Three photographers, guided by a group called Curators Without Borders, have compiled a visual catalog of Guatemala. And it isn’t pretty. At all.
In “Push Factors: Perspectives on Guatemalan Migration,” now on display at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, three photojournalists—James Rodríguez, Rodrigo Abd, and William Plowman—lead the viewer on a guided tour of just about every dysfunction imaginable, from political disappearances, gang violence, and misogyny to corruption, poverty, and environmental distress.
Death hovers over most of the images in the exhibit, not surprisingly given that Guatemala’s homicide rate, according to the exhibit, outpaces that of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. Some images are merely suggestive, such as a metal light pole plastered over with
dozens of images of the missing. Others show the aftereffects, such as the parade of mourners carrying coffins filled with remains up a muddy hill (bottom).
But the true gut-punches involve blood. In one image, a woman holds a bloody t-shirt in front of her face as a toddler cries and holds his hands over his eyes (top). In another, a child walks by a covered corpse leaking a trail of blood ten feet to the curb.
Alas, the gloom doesn’t end there. One image shows two women in a gorgeous mountain setting washing corn kernels—a seemingly peaceful scene undercut by the backstory, that they and their fellow townspeople were evicted by a government-supported mining company in an operation that allegedly included gang rapes.
Another image shows a close-up of the hand of a sugar-cane harvester; it’s coated with a dangerous black film caused by residue from burning fields. And yet another image (middle) documents a trash-filled river being mined by the poorest of the poor for its basic elements—and, unexpectedly, making a better-than-minimum-wage income out of it.
Given such images, it’s easy enough to see why Guatemalans would want to flee to the United States. In reality, the photographs provide a nuanced look at this complex topic.
One photograph documents a man who’s been deported twice from the United States and has just arrived back in Guatemala, looking calm and saying he expects to return to the U.S. some day. Meanwhile, another image shows a grave in a town that’s heavily supported by remittances from expatriates in America; the gravesite is painted in a U.S. flag design in exuberant red, white, and blue, offering a rare sign of cheer in a land of endless sorrow.
Through Jan. 23 at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s West Atrium, 500 17th St., NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 994-0032.