I get a lot of IMs. And lately a number of them come from a Spanish photographer named Ofelia de Pablo—“Hi Lauren” will pop up a few mornings a week. I look forward to these messages since I am just getting to know de Pablo, who I met (virtually) through my research for Women Under Siege. A couple months ago, I found myself repeatedly clicking to stare at a couple of photos of wizened Guatemalan women in The Guardian by de Pablo and her photo partner, Javier Zurita. After looking up more of their work and wanting to know more about these two photojournalists, I contacted de Pablo.
It turns out that the two are exploring many of the same issues as Women Under Siege and have been traveling the world to record images of the survivors of not only the Guatemalan genocide, in which more than 200,000 people—mostly Mayans—were killed, but also the Congo’s. I recently asked de Pablo and Zurita for permission to print two of their photos here and to talk about each. Here’s the first photo, which shows members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropologist Foundation (FAFG), directed by forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli:
De Pablo explained that these workers are carrying some of the remains of thousands of bodies found in one of Guatemala City’s mass graves in the Verbena Cemetery. It seems that during the 36-year Guatemalan conflict, the government used the cemetery’s missing persons’ mass graves to hide the bodies of those murdered for political reasons, mixing the bodies with 10,000 of the unclaimed missing.
Peccerelli, who de Pablo said suspected that the cadavers of an entire generation of the country’s intellectuals were hidden in the cemetery, is working with his team to compare the dug-up DNA with that of the victims’ living relatives to figure out who is where.
I asked de Pablo and Zurita what it was like the day they took these photos. How do you aim your camera for hours at human remains and smell graves and know that these were once living, throbbing bodies, people with families and jobs, heartaches and thoughts? Did she feel pain while doing it?
“When you work in places like this, surrounded with horror and dead bodies, we focus on the photo and on the proper light,” de Pablo said. “Our mind is on the picture. It sounds difficult, but you have to focus your attention and push out any other thought. You are in debt to these victims; the more you do the more you help these people.”
But focusing while taking photos doesn’t erase the possibility that the work will haunt you later, she said.
“After shooting the pictures—depends on the situation—you start to think about what you have seen,” she said. “If you don’t know your personal boundaries, it can eat you up.”
The photographers, as I said, have worked in Congo as well, also with a CSI team. Comparatively, however, Zurita said he has “never found people as sensitive and human as these guys” in the photo. The forensic workers they met in Guatemala “have tremendous respect for their work, for the victims, and their relatives. They have to find a special balance between death and life to continue day after day with their job. Somehow we have the same unstable feeling, since there is a balance between the stories we tell and our own limits.”
This brings me to the other photo I asked the two to talk about:
Seen here is a woman named Maria, who “sticks close” to her granddaughter, at right, according to de Pablo. This was one of the photos that mesmerized me in The Guardian—I wanted to ask the photojournalists about it.
Zurita described Maria as “one of more than 100,000 victims of mass rapes and genocide during the conflict in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.” That number comes from the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission. Unfortunately, however, for the survivors of rape in this conflict, there has been little truth told so far, and no reconciliation. While the Spanish National Court has declared the killings “genocide,” there has also been no justice for the staggering number of victims of sexualized violence. At least de Pablo and Zurita have documented that they exist.
I asked de Pablo and Zurita where this photo was taken exactly and to describe the moment they captured:
“We were in the Quiché department, north of Guatemala City, where the green cornfields and the colorful markets conceal one of the most macabre secrets of the country’s history,” de Pablo said. “We arranged to talk with some of the witnesses in the genocide case. These women are some of the brave survivors who have decided to face down the government and accuse the guilty. Maria was telling us about how she was tortured and her husband was killed by soldiers.”
When Maria finished speaking, de Pablo said, her granddaughter hugged her tightly. That is the moment seen in this photo.
I asked how the photographers feels about the image now.
“To us it represents hope,” Zurita said. “It’s the power of the new generation and the old generation together. After we took that picture, Maria turned her face toward us and said, ‘I hope our efforts will stop this from ever happening again.’ This is her only reason to survive: She wants to bring a new future to the new generation, to her granddaughter. She knows that, thanks to their testimonies, the women who face rejection for speaking the truth, women all over the world who suffer from such horror, may at last become visible.”
You can scroll up and look at Maria’s face again. She’s visible.