Tag Archives: Human Rights

Alma: A Tale of Guatemala’s Violence

LightBox presents an exclusive look at an interactive, narrative documentary about gang violence in Guatemala told through the story of Alma, a young former gang member.

“In an isolated house, there was a girl older than me. Blond, begging to be spared…my whole body was telling me not to, but in the end I killed her. I knew I would get killed myself is I did not obey.” —Alma

Alma was only 15 years old the first time she took a life. As a member of one of the most violent gangs in Guatemala, the Mara 18, Alma spent eight years of her young life in a world ruled by violence. After a brutal beating caused her to suffer a miscarriage, Alma had enough, but her effort to leave the gang was met with an assassination attempt that left her a paraplegic. Today, at 26, Alma hopes to help stop the kind of violence that ruled her life for so long.

Gang violence is an enormous problem in Guatemala—a country of just 14 million people with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Alma’s story is indicative of a pattern that has affected a generation of disenfranchised youth in her country. She grew up in a cardboard and plastic shack in one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City. With a largely absent mother and an alcoholic father, gang life appealed to a 15-year-old girl looking for protection and comfort.

“I feel I have never received love from anyone,” Alma said. “I looked for another family in a gang, in which all members were like me, undergoing lack of love…for the first time in my life I felt loved and respected. ”

Miquel Dewever-Plana—Agence VU

At the age of 22, Alma told her “homies” (the members of her gang) that she wanted to leave. The retaliation came on the same day when two of them attempted to murder her. She survived, but is now paraplegic.

In 2008, Alma met photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana, who has been photographing the violence in Guatemala since 2007. Intrigued by Alma’s beauty and candor, amid such a cruel environment, Plana stayed in touch with the young woman, eventually realizing her story could be a powerful way-in to explain the larger tale of violence in Guatemala.

“I became convinced that her intelligence and forceful nature made her the icon I was looking for,” Plana said in an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne. “She was the key to understanding the most secretive twists and turns of the gang phenomenon.”

After a year-and-a-half of consideration, Alma agreed to collaborate with Plana and writer Isabelle Fougere. Her story is at the center of a new, multi-platform project centered around an interactive web documentary that presents Alma’s narration in a straight-forward confessional format. Plana’s photographs of her Guatemalan neighborhood and its gangs help to visualize the violent world in which she lived and powerful drawings by Hugues Micol illustrate troubling scenes from Alma’s life.

Working with a team of designers at the French creative studio Upian, Plana and Fougere, say they intended to create a final product—with a sensitive and innovative approach to a narrative— that would be interactive and accessible. The final product, which took two years to develop, is incredibly in-depth—allowing its audience to explore the story through the innovative web piece, two books and a film, all available in four languages. Supplemental materials were also designed for classroom use.

“This combination of media communicates Alma’s reality in the most effective way,” Plana said. “The web documentary was designed to inform young people about the dangers of gang life. That was my ultimate goal.”

Plana and Fougere recognize the confusing emotions that came as their relationship with Alma developed. “I see Alma as a friend,” Plana said. “But I never forget what she did, and it is impossible for me to justify her deeds.”

Plana has worked and studied in Guatemala’s since 1995 and has documented the country’s gang violence since 2007. It was this experience—which included extensive interviews with mareros in prison—that prepared him to understand and contextualize Alma’s situation.

Despite the risk of exposure and the discomfort of reliving such painful experiences, for Alma, the project was an opportunity to bear witness to her past and to attempt to prevent other youth from choosing the same fate.

“It was very painful for Alma to talk without feeling judged, to empty her haunted conscience of all these gruesome memories and guilt,” Fougere said. “This web-documentary is her path to redemption.”

Watching Alma speak on screen, it is difficult to connect the words with the woman. Soft-spoken, with long black hair and soft features, Alma slowly describes in brutal detail taking the life of another woman and enduring beatings at the hands of her “homies.” But it is precisely in this disconnect that the power of this project lies—it emphasizes that Guatemala’s gang violence is not the result of a few crazed individuals, but a tragic consequence of social problems so endemic that they can turn a young girl into a brutal criminal.

“Alma’s extremely violent story seemed emblematic of the desperation of youths from shanty town, totally abandoned by a society rife with corruption and impunity,” said Fougere. “[she is] Both victim and perpetrator of this endemic violence.”

Today, Alma lives a quiet life. Confined to a wheelchair, she works as a gift-wrapper  in a shop and lives with her boyfriend, Wilson, in a rented room. Further retaliation from her former gang is a constant threat, but she focuses on her dream of going to college to study psychology.

“I hope that [one]day I have the means to help these young people fascinated by the world of gangs,” she said. “And to finally break this chain of violence which only leads to a certain death.”

Miquel Dewever-Plana is a photographer represented by VU’. See more of his work here.

Isabelle Fougere is a French journalist, writer and director focused on human rights.

Alma: A Tale of Violence was released on arte.tv on Oct. 25, 2012. It was produced by Upian, a French creative studio that has won numerous awards for their web documentaries including First Prize in World Press Photo 2011.

