Tag Archives: Retaliation

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.

Young Russia: Stefan Bladh in Kaliningrad

Russia’s presidential elections came after a season of protests for fair elections, and Vladimir Putin enters a new term in which he will have to confront unrest among the public, accusations of corruption and calls for modernization.

Among that outspoken public is Russia’s youth, a group Swedish photographer Stefan Bladh captured in the summer of 2011 in Kaliningrad. The city of Kaliningrad is not unlike most places in Russia today: plagued by poor social programs, low paying jobs and widespread unemployment. “Life is obviously hard here,” the photographer says. “Corruption is widespread, even up to the Kremlin, everybody is aware of that. The phrase ‘I take care of my business, and you take care of yours’ seems to be prevalent. The remains of the old Soviet system still exist. Better submit than to fight with authorities. Keep quiet about politics.”

During his summer in Kaliningrad, Bladh heard many stories from friends who weren’t being paid for their work, including a young woman who hadn’t been paid for three months. She has yet to complain to her boss over fears of retaliation.

“The years with Putin, according to many critics, have been a major setback for the country,” Bladh says. “Regime critics say that 12 more years with Putin will mean stagnation, a disaster.”

But that resulting pessimism is limited to those who have crossed the “invisible boundary” of 25 years of age, according to the photographer. Those beyond that line have no hope for their country, he says. On the other hand, the young Russians remained positive. They were eager to stop and talk to Bladh, who had trouble engaging with older people on the street. The young people wanted to have their portraits taken and discuss the future. ”The hope for having a good life here is still alive,” says Bladh.

Stefan Bladh is a Stockholm-based photographer. See more of his work here.

Lashkars in Pakistan by Massimo Berruti

It seems fitting that Massimo Berruti was holed up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan for three months early this year, right around the time when dozens of other photographers were off shooting the Arab Spring. The war in the Pashtun tribal territories long predates this year’s conflicts—and is likely to last far longer too. The result of Berruti’s long stay, the exhibition and book Lashkars, is a powerful body of work of conflict photography, yet it has a more lasting feel than much of the work that’s emerged from this year’s tumult. That sense of permanence was the point of the commission, the second Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, in what’s become an annual competition. The foundation says it aims to support in-depth photojournalism at a time of “a several financing crisis.”

Berruti, an Italian photographer represented by VU, based in Paris and Rome, has little interest here in the war on terror, American drone attacks or even, for that matter, death. The Lashkars are Pashtun civilian militia, which have fought the Taliban for control of their valley for years, with tacit acknowledgement of the Pakistan Army, yet with little concrete support. And it’s their grinding, even humdrum daily existence along the amorphous frontier land which intrigues him.

The black-and-white images are quiet and emotionally ambiguous. In one, a young man stands in front of the rubble of his parents’ home, aiming a rifle at the sky. Is he shooting at some invisible drone miles above? We don’t know. In fact, Berruti says, he’s an 18-year-old Pakistan-born Londoner called Jalal Khan, who’s returned to his village to marry a childhood friend. The rubble isn’t from a drone attack, but from Taliban fighters who’ve destroyed the family house in retaliation for the Khans’ anti-Taliban views. In another image, a child carries a tree branch past the bombed-out ruins of a Taliban commander’s house. But it’s not just a photo depicting a boy collecting firewood. The children are claiming back their neighborhood, by stripping the trees around the commander’s house. “It was a sign of freedom and emancipation,” Berruti says.

The exhibition’s textured portrayal of the area extends to the spectacular valley and mountains, which you might have expected Berruti—who loves shooting panoramas—to photograph. Instead, Berruti’s used his artist’s eye to offer something far more timeless: A painted mural of the landscape, which is pasted across the wall of a gas station. There’s a jagged crack down the side of the wall, a sign that this tourist idyll once known as Pakistan’s Switzerland is a deeply disputed place.

Despite the presence of guns and rifles everywhere, the conflict is off-stage. It’s so part of normal life that the business of fighting and killing hardly needs photographing. The story of war is instead etched into people’s faces, like the lined forehead of Saidbacha, the chief in Mahnbanr, who sits holding his pistol, gazing into the lens with what looks like a smirk. “He was the first to engage in battle against the Taliban before the Army arrived, and told me he’d killed four Taliban with his own hands,” Berruti says.

This was no easy world to penetrate, even for Berruti, who first traveled to the area in 2008. He kept secret his prize money—a whopping €50,000 ($68,000)—fearing that local chiefs might demand a cut in exchange for allowing him to work there. He also labored hard for permission to spend more than two weeks in the area, since Pakistan’s government suspected that any photographer opting to spend months there was surely up to no good. Berruti’s used his time well, depicting the long winter months when the Swat Valley is snowed in and isolated from the outside world. And the quiet moments appear to have been captured after weeks of Berruti winning the trust of locals and being able to melt into the background. As VU’s creator Christian Caujolle says in the forward to the book, there’s a feeling of “the photographer waiting.”

Given this intensely conservative area, it’s no surprise that women are completely absent from the exhibition—an unfortunate vacuum, given that Berruti focused so deeply on the Lashkars’ daily life. Berruti says he asked several times to photograph women, until he realized that “to continue to ask for this was putting me in a bad light.”

Finally, a disclaimer: I was a member of the jury for the first Carmignac award, which met in Paris in November, 2009. Led by William Klein, we sat around a conference table at the Ritz Hotel, poring over dozens of portfolios in search for a winner. After our discussion dragged on for hours, Edouard Carmignac—who heads the investment company and created the prize—finally walked over from his office on the Place Vendôme and suggested we continue over (what else?) a long lunch. He then listened intently to the discussion, enthralled at the excitement the prize had evoked. After hours of fine food and wine, Carmignac admitted to having his own favorite for winner, but insisted that the process was a “democracy,” in which he had no say. His prize is aimed at picking one photographer each year to spend months in an area which Carmignac believes is under-covered; the first year focused on Gaza, and the third commission is Zimbabwe. Despite the big prize, Carmignac is strangely not flooded with submissions; there are 76 submissions for the prize Berruti won, and fewer than that this year. In the introduction to Berruti’s book, Carmignac writes that photojournalism needs “lucidity and courage, a hardened character, and nerves of steel.” And sometimes, it needs backers like Carmignac.

Massimo Berruti is a photographer based in Paris and Rome. Lashkars is on vew at the Chapelle des Beaux-arts in Paris until December 3, 2011. See more of his work here.

Photographer #382: Cédric Gerbehaye

Cédric Gerbehaye, 1977, Belgium, was trained as a journalist who chose photography as his medium to tell his stories. In 2002 he started to follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a long-term project. He created several bodies of work in the conflict area about Hebron, Gaza and on the economic crisis in Israel, showing that a large number of Israelis today live below the poverty line due to war and the fact that the occupation of Palestinian territories costs a lot of money to the Israeli government who are therefore spending much less on social programs. Since 2007 he has been focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is where he created the images for his book Congo in Limbo, telling the story of the armed conflict that killed nearly four million people. In the eastern regions of Congo, filled with mineral resources, the situation is still very tense. One of his latest series is Land of Cush. He went to the Nuba Mounts, to the north of the demarcation line that now separates the South Sudan state and Sudan. The inhabitants, who used to fight with the southern separatists soldiers for 20 years, are now victims of aerial bombardments from the Khartoum regime as retaliation. The following images come from the stories Land of Cush – South Sudan, Congo in Limbo and Gaza: Summer Rains.

Direct link to Cedric’s work: www.agencevu.com