Juan Brenner – Tonatiuh
Juan Brenner is photographed we discovered and featured in our Instagram program. He was working during two years to shoot and analyse the spanish conquest of Guatemala and it’s repercussions in today society.
We decided to know more about who is behind this work .
Interview by Adrien –
-Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Guatemala city.
-What was your first creative moment ?
I would say trying to make music without knowing how to play any instrument when I was about 8 years old, my dad had a marimba and a guitar at home, I would try to imitate the sounds of the songs I liked, just by ear…
-Why did you choose photography as a form of expression? What is your first memory of you and a camera?
That was a total accident, through my teens I knew I wanted to be an artist, or at least I knew I didn’t want the “formal academy” way of learning, so I tried everything, music, painting, writing, etc. When I was 18, my father told me to pick up his camera from the shop (it was being repaired), and asked me to buy a 12 frame roll, shoot it and leave there to be developed, so he knew the camera worked. The second I clicked that button for the first time I knew I wanted to be a photographer for the rest of my life. Then after that I had the urge to learn the technique as from the beginning I understood I had the eye for a different type of image.
-You were previously a Fashion photographer, how did it start? Why did you choose first to work with fashion industry? Is it a passion for fashion?
That was an accident too, after roughly a year I started doing photo in Guatemala, I decided to move, I just needed to know the images I was making were understood. Pre internet Guatemala (this was the late 90´s) as you can imagine, was very culturally isolated. I wasn’t in synch with the type of images being produced in Central America at the time, and just grabbed a few hundred dollars and ventured to NY.
Once there I crashed (violently haha) into reality, and spent a few very depressive months trying to make ends meet, photography took a second place as survival was necessary, I really didn’t know what was going to happen and didn’t even know what kind of photography I wanted to do; I started shooting street portraits in Guatemala and that wasn’t gonna cut it in NY. Right place, right time… through a friend I met Gary Gross, he was the first photographer I assisted in NY, the first time I worked for him and processed that he was getting paid for shooting gorgeous models wearing beautiful clothes, I was hooked.
I wasn’t into fashion at all you know?, but once I got into the game I became obsessed with growing culturally and just blending in with the industry; it just turned into a lifestyle.
– Which photographer or artists inspired you?
In the beginning of my career I was crazy about movies, I would say Harmony Korine, was a big influence in my aesthetic, also Larry Clark and the work of Lars Von Trier where key to develop my early style. Painters such as Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat also changed my way of seeing things; but the work of the late 90’s early 2000’s fashion/street photo generation was the element that affected me the most: shooters such as Davide Sorrenti, Juergen Teller, Corinne Day and Ryan Mcginley really made an impression on my future work.
-What push you to start this project? Why did put your previous work out to start this project?
“Tonatiuh” is a life changer for me, in one hand I wanted to analyze the repercussions of the conquest and the colonization of the new world, but most important I wanted to find situations that could create personal connections with the neglected reality of our society, with my upbringing; with my reality.
I wanted to create metaphors that could communicate with other audiences, there are so many archetypes that unite conquered/colonized countries, many little details that just exist and repeat.
I needed to understand and digest a reality that gets lost through repetition, it’s like a Xerox copy machine, I feel like the toner is running out and it was time to change the cartridge and refresh a bunch of ideas that are just floating around, I felt I had to just put them in people’s faces; no matter how dark and uncomfortable they are.
-You Named your first project ‘Tonatiuh’. Could you explain more were it come from and the significance?
Tonatiuh is the nickname the inhabitants of Mexico gave Pedro de Alvarado (conqueror of Guatemala); his blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes fascinated the natives of the New World.
Tonatiuh is the Sun God of the Aztec mythology, the theory that Pre-Columbian people mistook the newly arrived conquistadors for supernatural beings arose in the 1530s, and became associated with Quetzalcoatl in particular in the 1540s, when people in the New Spain were looking back and trying to explain what had happened to them. I’m fascinated with the idea that native morale or will to resist was undermined by awe at the Spaniards’ divine powers, it was one of many competing and probably false ‘solutions’ to the problem of how a newly arrived elite from Spain had come to exercise so much power in the region.
