Ol’ Zachary turned a solid thirty eight about a week ago. Four days after I hit the big four. He can come as hard as he wants, but he ain’t gonna catch me in my old age. Happy birthday to my old little brother.
Yesterday, 30 years after the nightmare, history was made in Guatemala when former Dictator Efrain Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. It is a huge moment. I have spent the last 10 years traveling to Guatemala and trying to document the legacy that the war years left behind. I never thought I would see this day come. In February I spent two weeks in Guatemala for The New York Times, and I made two trips to Nebaj, the center of the Ixil area and the site of the genocide Rios Montt was convicted of. There we met with victims, with witnesses in the trial, and with the organizations assisting the families of victims. I also accompanied Juana Brito as she and anthropologists from the FAFG searched for the remains of her father Miguel Gomez, who was killed by the Guatemalan Army 30 years ago near the village of Xecotz.
I honestly always hoped but never really believed I would see this day come- when one of the worst intellectual authors of the killing would have to answer for his crimes. Last night, the sent Rios Montt directly to prison. Here, a building painted with propaganda for Rios Montt’s former ultra right political party.
Don Tiburcio Utuy was captured and tortured for years. His testimony during the trial was riveting.
Francisco Rivera Velasco wipes the dust from the crypt of his sister who was killed in a massacre in the town of Pexla Grande.
The military outpost of Visan, currently being investigated for clandestine graves.
Army patrol, Nebaj.
A list of towns that suffered massacres in the genocide.
Mayan prayer, Nebaj cemetery.
A noose found in the dig in Visan.
Juana Brito’s brother Pedro Diego holds a handmade cross that marked his father’s grave.
Willy and Renaldo of the FAFG exhume the remains as Dona Juana looks on.
Juana Brito after the exhumation of her father, who was killed by an army patrol 30 years ago.
For the first two weeks of February, I worked in Guatemala on a story about the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for the New York Times. I was paired up with the great reporter Elizabeth Malkin out of Mexico City, and we produced a story about the context of the trial and how Guatemala came to prosecute such a once powerful figure. Thanks to New York Times Foreign Editor Sandra Stevens for the support and the chance. She produced this great slideshow for the story. The trial has been underway for a few weeks now, and it has hit a series of snags, that will hopefully be overcome soon. If convicted, he will be the first head of state ever convicted of genocide, and the first prosecuted in his own country. It’s a huge moment for Guatemala, and a big step toward ending the impunity that is one of the worst legacies of the civil war there.
It was also a big moment for me personally. I got my start taking documentary photographs in Guatemala 10 years ago, and I continue to return. From the start I have been focused on the legacy of the war years and the struggle of the victims for justice. I was in the country in 2003 for the presidential campaign and remember attending the rallies for Rios Montt and his ultra right party, the FRG. They were unnerving. That year I also photographed my first exhumation of a clandestine grave, and made friends with forensic anthropologists from the FAFG. In the years since I have photographed and come to know dozens of the victims of Rios Montt’s genocidal rule, spent time in their villages, listened to their stories.
I have waited, like Guatemala has waited, to finally see him answer for his crimes. It has taken too long, but things have begun to shift. To sit and photograph Rios Montt surrounded by lawyers, under the authority of a judge, rather than at a rally exhorting his followers or at the head of the Guatemalan Congress- for me, it was a powerful experience. What is the quote, the Martin Luther King Jr. one? I think right now, in Guatemala, it rings true. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Here are some outtakes from our coverage in the capital and the court room. More from the highlands in the next.
Mario Vasquez, with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation analyzes the remains of a victim of the civil war at their lab.
Claudia Rivera, Director of Operations of the FAFG, meets with Don Jose Ceto, a leader of a victims organization.
José Mauricio Rodríguez, Rios Montt’s former chief of military intelligence, is on trial with him.
Forensic anthropologist Danny Guzman analyzes a case at the FAFG lab in Guatemala City. I met Danny my first day ever attending an exhumation in Comalapa in August of 2003. We’ve been friends for a long time.
Danny holds a skull exhumed from a village in the highlands that shows multiple machete wounds.
Efrain Rios Montt in the dock at court.
Claudia Paz y Paz, the Attorney General of Guatemala. She is no joke. Moving the cause of justice forward fearlessly.
Gabriela Melendez pieces together the past.
Kate Doyle, right, of the National Security Archive. Her research of military documents has been crucial to the trial.
The prosecution reads out the names of victims into evidence.
Successfully defended my masters thesis at Ohio University this week. More than a year in the making, it was a book of my project on the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Sat in a room for over an hour with my graduate committee Terry Eiler, Stan Alost, and Rebecca Sell and talked about the project, about my process for creating it, and what I hope for it. It was a good time. Thanks a lot to all three for two years of great investigation into what it means to produce documentary photography.
Thank you as well to my class- Matt Craig, Brad Vest, Octavio Jones, Alexandre Mihale, Ty Wright, and Dania Maxwell, a group of brilliant photographers. I learned so much from you guys. We created a hell of a community for ourselves, and the experience of making this work with you all took it further than I could have imagined. Thanks to Bryan Thomas and Andrea Morales for riding along with us too. Congrats to Dania, who defended her project on Dream Act Kids, and Ty Wright, who defended his on a brothel worker, Jade. It was a great experience, and even though I am glad to be done, I know that for this group, it isn’t over.
