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
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.’
‘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.’
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