10 Sep 2009
Visa pour l'Image - Interview with Agence VU's Miquel Dewever-Plana
The interview is in French, but you will find below a English transcript.
BJP Can you start by talking about your pictures and your project?
M.D. This project came after another one in Guatemala, when I covered another conflict, in the 80s - the genocide of the Mayas by the army. I followed the work of legists and anthropologists who were looking for clandestine cemeteries. At then end of that project, I was wondering why Guatemala was involved in another war, which is the title of this exhibition, after having underwent 36 years of war.
That’s why I wanted to work on that global theme, about the multiple violences the Guatemalan People are experiencing. The “maras” phenomenon is the main theme of my project. This is not a project exclusively about “maras”, this phenomenon is one aspect hiding among many. I wanted to go deeper because you have to know that before becoming murderers, these kids were victim of this accumulation of violence.
I wanted to show all the different violences they could have been victims of – poverty, no public health care, no education, familial context, sexual abuses. Their families are usually disintegrated, because of war or because their parents left to immigrate illegally to the US.
These young people had no values, no references and the only way for them to exist in a society that had always denied them, is to use the only language they know – violence.
BJP How did you have access to the gangs? Was it difficult? How long of a process was it?
M.D. This is a really long process, which is really dangerous. Today no one is safe. I first spent five months with them in prison. I wanted to understand the situation, to try not to stigmatize them since they are stigmatized enough in their country and abroad.
We just pay attention to their tattoos and I wanted to go further. I wanted to go beyond that false and reductive image we have to reassure ourselves. By talking with them, I created a link with them, little by little they accepted to testify, we trusted each other and they allowed me to take pictures.
There is no testimony in this exhibition but my work is made of them. That’s how I understood that whereas the Guatemalan government and mass media want us to believe, they are a consequence of the situation and not the reason why Guatemala is in this difficult situation. After the peace agreements of 1996, the government did not answer to any of the population’s demands.
These young people grew up in shantytowns. There are about 250 or 300 of them in Guatemala. These shantytowns are the result of the war; to escape the massacre made by the army, thousands and thousands of people – mainly mayas - left and settled in wastelands in Guatemala, living under plastic and cardboards for years. The state did not help them, they had no access to education. They grew up in these conditions hating this society that forgot and rejected them. Society always denied their existence.
In the end, the only way to feel like they are human beings is to integrate a “maras” when they turn eight or ten. For once in their lives, the others are afraid and drop their head when they cross their paths. They’ve known but one language in their life – that of violence.
They know they’re going to die maybe at 12, and they prefer to die standing up rather than dying on their knees, humiliated like their ancestors.
BJP Many images can be really hard to look at in this exhibition. How do you work in these situations? How do you work that close to death?
M.D. It’s always delicate to show harsh images, it is a real problem as a photographer to be able to show violence and death while still respecting the intimacy of the people you photograph. It is a real “cas de conscience”.
I want to show the violence, not suggest it. But I don’t want to fall into the morbid, I don’t know if I made it but I tried.
BJP Afterward, is it difficult to publish this kind of pictures? Are magazines willing to publish violent or bloody pictures?
M.D. I don’t think that is what bother them, magazines are used to superficiality. They do a quick review of everything. When they send journalists, they send them for two, three or four days to cover a situation they don’t know anything about and as a consequence, they bring back clichés. Whereas when you work on a project for a longer period of time, you go further, you understand more and more of what is going on. In that case, they are disconcerted because it is different from what they thought or imagined.
You may not realize it but the longer you work on a project the hardest it get to publish it.
BJP Do you think that some countries are more willing to publish this kind of project?
M.D. I don’t really know about the North American press. Anyway, concerning this project, this is a result of two years of investigations, and I am still working on it, I am going back there at the end of October. About the French press, I did not want my project to be published by my agency (Agence VU) for these two years because it was not coherent enough for me. This exhibition is the result of five periods of three months in Guatemala. I did not want my pictures to be used as clichés, I was waiting for my project to be coherent enough for it to be published.
Actually, in one or to weeks, VSD, a French magazine is going to publish it. But it is always the same, it is going to be a portfolio, and I thank the director or photography who fought for its publication but there is not going to be any text or analysis, the text is made of large captions, there is no testimonies and at the end it tends to be cliché as well. But unfortunately, we cannot decide and it is really hard to control the publication of our work, but still it enables us to go back there to work.
BJP Back to your project and its title - The Other War - as opposed to the armed conflict. Do you think that this kind of internal conflict is overshadowed by what is happening on a global stage, by the war against terror or news such as Michael Jackson’s death?
M.D. One simple example, this reportage was supposed to be published this week, during Visa pour l’Image and it was postponed because of Ted Kennedy’s death, celebrities’ news is obviously more attractive than this kind of projects. What can we do? How can we struggle? We have no control over this.
BJP Do you think Visa pour l’image is still important for photojournalism in general?
M.D. Of course, not only is it a great promotional tool for us, but it is also the opportunity of showing many pictures that are usually not published. As photojournalists, indeed, we are interested in telling stories and to see these stories to be published. Unfortunately, the unique way to do this is at these festivals such as Visa pour l’Image. Because the press is getting more and more careful and is paying less and less. And at the end, some really good photographic reportages have never been published. It’s dramatic, everyone agrees and acknowledges it but nowadays, most of the magazines have contracts with press agencies. We have less and less space to publish our work.
BJP The president of VII Photo Agency said that photojournalists should work with firms and NGOs to get funding. Do you agree?
M.D. Nowadays, to be able to work on a long time on a project, as far as I am concerned and I am not talking about my colleagues, the money I earn from my work doesn’t enable me to go back in the field. We have to find some new ways to find funds. NGOs can be a possibility. For this project, a local NGO helped me financially and allowed me to pay for my plane tickets. It is already a lot.
When I start working on a project I always try to figure out why and for whom I doing this? Well, if the press is not publishing your work anymore, how can you inform? I am interested in giving something back to the people who offered me their images. I’m trying to be useful to the country.
We are currently working on a huge project, to make a book made of pictures and testimonies and a pedagogical booklet to give to all Guatemalan schools. The goal is to try to get them to think about the whole situation. When a young person integrates a gang at the age of eight or ten, he has no idea of what he is doing. As I was saying before, these young people have no patriarchal reference. Even the government is not a good example for these people, since it is corrupt.
The only role models young people have are the gang leaders at the corner of the streets. They have got power, money, women, and these are the only things they see. Once you integrate a gang you cannot go back, you will end up in prison or in a cemetery.
We have to do something for these young people now.
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