Picturing World Cultures: Juan Brenner - Guatemala


Documenting a culture can be a daunting process, especially when it involves a history of conquest and colonialism. Synthesizing such a complex and traumatic past in a contemporary narrative is a formidable task, requiring extensive research and dedicated planning. This is the backstory to today’s podcast.

Above photograph © Juan Brenner

For the seventh chapter in our monthly series, Picturing World Cultures, we speak with Guatemalan photographer Juan Brenner about his recent projects in the country’s Western Highlands.

Our chat begins with Brenner’s introduction to photography as a youth, and the protective bubble surrounding him during the country’s brutal civil war. He left Guatemala at age 20 to forge a career as a fashion photographer in New York, which filters into our discussions about portraiture and photo gear.

But our primary focus is on Brenner’s recent personal projects, created after his return to Guatemala, and an epiphany he had about the idea of “Indigenous Power.”

Listen as he describes how this concept was subsequently called into question. You’ll gain insight into the unequal power that comes with being a “Mickey Mouse” photographer and discover how critical aspects of communication extend well beyond the basic structure of language.

As Brenner notes during our chat, “You have to be really careful just being a photographer. It's so colonialist, you know, having a camera. You have this big robot that you stick in people's faces. You have this advantage. And, for me, it's really important to think about that a lot.”

If you haven’t already listened, check out all the episodes of our Picturing World Cultures podcast series here.

Guest: Juan Brenner

Jorge wears stars, crowns and full dental grills made from an unknown…
Street sign pointing to one of many “Dental Technician Studios” in the…
A dental technician works on metal for dental pieces.
Guatemalan Highlands landscape, showing one of many rivers tainted by…
Liquid from a broken “Strawberry Soda” bottle on the ground, mimicking…
The “mecapal,” a traditional harness used to transport heavy objects in…
Portrait of a Mam community leader in front of Salvatrucha gang…
A costume depicting Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado, used by…
Spanish horses were key to the conquest of the New World, since Pre…
María, a sex worker in the chaotic and fast-growing merchant town,…
A Kakchiquel teenager wearing a gold chain.
The first battle of the Guatemalan conquest (the battle of Xetulul) was…
Erik, a newly released prisoner from Chimaltenango’s jail. He’s trying…
In the Guatemalan Highlands, shamans value jewelry for protection. Some…
Imitation gold chains are prevalent in the central market of San Marcos…
A teenager works as a “Chicken Bus” driver’s assistant at the…
Juan Brenner

Episode Timeline:

  • 2:20: Juan Brenner’s introduction to photography in the bubble of 1990s Guatemala.
  • 7:30: His recent projects on the indigenous population of Guatemala’s Western Highlands.
  • 9:28: A trip to the Andes and his discovery of “indigenous power.”
  • 13:25: Immersive research into Pedro de Alvarado’s conquest of Guatemala.
  • 21:00: Working with a local assistant and choices in photo gear.
  • 26:53: Brenner’s process for earning trust when making portraits.
  • 36:27: Episode Break
  • 37:50: Juan Brenner’s preferred mix of analog and digital gear.
  • 43:20: Capturing close-up details and still life views.
  • 44:43: Brenner’s hybrid workflow, shooting both analog and digital.
  • 47:23: Dental grills and the look of Brenner’s new book Genesis.
  • 57:27: Brenner’s newest project on syncretism and the occult in the Guatemalan Highlands.
  • 1:06:55: Juan Brenner answers our PWC Visual Questionnaire.

Guest Bio:

Juan Brenner is a self-taught photographer born and raised in Guatemala City. After forging a career as a fashion photographer in New York City for more than a decade, Brenner returned to his native Guatemala, where he began making work about the people and complex territory in the country’s Western Highlands. He uses photography to reflect on the fluidity and abstract nature of identity and territory, and the way power structures and inequality continue through time. Brenner’s photographs have been featured in publications internationally, and his first monograph, Tonatiuh, was shortlisted for the 2019 Paris Photo, Aperture Foundation First Photo Book Award. For the same project, he was a winner of LensCulture’s 2019 Emerging Talent Award. Additionally, he’s a founding member of the art gallery and project space Proyectos Ultravioleta in Guatemala City.

Stay Connected:

Juan Brenner Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/juan_brenner

Juan Brenner Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/JuanBrenner5/

Artist talk with Juan Brenner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPiwQXWUMJ8&t=40s

Juan Brenner’s book Tonatiuh: https://editorialrm.com/en/producto/tonatiuh/

Senior Creative Producer and Host: Jill Waterman

Technical Producer: Mike Weinstein

Executive Producer: Bjorn Petersen

Editorial Director: Shawn C Steiner

Theme Music: Gabriel Richards