Juan Brenner: A New Era

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

In the Guatemalan Highlands, a new generation is coming of age, adopting the culture of global youth for an aesthetic that blends tradition and contemporary trends. After a turbulent time away, Brenner returned to his homeland looking for personal peace and, with his latest project, documents a turning point in the country’s troubled history

A teenage girl [below] stands in a doorway, her posture assuming a quiet regalness. She turns away. It’s unclear if she’s looking for someone or being watched. Her clasped hands reveal long, white bejewelled nails finished with a square tip. Her eyeshadow matches the warm, shifting red hue of her hair, which is so long that it continues beyond the frame. An explosion of colour adorns her: a dress composed of striking geometric shapes. She is self-assured with a halo of vulnerability. Her image describes the experience of coming of age. The search for belonging both internally and externally. A portal between worlds.

Juan Brenner’s Genesis is a project that thrives in the space in between. It constellates survival and loss, war and peace, beauty and brutality, tradition and modernity to describe a new era in the Guatemalan Highlands. We feel it most pronounced in how young Guatemalans are reimagining the aesthetic codes of their country. Inspired by social media and the cultural force of reggaeton, they adorn themselves in streetwear, gold chains, grills, acrylic nails and colourful hair, recontextualised with traditional indigenous garments. These creative instincts signal more than a redefinition of beauty and identity; they embody a new, defiant set of aspirations for living. While many elders perceive this as a threat, Brenner believes it is the dawn of a critical new era.

“I really identify with the younger generations in Guatemala right now,“ says Brenner. “They are creating their own story. The Highlands’ youth are the first generation to effectively establish an intelligible dialogue with their contemporaries worldwide. There is a [new] vitality, which springs from the territory itself, coupled with the splendour that always belonged to this group. It’s really beautiful what’s happening, but I’m one of the few people in the country who feels that way. People are terrified about losing cultural rituals because the kids are exposed to new influences. Documenting that is one of the main pillars of Genesis.“

© Juan Brenner.

Leaving home

Brenner’s relationship with his home country has always been complicated. He was born at a time of great conflict when rebel groups challenged the Guatemalan government in what became a 36-year civil war. His father, a respected doctor, was hired to help the army, making him an enemy of the guerilla groups. “People were disappearing every day,“ Brenner recalls. “Bombs were going off on buses and in crowded places. It was hardcore. You couldn’t travel anywhere. You were forced to live in a bubble.“ In 1976, the war was compounded by a devastating earthquake north-east of Guatemala City, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed more than 23,000 people.

Brenner was 18 when the war ended. After years of living a life interrupted by conflict, he bought a one-way ticket to New York. His ambition was to get into fashion and design the life he had always dreamed of. “When I got to New York, I didn’t want people to know where I was from. I was trying to escape from my Guatemala-ness. It was the first time I was exposed to culture, art and the internet. The way I dressed changed, and the music I listened to changed. Fashion became a way for me to blend in.“

However, Brenner slowly burned out. In 2008, he went to rehab and then, in 2010, returned to Guatemala City. “I chose life,“ he tells me. “I chose recovery. I chose not to do cocaine and leave all that behind. I felt like such a failure, but I knew if I stayed, I would kill myself.“ After rehab, Brenner, who is now 14 years sober, started a design studio with his partner Amanda. The business took off, and clients around the continent sought them out for their unique approach to branding. One of their jobs required a trip to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where Brenner spent time in the Andes for the first time. He was astounded by the scale and scope of what he affectionately calls “indigenous power“.

“I thought, this is Guatemala in 30 years,“ he says. “Guatemala’s timeline is different to the rest of Latin America. When you have war, everything stops. There is no development or experimentation. Nothing good comes from war. I realised I had to return to photography and create a project about Guatemala’s indigenous power. I started investigating, researching and talking to people. I spoke with an Ecuadorian anthropologist who destroyed my idea, making me realise I wasn’t ready to make the work. I didn’t know how to tell the story yet.“

© Juan Brenner.
© Juan Brenner.
© Juan Brenner.

Exploring new ground

Brenner benched Genesis and instead put all his energy into Tonatiuh (The Son of the Sun), a visual study of contemporary Guatemalan society and how the Spanish conquest led by Pedro de Alvarado half a millennium ago has shaped it. Tonatiuh was about Brenner immersing himself in the Highlands, a place he never had access to growing up due to the war. The project was a catalyst for both his return to photography and journey to reconnect with a culture he ran away from many years ago. “In making Tonatiuh, I finally understood what I needed to do with Genesis,“ Brenner explains. “I was starting to understand life in the Highlands regarding the social dynamics, codes and rules that make it. It’s a complex place, rich with tradition, and the most densely populated area of the country. It’s very fertile, with incredible landscapes. It also borders Mexico, so many narcos and cartel activities happen there. Being in the Highlands is similar to a rush or a high. The mountains have such undeniable energy.“

Most visual narratives relating to war focus on the aftermath of conflict. Instead, Brenner defines Genesis as the “process of becoming“. The project marks a turning point in the country’s troubled history defined by shifting social structures and renewed economic leverage. He describes these changes through depictions of leisure time, clothing and food – the everyday luxuries that were scarce for decades. Brenner explores the wounds of the war, conquest and natural disasters through images of the land. He positions physical encounters with the terrain throughout the project, reminding viewers of the indelible legacy that defines both the region and the psyche of its people.

© Juan Brenner.
© Juan Brenner.

To delve into Brenner’s mind is to experience an endless curiosity for untold histories and new possibilities. One area he explores in Genesis is the aesthetic codes intrinsic to Guatemalan identity formation. “So much of our culture is based on our fabrics,“ he explains. “Historically, these garments were uniforms white landlords gave their Indigenous slaves to ensure they didn’t mix with other folks from neighbouring towns. We have 300 different attires because every town has its uniform. Originally we only had four colours. When the Germans came in the 19th century, they brought chemical colours, which resulted in the variety you see today.“

Genesis also reveals another strand of history through the recurring motif of grills. Mayan royalty used to embellish their mouths with jade and bone. Years later, it was embraced by Indigenous communities as an alternative to dentistry, employing metal in the mouth, often gold or stainless steel, to protect their teeth. Over time, the ritual became more intricate, transcending its practical application to become a status symbol of power and money. “It’s a circular story,“ says Brenner. “The Mayans did it 2000 years ago, and then the kids are doing it today. The new generation is not doing it to honour their ancestors. They are doing it to take care of their teeth or because of hip-hop. They want to look fly.“

While we may not understand the significance of this moment in Guatemala’s history for another couple of decades, Genesis marks the making of an artist as much as a period in time. Every aspect of Brenner’s life – personal and professional – led him to this moment. He is no longer a stranger in Guatemala. He is finally home. “This work is about my reconciliation with the country,“ says Brenner. “It’s enabled me to process, understand and feel better about who I am, something I was never able to talk about growing up. My photography has allowed me to be a proud Brown person. While my relationship with territory always changes, my focus now is to give back. I’m not sure how, but I know I have to.“

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.