, the atmosphere here is a lot different to the last time I was over at the beginning of the year – it’s strangely eerie. After this, I will be spending a few days in Virginia because I am publishing a small book in December based on a body of work I developed in Guatemala City, and my publisher, POM Press, is based down there. I’m working on a number of projects at once, as I always do. I have a lot of ideas and somehow end up developing them all at once.
How do you usually introduce yourself as a photographer and talk about your career? I know you worked as a fashion photographer in NYC for years. What can you tell me about those early days in your career, and whether you’re still interested in fashion photography?
I was born and raised in Guatemala and started taking pictures from a very young age. I guess you could say I picked up a camera at the age of 18 in the late '90s and I’m now 42 – yeah, a lot of people are usually surprised because they expect me to be a lot younger. That pre-Internet era was completely nuts, but I couldn’t help but feel like my work didn’t fit in with the norm of photography within my society and country. I just thought the work of a lot of my peers was tacky and horrible.
I had just graduated high school and never wanted to go to college or be in school generally speaking – I am entirely self-taught. What I knew is that I had to go away and do my thing, and after a year of shooting, I realised portraits were my thing – by that time, I was 19 and left for New York. I knew nothing about the city and only a few words of English; I bought a one-way ticket and ended up staying for twelve years!
Like a lot of New York immigrants, the early days were a hustle; I was working here and there but not shooting a lot because film was so expensive. I had no valid papers, and when you don’t come from money, opportunities narrow down.
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But you ended up working as a fashion photographer. How did that play out?
Eventually, I started meeting and assisting people in the fashion industry, and it blew my mind. I’ve always been attracted to 'cool' shit; I’ve always 'dressed cool' and listened to 'cool music,’ which I guess can be boiled down to the energy of youth: how you compare to your peers, the tribes you form with your friends, the experiences you create. By gravitating towards the cool, I inevitably started working in fashion.
At that time, the NYC fashion scene was the epitome of cool: the drugs, the gorgeous models, the photographers, etc. I started assisting for three or four years and was shooting like a maniac. I finally got represented and did pretty well for five or six years. You have to understand that I don’t come from an artistic background, I come from an ordinary middle-class Guatemalan family. My siblings are normal people, so I had no idea what was happening to me. In the end, NYC marked me the way nothing ever has, I know that I somehow belong here.
Sadly, the party scene got to me: it was all way too much, I was way too young and I developed an insane addiction to partying and drugs. My first Vogue publication was at 24, and I was travelling to Paris and shooting for L’Officiel. It all got to my head, a cocktail of too much money and power, an inevitable toxic and unsustainable lifestyle, and I became mentally absent. Fashion photography somehow became robotic and repetitive, and although I was doing well, I realised that I would never make it to the top and be the cream of the crop. NYC eats you, chews you up and spits you out, and as an immigrant, it’s always more difficult.
I guess that’s when you decided to move back?
I finally decided to go back to Guatemala to regroup and eventually made the hard decision of checking into rehab. When I got out, I realised I had to stay away from NYC and permanently resettled in Guatemala, and rejected the idea of photography altogether. I needed a change in my life and gravitated away from photography into design and art directing with a partner. That being said, I have a feeling I’ll end up going back to fashion because the market has changed so dramatically, and the way my career is going and things are developing, who knows? The connexions are there, so why not?
So you’ve now been based in Guatemala City for a while. In reference to your detailed answer to my previous question, how has your work shifted within this 'new' environment? Whether it be through fauna, flora, elements or landscapes, your home country and culture are at the heart of your work. What makes it such a unique place and what picture are you trying to paint of it?
The reason I chose to go back and work in Guatemala, and in a sense reboot my career, is because I was so young when I left, I just needed to get as geographically and psychologically far from Guatemala as possible. In my 19-year-old mind, it was a terrible, poverty-stricken country, which had just come out of a 36-year-long civil war towards the end of which I was born. On top of this, it’s an incredibly corrupt system, and to make things worse, a huge earthquake struck it in 1976, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure. I just needed to get out and leave all of those narratives behind. I had this conception that there was no such thing as a Latin American artist; I wanted to blend and be global, and leaving was an essential milestone in my life as both an artist and a person.
Now that I’m older, that I have perspective and am more mature, I feel very different about my country: I absolutely love it here, although my love remains bittersweet. It is always going to be a form of love/hate relationship, but I felt it would be extremely unfair not to give myself, along with my home territory, a second chance and the opportunity it deserves. I was very naive and ignorant about my roots, about the place I am from, but I eventually started feeling a deep-rooted connection.
