15 February 2021

Portrait of a Latin American Conquistador

15 February 2021 - Written by PhMuseum

Inspired by the mythologic figure of Pedro de Alvarado, Guatemalan photographer Juan Brenner offers a personal perspective on the colonial heritage of Latin America and how history pervades the dynamics of the region today.

The conquest is a concept that has been instilled from its origin as a normal and accepted phase of our upbringing, the conquerors were really effective at injecting our DNA with the idea that history and its repercussions are something acceptable and to a certain extent necessary. From very early in this project I felt the need to focus on the figure of Pedro de Alvarado, a key player in the conquest of México and grand conqueror of Guatemala and Central America, as a starting point that defines an immense change in the way our history has developed as a country and as a continent, but also as a figure that has a very real presence in the dynamics of Latin American societies.

I wanted to create metaphors that could communicate with other audiences, there are so many archetypes that unite conquered/colonised countries, many little details that just exist and repeat.

I needed to understand and digest a reality that gets lost through repetition, it’s like a Xerox copy machine, I feel like the toner is running out and it was time to change the cartridge and refresh a bunch of ideas that are just floating around, I felt I had to just put them in people’s faces; no matter how dark and uncomfortable they are.

Just like we have all these parallels between cultures in Pre-Columbian times; gods, war and so many different rites, nowadays we also share very intricate social dynamics, the way most Latin American cities are laid out, the structure of our food markets and even the way street vendors announce their craft is almost identical in many Spanish colonised countries. When you talk about the highlands things get even more intense, the conflict between the outstanding landscape and the conditions people live in, is perhaps the first and strongest feeling you would get. Right after that, syncretism and all the rites practised mostly by indigenous people, a superglued mix of pagan and Catholic rituals that is so mystic yet so casual in the rural area, would definitely jump at your eye; but most likely a general feeling of distrust and a constant undertone of suspicion from the locals is guaranteed, but worst; is expected by the visitor.

The same comparative exercise needs to be practised in all areas and nooks of our modern societies, Lovel, Lutz and Kramer write in their amazing book Atemorizar la Tierra (Terrorise the Land): “stigmas such as corruption and impunity, as well as intimidation and the blatant rejection of the law, all hallmarks of Guatemala to this day, have a fertile progenitor in Alvarado”. These lines are tremendously strong, especially because they apply to every single Spanish conquered/colonised country in this continent.

I might be building my own myth with these photographs, I guess I’m trying very hard to stick to history and to be as precise with my mapping and data, but I had many of these images already planned out in my head, it was amazing to just find them, it was very surreal to just know what I was going to find out there, some of the strongest images in this project are metaphors for something more than what’s depicted, revelling in the otherworldliness of the region and its people inspired by Alvarado’s journey and it’s consequences, just made me more confused between an existent visual sensibility and a malleable political consciousness. I started this project because I wanted to find situations that created a personal connection with the neglected reality of the conquered people.

Words and Pictures by Juan Brenner.


Juan Brenner is a photographer and independent art director living and working in Guatemala City. For more than a decade he has been based in New York where he worked as a fashion photographer, now he is focused on producing social-oriented photo projects. His first monograph “Tonatiuh” was nominated to Aperture’s 2019 “First Book Award”. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram.


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

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