My good buddies and champion picture editors Becky Hanger and Brad Smith of the New York Times pulled a triple double on the Sports Editing category in POYI, winning first, second, and third places. My story on my grandfather that they ran in November got second. I am pleased as can be to be a part of that win, especially sandwiched between Winter and Heisler. They were great, they did an amazing job wrangling my pictures and the two formats into a great spread. And congrats to Brad, who is moving on from the Times to Sports Illustrated. It will be a bummer not to swing by the Sports desk to chat him up, but no doubt he will do great stuff there, but thankfully Becky is still around for me to talk to.
It was a long cold day, but me and about a million other folks showed up last Monday to see Barack Obama stay the 44th President of the United States. Many thanks to editor Graham Morrison, (Papa Bear,) who led our team of Scott Eells (Eagles Nest,) Dan Acker (Nomad,) Andrew Harrer (Point Man), Christian Loeffler, Farah Shulman (Teal Fist), and Joshua Roberts. It was a tight file, and we got ‘er done. It was fun to reprise the Bloomberg Team from the Conventions.
It was kind of a tough day to make a picture. The crowds were definitely less enthusiastic than I expected. Logistics were tough of course, but that wasn’t it either. It was something in the air that was hard to put visually. I guess a sort of relief that everyone was there again. Four more years. It will be an interesting ride with a complicated guy. Election out of the way, he’s running for history now, for legacy. I don’t think that race will be any easier.
Dwayne Quattlebaum, from Atlanta.
Darlene Rainey, from Maryland.
Nika and Sylvester White, from New Jersey.
Dorothy Brown, from New York City.
Pamela Cullerton, from Illinois.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still…”
Donna Laws, right, and her cousin Rebecca Laws.
Me and some friends just spent some days with our friend Sam. His mother, Kim Hua Flournoy, was shot and killed in a robbery attempt on December 30th, in Jacksonville, NC. A group of friends of him and his sister Kim headed down to help them through it. It was hard. I hate violence. It is the nature of the job that I have to report on it sometimes, or more accurately on the aftermath of it. It is important to do, but it was still a strange reversal to be so close to it personally this time. Here is an article they got together on his mother in the Jacksonville Daily News, (thanks to Mike and Lindell for being so professional.) It is a powerful thing to watch people you care so much about hurt so bad, and at the same time act with so much grace. With you Sam, still.
I lost someone close to me this weekend. Susan Spitz was my first girlfriend, we grew up in Raleigh and met at our church youth group. We dated in high school and for awhile after. She was beautiful, a champion volleyball player, a music fan, smart as a whip, and always down for adventure. I was crazy about her. We stayed close ever after. There would be pauses, sometimes for months and months, then we would get each other on the phone and spend hours. A few years ago she had a bad accident, and her arm was paralyzed. She lived with a serious, debilitating, phantom pain that could not be treated due to the nature of the injury to her spinal cord. She was so tough. When we visited she would try to hide it, or brush it away if you asked.
I made these pictures one day in January 2003, when she came down to visit me in Greensboro. We stomped around in a park in town, had dinner, caught up and enjoyed that familiarity you feel with someone that knows you so well. It was a little while before the accident, and she was studying to be a massage therapist. It was a good couple of days.
Susan took her life on Friday evening. Her brother Bill called and let me know. She left behind her dog Emma and her longtime boyfriend Drew. I know both of them are missing her intensely. Her dad too. The pain she was living with became too much. I think it was impossible for some of us that knew her to really get how much she was suffering. We thought we had an idea of it, but no. We would talk about it, and I would insist there had to be some kind of solution, as if she wasn’t spending all her time trying to find one herself. She saw doctors and psychiatrists for years, but no one could solve the pain. Sometimes we exhaust people trying to fix things that can’t be fixed.
I am not sure how to miss her yet. I fear that I will figure it out. She was one of the great ones, and the things she had to live with were not fair, and they were more than just about anyone could bear. I loved her so deeply, for so long. Like a lot of folks, I always will.
My project on my grandfather Dick Taylor and his life in harness racing ran in The New York Times last Saturday. It ran in the Sports section and got a really nice two page spread inside. Thanks to Sports picture editors Brad Smith and Becky Lebowitz and Sports Editor Joe Sexton for getting behind the project and giving it such a great display. It was the best possible home for these pictures, and it was pretty exciting for me. Even if this one is about my own grandad, it still feels like a continuation of how I see my role as a photographer- to tell the big, resonant stories in the lives of everyday folks. I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue doing that in the Times.
The piece also ran as a feature on the Lens blog, where Lens editor David Gonzalez gave my writing some serious spit and polish, thanks as well.
