A “brave” class of Western students destined for a three-week stay in Guatemala later this year are getting their feet wet in a unique way.
Earlier in the term Western University professor Alena Robin reached out to Chilean-born documentary photographer Jorge Uzon, who spent five years covering the end of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War and the transition to peace from 1996-2001.
Her students are using photos Uzon shot between ’96 and ‘98 as source material for a virtual exhibit, researching the subject matter and writing reports in Spanish and English. It will be released to the public in April, once she’s edited and marked the work.
Uzon also gave a lecture at Western on Wednesday (March 19) that was open to the public but obviously targeted at the students of Robin’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures course called Community Service Learning in the Hispanic World.
She found Uzon through a web search, googling “art, Guatemala and Toronto,” and the rest is artful history.
“I’m an art historian and I wanted an artistic component for the course,” she said. “Finding Jorge came out of the blue but everyone believed in the project.”
In May, the class travels to Guatemala as part of a partnership with a school there.
“My students say they were unaware of the violence and they’re learning a lot,” she said. “It’s a new thing in academics to provide first-hand experience. The idea is to empower the younger generation to make good decisions and avoid conflicts like Guatemala’s in the future.”
Based in Toronto since 2004, Uzon grew up in Chile during the brutal Agusto Piochet years when as many as 3,000 people were killed and possibly more than 100,000 interned or tortured between his overthrow of the government in 1973 and his stepping down in 1990.
When Pinochet died in 2006, there were still 300 criminal charges against him in Chile, stemming from alleged human rights abuses during his rule and embezzlement and tax evasion in the years after.
Uzon said the oppression of the media and photographers in particular during his formative years form the foundation for his passion for pictures.
“Photography was pretty important to the flow of information,” he said. “It was a way for people to know what was happening behind the (government propaganda), so I became a photographer at the end of the Pinochet years.”
In Guatemala, he saw the chance to expose human rights violations in the way he wished he could have in Chile.
“Guatemala gave me the chance to release this necessity to document these kinds of problems,” he said. “I want people to reflect on what is happening.”
He plans another major project in Latin America next, but hasn’t decided where yet. He’s already documented dramatic social changes in Bolivia under president Evo Morales, opposition to hydroelectric projects in Patagonia, and the Idle No More movement here in Canada.
His experience with the students was a first, an “absolutely great idea.”
“I’ve never seen something like that before,” he said. "I’m very curious to see what they write. They’re great kids, big kids. They’re brave, too, to go to Guatemala to learn, though most of them were toddlers when this happened. The country has other issues now.”
Klaus Hammer is a mature student in the program. He’s travelled to Spanish-speaking countries before, but that didn’t prepare him for Uzon’s imagery.
“Some of the photos were quite shocking,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware of the war, especially what happened to the Mayas.”