Guatemala’s Lost Photographs from the 1980s

Otto Perez Molina 1982, (c) Jean-Marie Simon

Congratulations today to my Beloved Wife, Jean-Marie Simon, for a front page photograph illustrating an article in the Wall Street Journal today on Guatemala’s presidential election.  The photograph dates back to 1982, when Jean-Marie was a photographer and freelance journalist covering the civil war in Guatemala.  She worked there for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and later published a book of text and photographs of the war and Guatemalan society in that period, in English from WW Norton in 1988.

The risks of covering the war – Guatemala’s military pioneered the phenomenon of disappearances during the 1970s and 80s – made it impossible for local journalists or photographers to go out into the rural conflict zones.  So Jean-Marie’s photographs are a rare record of those years in Guatemala.  Remarkably, although her photo book was available in the US in English, the sensitivities around the war meant that the photographs were never seen in Guatemala.  Two years ago, that began to change, and she did several exhibitions of her photographs in Guatemala, in the capital city as well as rural towns, in the municipalities.  Several foreign embassies, including the US embassy, provided financial support, and the photographs received much comment inside Guatemala.

A lot of the attention was not really about the war in the 1980s – but, rather, this was one of the very few documentary records of what Guatemala looked like – its physical geography, its urban and rural landscape, its people both urban and rural, thirty or more years ago.  In addition, however, controversy erupted over the subject of her photograph in the WSJ today, Otto Perez Molina – he is one of the candidates in the current presidential election, but thirty years ago was also an Army commander in some of the most contested zones in the countryside.

Jean-Marie is publishing a Spanish language photo book of the photographs from the decade in which she lived and photographed there, covering the lost war years.  The aim is to produce an accessible archive of those photographs, reasonably priced for a Guatemalan audience, one that can be used in schools there and other ways to ensure that there is some record of the missing conflict years.  (Jean-Marie is seeking support for the publication project at the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, if you want to support it.)  The cover photograph, which I’m pleased to say I urged strenuously, is here:

soldier dancing girl

And here is Beloved Wife, from back in the early 1980s, when I first met her, in her war photographer days in Guatemala:


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