I followed Alvarado’s journey through the Guatemalan territory, I needed to have a conceptual line to follow, it was a very complex project from the beginning, so that geographical guidance was key to achieve the most on every trip I made.
-What are you looking when you first start to shoot?
I always have many projects going on at the same time, many ideas that brew in my head and I start to experiment with all of them, when one of them “sticks” or my gut tells me that’s the one I would concentrate a 100% on that and finish it. In general I look for topics that make me better, ideas that help me find my flaws, analyze my past and try to fix my present.
-You spent two years in Guatemala shooting this project about post colonialism. How did you manage to find visually the representation of this subject around?
I researched for 1 year and shot the whole project in 8 months, following Alavarado’s steps was an amazing place to start as most of the history of the conquest was written in the Guatemalan highlands, one of the most beautiful places in the world, at the same time the territory has been devastated by war or natural disasters constantly, in a way I knew I was going to find many of the images I researched about, it was really beautiful to see so many thing I´ve just read of or knew from the research, the thing with the Guatemalan highlands is that colonialism and it´s legacy is embedded on so many aspects of daily life, on the way our towns are laid out, the architecture, the way we prepare our food, the language, syncretism and in the core of our identity; it’s insane how little of the pre-Columbian way of life is still around in the Americas.
Many of the situations photographed in the project are small accidents, I had very specific ideas of things I wanted to shoot; gold teeth for example, also fences that divide land (which is a concept brought by the europeans), horses were also a big thing I wanted to shoot (said to be the technology that won the conquest), but those little details that go unseen, the “b-side” of the highlands, those are the situations with the most content.
You photographed only few portraits in your selection, a lot more still-life, environnent element. For human representation there is a lot of parts of body like gold teeth or persons are hide behind a mask but not so much portrait. Why did you choose especially these persons to do there portraits?
What did you see in them to integrate the photo in your exhibition?
In the very beginning of the project I didn’t want to have any portraits at all! but when I started shooting and at the final stage of the research I started to gravitate at representations of archetypes and very specific and symbolic situations.
The gold teeth became a very important conceptual pilar in the project as gold is key to the conquest of the Americas, I found in that idea, a 360 degrees hook to the story I wanted to tell. Images like the portrait of the 2 kids (one wearing an « I love kush » hat) represent globalization and the death of our culture.
Every portrait has a meaning, and I wanted to be very blunt and direct with them, through the narrative, those images define the highest peaks in my story, another good example is the girl seating on a bed, she´s a indigenous prostitute in a very chaotic, dangerous and populated town in the highlands; her situation is very dark, and this is a direct repercussion of the way history was written in this country, and a very somber stamp of the reality indigenous woman have to deal with in our society.
Shooting portraits in the Guatemalan Highlands is also a very tricky and delicate task, the locals are very hermetic, they have been battling with all sorts of people trying to take advantage of them, war, natural disasters and poverty for a very long time now, it´s even dangerous as the « mayan law » is above municipal rule and even police; the Guatemalan highlands are infamous for lynch mobs attacking people that represent a danger to their community.
– We found Mickey Mouse as a detail in several picture on clothing. Is it intensional? Is it for you a strong mark and a figure of colonialism? Or Is it more a mark of Globalisation?
It´s totally unintentional, and conceptually It´s both actually, in one side you have the influence of the “new empire”, for me, the main figure of neo-colonialism in Latin America is the U.S and Mickey Mouse is a big part of that culture. And then you can see it as a metaphor of globalization and how it´s tentacles are reaching even the most secluded communities in the planet.
– We found your work on instagram. How Social media help you ?
A lot actually, I´m not one to communicate much on social media, specially not about my work, but I knew this project needed to travel a lot, I felt like the immediacy of IG was going to be very helpful, The project is picking up a lot of attention and press, and a lot of that comes from IG, the algorithm is very good at bringing sub-cultures together, and the photo community is stronger than ever; it´s amazing.
– Do you have something to tell us more about Juan Brenner’s photography?
Thanks for the interview first of all, I´m really humbled. This coming year will be dedicated to “Tonatiuh” a 100%, making this book is the most important thing for me right now, I will present the book in Paris Photo in November, I really hope to see you guys there 🙂
Courtesy of the artist – 2019