“My work is a personal journey of me reencountering my origins and where I come from – coming to terms with the way our society works and understanding the ingrained inequalities that are sewn into it: it’s a tribute to my territory.”
You say you were very naive and ignorant about your roots and Guatemala. So how do you think of it now? What can you tell us about the country?
Guatemala is so beautiful and magical and is home to some of the most magnificent places I have ever encountered, with the people being equally as amazing. So, I decided to give both my country and me a second chance. Through my work, I want to show the world what lies beyond their conception of ‘tourist porn;’ I want to show the reality of Guatemala. I want my photography to feel like the b-side of a record and be the cool fucking surprise song no one has ever heard and which turns out to be so much better than the single.
All the misconceptions are true, but in the end, it’s what we’re left with and what makes Guatemala, Guatemala – I try my best to be objective all whilst trying to build my own myth and reality. All of my work is research-based, and it’s sometimes hard not to take on the job of a novelist. I grew up surrounded by magical realism, reading Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar … this fantasy-tainted take on life helped us cope with the brutal reality of how fucked up our country was. With this in my DNA, my objective is to paint a real picture of Guatemala.
Your book Tonatiuh was released last year. The title refers to an Aztec sun deity, and is an exploration of the consequences of five hundred years of colonisation on the Indigenous lands and cultures of Central America. Tell me about how this project started and the story you wished to tell through it.
As I previously mentioned, I had drifted away from photography despite working on a few commercials. Mentally, I still wasn’t there, partying and rehab took a real toll on me, and I was just trying to survive financially. I’ve always been aware of the incredible amount of time and energy that you have to put into a project in order for it to work. I know the weight of what is expected of you, and I didn’t feel ready for that.
In the meantime, I kept travelling and working in the studio, in the contemporary art world, doing branding for galleries and shows. I still travel all over the place putting up art shows in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, etc. In one of my recent trips to Peru and Bolivia, I experienced this crazy energy by witnessing the Indigenous power of those countries, and it was mind-blowing, a true revelation.
The Indigenous community is similar to Guatemala, but people in Guatemala are so poor and forgotten, and I just couldn’t help but think – we could be this Indigenous superpower! So, I started researching and reading tons of books about the history and cultures of the Indigenous populations of Guatemala. In my projects, I try to interview people and read as much as possible – the closest to academia I have ever got (laughs).
What did you read about then? Or what experts/people did you talk with?
For this project, I interviewed an anthropologist who ended up telling me that my project was worthless and based on a lie, that there is no such thing as Indigenous power. He even told me, “Indigenous people are only going to be as powerful as white people allow us to be.” In most Latin American countries, including Guatemala, the whole system is ruled by euro-descendants, they are at the head of the biggest companies.
I kept digging and realised we were basically still living like we were five hundred years ago, and this led me to research the initial invasion of Guatemala, which I turned into this project, namely the conquest of Guatemala and its protagonist, conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. The irony of it is that he was so blond and white that when he invaded Guatemala, the Indigenous populations nicknamed him The Sun, which translates as 'Tōnatiuh in Nahuatl (an ancient Aztec language). It is an urban legend here that native populations thought conquerors were gods.
So, the first reading of the book is me retracing the path Alvarado took when he conquered Guatemala. The second reading of the book is a protest against the system, which works exactly as it did five hundred years ago, basically – the fairer you are, the more power you have, and brown people remain at the bottom of the pyramid. A third reading of the book can be perceived as more intimate. It is a personal journey of me reencountering my origins, where I come from and coming to terms with the way our society works and understanding the ingrained inequalities that are sewn into it: a tribute to my territory.
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The subjects of your photographs are extremely diverse, but portraits and people take up a big part of your portfolio. What place do these people, faces and figures occupy in the frame of your work?
This is another interesting story about this particular project: I only used to shoot portraits and was never interested in landscapes or still lifes. I’m obsessed with directing and making people look good, but I felt the need to do stuff I’d never done before. It’s a bit of a cliché answer, but I suppose it’s like asking a Formula 1 driver why he loves what he does: speed. In my case, the answer is people. I love people and I love talking, making new connections, exchanging stories and information.
