Juan Brenner, Untitled , 2021, from the series B’OKO’, City of Walls

After ten years working in fashion photography in New York, Juan Brenner, originally from Guatemala, decided to return to his country and turn his lens on his community, specifically the people who inhabit the Western Highlands.

Brenner’s approach, inspired by his decade of fashion experience and borrowing from traditional documentary techniques, is first and foremost driven by a thorough research that aims at depicting the ever-changing character of the country, its people, and ultimately the artist’s own identity.

After tracing Guatemala’s historical path in Tonatiuh, his first monograph published by Editorial RM, where he observed the ways in which history has shaped the current Guatemalan society, Brenner detaches himself from a mere observer’s attitude and embraces a more engaging way of documenting the current fractures of the territory.

It’s in the project Genesis, featured in Aperture magazine’s “Cosmologies” issue, that Brenner starts researching, as he points out, “the ‘process of becoming,’ the shift and changes of the social structure in the highlands.” And then it’s with the project B’oko’, City of Walls that the artist consolidates his vision and begins communicating, or even denouncing, in a clear and enticing manner, how the territory, afflicted for more than five hundred years, now continues to suffer due to the current circumstances and criminal organizations.

In B’oko’, City of Walls, the series submitted to this year’s Portfolio Prize open call, Brenner shows us his streetwise knowledge gained in fashion photography used to picture the impact of a prison experiment in the Chimaltenango community. As the government decided to transfer more than five hundred members of one of the most prevalent gangs in the country to an unfinished prison in the area, the photographer started to analyze the recent repercussions of this decision.

Commissioned by ASU Art Museum in 2019 for “Undoing Time: Art and Histories of Incarceration”—a group show at the museum in Tempe, Arizona—the project features striking portraits of domestic life and details of the changing landscape. Brenner worked on this series for over two years, facing several challenges, like the pandemic and various security issues.

Describing the prison as a “really gray place, with lots of rusty metal and cinder block,” the photographer focused his lens on the ecosystem around it, the history of the town, and how its citizens were affected by this intervention. Brenner brings us a unique vision of contemporary Guatemalan society, one that mingles the tradition of documentary work with vibrant color palettes and striking portraits, typical of a fashion-photography approach.

All photographs Juan Brenner, Untitled , 2021, from the series B’OKO’, City of Walls
Courtesy the artist

Juan Brenner is a runner-up for the 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize, an annual international competition to discover, exhibit, and publish new talents in photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.