All quotes by Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougere are from an interview with Le Pelerin weekly’s Catherine Lalanne, which is a component of the Alma project.

Under Exposed: the Roaming Eye gives photography and multimedia work by Nikki Luna and Emil Kozak cyber time and space

© Nikki Luna, Leaf Cuttings

© Nikki Luna, Leaf Cuttings, the mother of one of the missing women opens a drawer

© Nikki Luna, Leaf Cuttings

 

Emil Kozak, Little White Plastic Bird

Emil Kozak, Big Black Nothing (2010-ongoing)

The Roaming Eye (tRE) comes across work in both physical and virtual spaces and will be presenting some of it under the heading Under Exposed. The aim is to support the less well-known, the small, and those who reach out to connect and share. There are many ways for photographers and visual artists to promote work; some have agents or galleries to do it for them, some have universities to push the work (and its reputation), some are brilliant DIY self-promoters. But then there are many, many others.

Those who are quieter; those who are still there – reading, looking and listening – who may push out occasionally, sometimes apologetically, often tentatively. Under Exposed is a space for these kind of photographers and visual artists – the ones who don’t overuse, or abuse, the social-media promotion machine, yet still feel that they have created something they want to share and to communicate. What have you got to lose? Certainly, you won’t lose face as cyberspace is the place to take risks.

So, Bring It On.

Get in Touch: If this sounds like you, or someone you know and want to support, then take a chance on the Roaming Eye and get in touch via email or the blog. Simply email some examples of work and/or a link. All work will be looked at and considered for inclusion. But remember, this is a curated blog so there is a filter system, but tRE likes to think its approach is open-minded and open-hearted. If you don’t agree, then why not comment. Web 2.0 was designed with dialogue in mind.

NIKKI LUNA
To kick off, tRE presents some images from Nikki Luna (whose website is, temporarily, in the process of being updated). Luna writes: “For the show, Shade my eyes and I can’t see you, (the title is from the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Green is the Colour) my focus was to share the story of some women, who apart from being human-rights defenders, also chose to live and work with the poor, rural communities, teaching reading and writing. They were taken by military forces and were never seen again. Three of these women were killed by state security forces. The other two are still missing.

“These women are, first and foremost mothers, daughters, wives and sisters, and women to the people they have left behind. Not everyone may know, or understand, human-rights defenders, but we all know and have some close relationships with a woman in our lives. It’s sad that these women, all in their 20s, lost their lives and may be soon forgotten. The struggle to search and find them, the constant pushing for the truth, and the fact of injustice still goes on.”

For those who want to know more about the context, there’s an Amnesty International video documenting the story of the two women who are still missing. Note that the video The Escape of Raymond Manalo has subtitles and shows scenes of a graphic and disturbing nature.

“University of Philippines students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan were among those who disappeared. Raymond Manalo, who was kidnapped by the Philippino army under the ex-General Jovito Palparan, was tortured but escaped and lived to tell the tale of his plight and of the other people he met in the camps. Among them were Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno. He reports that he saw them naked and hanging upside down, while they had water poured on them, were hit and sexually violated”, writes Luna.

Luna will be showing work in a group show at the Equator Arts Project gallery at the Gillman Barracks in Singapore, as well as in two solo shows – firstly, at the Pablo Art Gallery in the Philippines from May 26 – June 23 where she has a video/photo projection and a soil/land installation and later in the year at the Manila Contemporary art gallery in September, date (tbc), where she will be creating a multimedia installation that includes stoneware.

EMIL KOZAK
On a different note, Emil Kozak who is from Denmark but lives in Spain, has two bodies of work Big Black Nothing (2010-ongoing) for which he walks until he “gets scared or can’t go any further, then takes a photo, and goes back” and Little White Plastic Bird – a project based on a true story.

Filed under: Photographers, Video Art, Visual Artists, Women Photographers Tagged: Big Black Nothing, Denmark, Emil Kozak, Equator Arts Project, General Jovito Palparan, human rights, Karen Empeno, Leaf Cuttings, Little White Plastic Bird, Manila Contemporary, Nikki Luna, Philippines, Raymond Manalo, Sherlyn Cadapan, the Roaming Eye

Photographer #245: Raphaël Dallaporta

Raphaël Dallaporta, 1980, France, is concerned with public issues addressing human rights as well as more symbolic subjects such as the fragility of life. He is the winner of the 2010 Young Photographer ICP Infinity Award and FOAM’s 2011 Paul Huf Award. In his series Antipersonnel he focused on landmines. He has isolated the many different kinds of mines and photographed them against a black background, using the same lighting a product photographer could use. His series Domestic Slavery shows images of ordinary houses. He did this project together with Ondine Millot. Ondine’s writings let us know what happened in these buildings. They are all stories related to issues of human trafficking. The photographs show an unsensational façade with stories of abuse and cruelty. Both Antipersonnel and Domestic Slavery have been published as books. The following images come from the series Antipersonnel, Domestic Slavery and Fragile.


Website: www.raphaeldallaporta.com