Photography gave me that opportunity from the very beginning. I’m the opposite of shy and have always been outgoing – I’m like a rockstar in my mind. It also granted me the opportunity to build a bridge between two worlds. When you’re shooting a portrait, it’s a magical experience, almost like a ritual, and I love rituals. You have to explain to the subject what you need from them, shoot them, and then show them the result. I’m not bothered about what people think of my work because the conception and construction of an image are very personal – I could tell you a story behind every single picture in that book.
For this reason, I initially didn’t want to shoot portraits, because it is a dangerous thing to do in Guatemala. The people from the Highlands have a history of being screwed over, stolen from, raped and killed over the past five hundred years; the last thing they want is for a random stranger from the city to come up and start taking their picture. For that reason, I was extremely respectful of them and didn’t want to feed the tourism porn machine. My images of people are brutally honest; I want to picture reality and the mirror image of society.
Grills, gold and religious ornaments are a distinct fascination of yours. Can you tell me why you find them so interesting to capture?
My first answer would be hip-hop. I started DJing when I was 16 and was already going to raves in 1993, so music has always been a big part of my aesthetic. However, this wasn’t my goal when shooting Tonatiuh, but I did want gold to be a part of it because it was the whole reason the Spaniards conquered us in the first place. In the Highlands, I bumped into people who had gold in their mouths, and that’s the moment it all made sense to me and when the idea for my book sprang to life. Seeing their mouths full of gold – that tells a circular story.
The Mayans started embellishing their mouths two thousand years ago, and now all their descendants are doing it again. In Mayan culture, however, only royalty and kings could embellish their mouths, and now gold belongs to those with money and power. Obviously, religious imagery is omnipresent in our culture and is present in the book as well because I am fascinated by how we were forced to absorb catholicism in order to survive, and the role it still plays within Latin culture.
I’m an atheist now but I was raised in religion and used to be a fervent believer, so it somehow makes sense within my own story for it to be a subject of interest. The new generation is the one I’m most fascinated by. The mouths and grills you can see in my pictures are not made of gold; a lot of what people are using is a cheap Chinese gold imitation. In fact, the cancer rate in the region has tripled in the past ten years due to the toxicity of the knock-off gold, but people just want to look cool. If we want to feed into the full circle imagery, it’s like using drugs: people will go to hardcore extents just to be or look cool. Anyway, shooting Tonatiuh was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done.
I love your series on John o’ Groats, the northernmost tip of Scotland. Though I can only assume Scotland and Central America have antipodal scenery, scenes of desolate landscapes and overgrown nature are recurring in both places – places with remnants of human presence but where nature finally takes over. Am I close?
After Paris Photo last year, my partner and I took a trip to Scotland. We try to plan a big trip overseas every year because we’re city kids and are not great around nature. But we started to feel disconnected from greenery, and there was too much concrete in our lives. I was up in the mountains busy shooting Tonatiuh and all the positive energy from the project just made me want to get out there and start travelling. This also coincided with a new stage in my career where I started to do all the things I had never done before. For instance, I had never travelled with a camera because I consider photography to be work, and I never wanted to have to deal with the hassle of carrying all that heavy gear around.
For this trip, I decided I wanted to bring a camera along, and I had never done landscapes before, only portraits. John o’ Groats and its wild, wind-battered wilderness really blew my mind, so much so that I now love shooting landscapes. I regret not having taken more portraits up there though! I still struggle with the idea of an image that is devoid of people or at least some form of human presence because capturing people’s energy has always been the foundation of my work.
That being said, I now have this newfound hobby that is not shooting people and that I’m very excited to explore. I’ve always been curious about the meaning of solitude, probably because I can’t stand being alone. Through my travels and projects, I am slowly trying to get out of that pattern and am trying to enjoy my own company more and more. I also think that we are at a point in time where loneliness and isolation are ever more relevant and necessary, so to answer your initial question, I like capturing places that feel desertic.
“I’ve always been curious about the meaning of solitude, probably because I can’t stand being alone. Through my travels and projects, I am slowly trying to get out of that pattern.”
2020 has been a whirlwind of a year on every level. For many artists, it has resulted in an awakening or reshaping of the themes they choose to address. Has this been the case for you? Have you noticed a shift in your perspective or has your work always been politically engaged?
When I started Tonatiuh, I was really interested in the topic of migrations, racism, gender and social inequality, and I have always been interested in working around those themes. Tonatiuh is so politically charged, particularly focusing on colonialism and post-colonialism, which I think are extremely present-day topics.
