Humanist Javier Arcenillas (Spain) has been the first photographer to win the annual FotoEvidence Book Award with his harrowing story Sicarios, about the hired assassins of Guatamala. This annual award is given ‘to a photographer whose work demonstrates courage and commitment in documenting social injustice and violations of human rights.’
Using black and white as his medium to dramatic effect, Arcenillas takes the viewer into the dark world of the hired gun. In a country where ninety-five percent of murders remain unsolved, Arcenillas focusses on a regional problem which haunts Latin America, from El Salvador to Mexico. The book confronts the reader with young assissins, their victims and a country in lament.
Due to the disturbing, sometimes stomach-churning photographs, one could easily misjudge Sicarios as a publication drenched in voyeurism. Admittedly, less harrowing photographs would suffice, but by repeating the gruesome photographs, Arcenillas seemingly wants to put greater stress on the difficulty of violence and impunity.Arcenillas is not only showing the violence, he also puts in a layered social context. His book, therefore, must be considered a work of humanist activism.
To tell the story of the sicarios, the photographer, helped by friends at El Periodico de Guatamala, finds himself in the most dangerous areas of Guatamala, face to face with the hired killers. Often the Sicarios turn out to be youngsters who don’t see a future for themselves. The motivation for a murder is no other than making some money to keep alive. Juan Luis Font, Director of El Periodico de Guatamala, tells about a 14 year old boy who ‘had killed a woman at the entrance of the market. The price for ending the life of a woman, whose only offense was selling chicken meat’ had been ‘around fifty dollars and a jacket’.
Arcenillas portrays the sicarios both as purpetrators and victims. He doesn’t sympathise with them, but through his texts and photographs put things into perspective. The assignments for the killings seem rather arbitrary, but in fact are instigated by invisible forces who use these murders to suppress and create fear among the people. Therefore these murders are being used as a tool of power. As often is the case, extreme poverty is part of the reason for a violent society such as shown in Sicarios.
The most moving photographs though tell the stories of the mothers and families of the victims, who have been left behind. These pictures, often full of symbolism, show the popular outcry against the ongoing violence and injustice in Guatamala’s capital.
When reading Sicarios one wonders what’s the worth of a human life in violent societies as shown through the work of engaged photographers such as Arcenillas. We should ask the clients of the sicarios, but obviously they keep out of sight.
Reviewed by Ben Krewinkel