I took my first pictures of grandad Taylor on the farm when I went to live there for some months back in the winter of 1999. I wore the same pair of old skate shoes every day in the barn that winter, and the same quilted jacket. My friend Chris Duncan saw the photos I made then, and asked me to be in an art show he put together. It was the first time I ever showed my pictures in a public context like that. It took a long time and a winding route to make it back to the farm to take pictures. When I was going to Ohio University the last couple of years, I used the opportunity to start photographing him again. I made a short documentary about him, and then started making regular trips there to photograph. After awhile I started taking less pictures, and spending more time clearing weeds, cleaning up the barn, hitching horses. But the slower I worked, the better the photos got. It’s crazy how much I enjoy photographing there. When I show up, usually at night, first thing I do is walk into the barn and flick on the light to go see the horses like I did when I was little. The smell of them always hits me first- warm and slightly acrid, their sweat and manure and the straw dust that clings to them works it’s way into your clothes. I like the rhythms and the pace of the days, for me the smallest activities become events - him yelling up the stairs to make sure I am out of bed, the morning light shooting across the pasture into the kitchen, drinking murky tea and eating peanut butter on toast, the morning news shows. The main event is hitching and training in the morning- combing brushing picking out hooves, trying to remember how the harness goes on, giving the filly a bath and cooling her out after training. Then sitting in the living room all afternoon, both of us pretending to read while we doze off. Getting up to feed and bring in the horses in the evening. Drinking some beers and watching Charlie Rose on PBS.
Every time I go back, he reminds me that my shoes are on the steps and my jackets hanging up in the stairway, 13 years later.
My aunt Ellen that lives on the farm near him got the paper on Saturday. She played it sly, brought it in and tossed it on the couch, told him she heard that Vic had something in it today. He started thumbing through it slowly, page one on back. She tried to hint him along, “I think it’s somewhere in the middle.” She said when he got to the sports section and read the tag line, “The Life of a Harness Horseman,” he got the slightest grin on his face, then opened it up to a spread of pictures of him. Later he told her,”I am overwhelmed by my exposure.” Ha. Here is the piece that ran in the paper…
Horseman Builds Career on His Terms
By Victor J. Blue
I spent election day down in Ocean County New Jersey, to see how folks got their voting done in one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Teamed up with esteemed reporter Wendy Ruderman and we started the day out in Bay Head, then followed the mobile voting bus out to Seaside Heights, and finished up at a polling place operating with generators in Silver Bay. Thanks to the excellent Cornelius Schmid, NYTimes elections photo editor, for sending me down, the Times coverage of the day was hands down as good as it comes. I was on my way back into town to watch the returns with Dolores at the Times when NPR called Ohio, then the whole thing for Obama. I couldn’t believe that it was over so fast. I switched gears and headed up to Harlem to see folks pour into the streets, chanting “Four more years.” I guess they earned it. Above, Dr. Terrance Coleman hugs Roberta Burcz after seeing her for the first time since the storm after they cast their ballots at Bay Head Fire Co. No. 1.
New crews on disaster tour- Ortley Beach.
Election worker Nancy Colavito helps Amanda Rahn cast her ballot in a temporary shelter at Toms River North High School.
Just finished two days on the Jersey Shore covering the elections in the storm damaged areas for The New York Times. I was in Ocean County, one of the counties hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the beach communities were destroyed there, and they had to consolidate lots of polling places. I started there on Monday, running around from the Board of Elections out to following this mobile voting unit as it made a stop at one of the Red Cross shelters in town, then back for more early voting. And after all that, Dolores calls from the photo desk and says I have to high tail it up to Brick township to see some trick or treaters, going after the glory a week after Halloween got canceled. I guess in Jersey, they make sure they get theirs.
They had to cancel halloween because of the storm. So on Monday, they had kids trick or treat in a parking lot in Brick. Good fun.
Last Sunday a piece I worked on with Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir about Roosevelt Avenue in Queens was the lead story in the Metropolitan section of The New York Times. It was good to spend some time shooting the story and have the chance to return a few times and understand it better. The story centered on the intractable forms of vice that can’t seem to get sorted out along the avenue, among them prostitution and false document mills. It’s been cleaned up considerably since the 1990′s when it was the dark labyrinth of brothels that one of our guides, a 40 year old woman that was once trafficked on the avenue, recounted to us. Nowadays it’s mostly taco trucks, two-dollar dance bars, and cheap stores. Thanks to Metropolitan editor Niko Koppel for the time and great editing. Here are some pictures and some outtakes from the piece.
Otto Perez Molina presidential campaign rally, Guatemala City, October 2011. From the series “The Return of the General.”
I am excited to be included in the catalog and exhibition EsFotoPeriodismo_12 in El Salvador this month. It’s a yearly collection of photojournalism from the region by Central American photographers as well as foreigners who work there a lot. You can click through this years catalog here. There is some great stuff by photojournalists (and homies) Rodgrigo Abd, Daniele Volpe, Moises Castillo, Luis Soto, Jorge Dan Lopez, Saul Martinez, Juan Carlos, Lisette Lemus and Johan Ordonez. They have a big exhibit at Foto Cafe in San Salvador every year, that one day I hope to make it to. I look forward to seeing this catalog each year, it does a great job of showcasing a lot of important stories by really good photographers in a region that most of the world just doesn’t care about. Keep fighting guys, la lucha sigue.
El Diaro de Hoy, San Salvador, 9/08/2012.