I am trying to stay away from addressing the pandemic as much as possible because I feel like everyone is shooting masks, and I’m quite happy overlooking that in my work for the time being. Recently though, Tonatiuh has been getting a breath of fresh air in public relations, because people are turning to the work of people of colour at last, and though it may not be immediately obvious, my work reflects this a lot. So yeah, my work is political by nature.
Do you think the fashion industry and fashion photography should be more politically vocal?
Everyone should be, and gatekeepers are responsible for that. At the end of the day, from the person folding sweaters at an H&M store to the photographer capturing the clothes, everyone in fashion has one job, and that is to sell clothes. We all know that the industrial processes are extremely harmful, from very bottom to the top of the manufacturing process. Fashion should be revised and reshaped in an anthropological way. I think it’s time we opened our eyes and realised the absolute privilege and luxury we were all living in, travelling as much as we were, we need to rethink the entire industry from the ground up.
Earlier, you mentioned a number of important projects you’ve currently got in the works. I’m very curious to know a little more about them, could you let us in on one of them?
My new project is entitled Genesis, and it actually started before Tonatiuh. I had always wanted to work on a project surrounding Indigenous power in the Guatemalan Highlands but I didn’t have the experience to talk about it. Instead, I drifted towards the conquest topic, which is easier to tackle and more digestible in a sense. Now that I have gained the confidence and experience, Genesis is me capturing the spark that is setting off the fire of this new generation of people with a different mindset on race and a completely new approach to globalisation. You have to know just how rapidly this generation is changing up in the Highlands, and it’s mostly due to the influence of the Internet and reggaeton. All the girls are dying their hair blond and shortening their traditionally-long skirts, they all carry their phones around in their belts, and it is like witnessing the birth of a new form of fascinating hybrid culture.
White people have never wanted 'Indians' to be cool, but now they are reclaiming their due: girls are wearing miniskirts and fancy shoes, and the boys have fake Chanel rings on their fingers. I think you have to be from here to understand why this is blowing minds and shattering all preconceived ideas. Throughout the whole process, I was terrified of my fashion glance being reflected in the pictures, but I actually realised that I now have the freedom to be aggressive in what I do and am myself a sort of hybrid photographer. I am insanely proud of this piece of work, also because it has a more cheerful tone and is a homage to a new generation of hybrid Indigenous rock stars. In Guatemala, people will make anything look pretty.
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What can you tell us about the title?
It is the dawn of a new generation, representative of a spark up in the Highlands, and I’m 100% sure that these people define us as a territory. Along the way, I also bumped into this 'Genesis' sign and a whole section of the work is devoted to graphics. To finish, I think it might be useful to provide a bit of background information about Guatemala as a territory and what I refer to as the Highlands – Guatemala City is at the heart of the country and up in the mountains, and the Spanish conquerors went around looking for valleys.
If you keep climbing up and up, you will reach the mountain chain, which is the Highlands. Ten of the country’s twenty-nine volcanoes are up there, and the topology is also a part of our identity because the ground is so rich and fertile for agriculture. The treasures of Mayan history are up there, and the survivors of those hundreds of years fallen empires and genocide rebuilt their culture up there. It is also home to an abundance of water and lakes and has been a disputed territory for centuries.
It has the highest density of people, and the 1976 earthquake destroyed 90% of the infrastructure up there and cartel activity is buzzing because of its proximity to the Mexican border. After all that bloody history, to my eyes it remains the most beautiful place in the world and is a direct embodiment of our country. If you look beyond the poverty of this country, you will find infinite beauty.
Last question, which photographers and artists inspire you the most?
I have mentioned music several times, definitely Depeche Mode throughout my formative years – synths, electro, which eventually turned into hip-hop and the Wu-Tang Clan. Due to my lack of artistic formation, I just absorbed everything through my travels. I would definitely mention the impact of Lucian Freud’s work as a portrait maker. In terms of photography, Mario Sorrenti is my hero, and even more so Davide, his brother, who died in 1996. He was my age and I always thought he would have become the world’s greatest fashion photographer – he captured the ‘90s like no other.
In terms of contemporary photography, I would definitely give a shoutout to Paul Graham and Gregory Halpern. As for my favourite Instagram pages, they are publisher Editorial RM, Andy Adams, Alessia Glaviano, Brad Feuerhelm and Moodmail.
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