Photo sto­ries

Pho­tograph­ing the harsh re­al­i­ties of mur­der leaves per­ma­nent emo­tional scars. World Press Photo award nom­i­nee Javier Arce­nil­las speaks to Amy Davies about his project, Lati­doamer­ica

Amateur Photographer - - 7days - De­scrib­ing him­self as a hu­man­ist, Javier Arce­nil­las is a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher who has won a va­ri­ety of pho­to­graphic prizes through­out his pho­to­graphic ca­reer. See more of his work at javier­ar­ce­nil­


World Press Photo award nom­i­nee Javier Arce­nil­las talks about his project

Out­side of war zones, a num­ber of Latin Amer­i­can cities are ranked as the most vi­o­lent places on earth. Cap­tur­ing the haunt­ing re­al­i­ties of these places, where daily life in­cludes the ter­ror of street gangs, mur­der and thiev­ery, Span­ish pho­tog­ra­pher Javier Arce­nil­las trav­elled to Hon­duras, El Sal­vador, Guatemala and Colom­bia for his project Lati­doamer­ica.

Plac­ing third in this year’s World Press Photo ‘Long-Term Projects’ cat­e­gory, Arce­nil­las is a pho­tog­ra­pher with a di­verse aca­demic back­ground. He stud­ied psy­chol­ogy, but most of his pho­to­graphic in­spi­ra­tion comes from the cin­ema he also stud­ied. He is drawn to­wards doc­u­men­tary ow­ing to its abil­ity to di­rectly and in­ti­mately con­nect with the world.

Lati­doamer­ica has a fairly com­pli­cated ori­gin. Arce­nil­las ex­plains, ‘I’ve been work­ing as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist for years and de­cided to move to Guatemala. While work­ing for a news­pa­per, I made pho­to­graphs con­cen­trat­ing on vi­o­lence and death. I needed to know more than the typ­i­cal ques­tions a jour­nal­ist asks, so I started work­ing with sicar­ios [which roughly trans­lates as hit­men], to tell the story of who the killers are. After that I looked at the vic­tims, then the gangs, and fi­nally at nar­co­tur­ismo [“drug tourism”] – the freaks who go on ex­cur­sions to con­tem­plate the feats of drug traf­fick­ers and crim­i­nals. The com­pen­dium of the four works gave rise to Lati­doamer­ica.’

It doesn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to think about the kind of chal­lenges a set of pic­tures like this might con­jure. Dur­ing the course of this project, Arce­nil­las came up against hor­ren­dous ob­sta­cles. ‘ There are al­ways prob­lems. Politi­cians try to hide that there is vi­o­lence. Mur­der­ers do not want to be seen – and they can kill you. The po­lice and the army don’t al­low you to in­form, and they in­tim­i­date you. The vic­tims are afraid and flee from you. So­ci­ety lives with dis­trust, so your cam­era is a sus­pi­cious tool. I have been robbed, ar­rested, threat­ened, shot at and at­tacked.’

Not only are the sit­u­a­tions that Arce­nil­las places him­self in in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous, but they also leave a last­ing emo­tional im­pact – but for him, this is im­por­tant. ‘I do not like re­porters who go to a place and once they know what the story is and they have their im­ages, they dis­con­nect and go to some­thing else. I need time to process. I have to know, un­der­stand and eval­u­ate if my im­ages are within the sto­ries I want to tell. That takes time and anal­y­sis.’

Sen­si­tive ap­proach

‘Ap­proach­ing peo­ple’s prob­lems trans­forms you, but far from mak­ing you “hard”, it makes you more sen­si­tive to re­al­ity. The neg­a­tive is that this frus­tra­tion can have con­se­quences. An­guish en­ters your life, tak­ing you to per­sonal places that oth­er­wise you wouldn’t go to. They can make you fail your so­cial and per­sonal life.’

The re­ac­tion to Arce­nil­las’s work has been some­what pre­dictable, par­tic­u­larly from those in po­si­tions of au­thor­ity. ‘I have had ev­ery­thing,’ he says. ‘ The Hon­duran gov­ern­ment does not ap­pre­ci­ate me too much. In Guatemala I have been threat­ened, and in El Sal­vador the po­lice are bet­ter not know­ing who I am. In Mex­ico, the nar­cos are al­ways threat­en­ing.

‘ That the gov­ern­ment is both­ered by my work, I do not care. It’s true that my im­ages are not easy to see or di­gest. But I think that the peo­ple who see my work are aware of what I’m try­ing to teach.’

This de­sire to have his work seen by the wider world is one of the rea­sons Arce­nil­las is glad to have been short­listed for a World Press Photo award. ‘A per­son looks at my im­ages in a mag­a­zine for five sec­onds – but in the WPP ex­hi­bi­tion you can see them for sev­eral min­utes. I can take the mes­sage of my im­ages to more peo­ple.’

Right now Arce­nil­las is work­ing on new con­cepts: ‘ With Lati­doamer­ica I have al­ready achieved an im­por­tant vis­ual nar­ra­tive struc­ture that now has to evolve,’ he ex­plains.

His other pas­sion is teach­ing – Arce­nil­las is a pro­fes­sor of doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy at the In­ter­na­tional School PICA. It’s some­thing he clearly feels is ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant. ‘ We must share what we have learned and train other gen­er­a­tions so that pho­tog­ra­phy con­tin­ues to be even more alive.’

San Sal­vador, El Sal­vador. Graf­fiti on the Boule­vard de los Héroes in mem­ory of a girl who was abused by a priest

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