Jonathan Moller, Our Culture Is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge and Healing in Guatemala, 2004, powerHouse Books, $45.
The photographer and human-rights activist Jonathan Moller (b. 1963) first went to Central America in 1991, where he contributed to "El Salvador in the Eye of the Beholder," the celebrated exhibition documenting the war in El Salvador. In 1993, he began working with indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala who had been uprooted by the country’s brutal civil war and were living in the remote countryside as clandestine, mobile "Communities of Population in Resistance" (CPRs). Though not rebels, the campesinos were targeted by the Guatemalan military in a "scorched earth" campaign that wiped out over 450 villages and killed some 200,000 people.
A member of the Foreign Press Club of Guatemala, in 2000-2001 Moller worked as staff photographer for a forensic anthropology team of the Quiché Catholic Diocese's Office of Peace and Reconciliation, documenting the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries. Though the Guatemalan civil war was ended in 1996 by a UN-sponsored peace accord, Amnesty International reports continuing human rights concerns and extreme social inequality in the country.
Our Culture Is Our Resistance, published in 2004 by powerHouse books, features 147 black-and-white photographs from 1993-2001, interspersed with texts by novelist Francisco Goldman, anthropologist Ricardo Falla and historian Susanne Jonas, as well as poems and prose by several writers, including an introduction by Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Indian peasant social reformer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Parallel exhibitions of Moller’s photographs from Guatemala are currently traveling to venues in both Europe and the U.S., most recently appearing at the Vermont Center for Photography in Brattleboro, Sept. 1-30, 2006.
Moller's photographs of people living in clandestine CPRs in the mountains and jungles, haunted by terror and genocide, are unprecedented social documents, and have their own special beauty. Rendering native people engaged in everyday living, the photos are more about the dignity of resistance than the horror of war. Moller favors a delicate, silvery tonality, often facilitated by drifting fog, and integrates portraiture into landscape in a way that turns the romantic portrayal of nature-as-refuge on its head. (Moller’s work would add a poignant dimension to the "Ecotopia" survey of ecological photography currently on view at the International Center of Photography.) With its incorporation of short testimonies and descriptions for each photograph, the book is deeply moving, and extends Guatemalan history up to the near-present with a crucial perspective.
Our Culture Is Our Resistance includes Moller’s forensic photographs as well, showing the skeletons of victims as they are carefully unearthed from their hasty graves. These pictures are stark evidence, and have been publicized in the Guatemalan press. Other photos portray grieving survivors in the traditional dress that so effectively expresses indigenous culture. The struggle for human rights in Guatemala remains a parlous one, but a coalition of survivors has initiated a collective lawsuit, toward which Moller donates his royalties.
P. C. SMITH is an artist and frequent contributor to Art in America magazine. His website is www.smallpit.com