The silent killer – this is the name given to the kind of chronic malnutrition that leads to physical and cognitive disabilities, to sickness and death. In her sensitive and expressive documentation about the Mayas, the Spanish photographer, Lys Arango, focusses on the subject of hunger – thus unleashing a debate about social ills.
Hunger is the silent killer. As a photographer, how difficult is it to focus on such a topic?
We have all seen the tragic photos of the impact of hunger and starvation in times of food emergencies due to war or natural disasters. But the image of emaciated bodies is only one aspect of hunger and malnutrition today. The vastest aspect is the number of chronically malnourished people, the people who are micronutrient-deficient, that results in stunting – an irreversible condition that literally stunts the physical and cognitive growth of children. This is a hidden hunger. As a photographer, it is hard to address malnutrition without touching on the clichéd imagery that we have all seen before. So I decided to focus on the underlying causes and zooming in on the daily realities of living in a place where food is scarce.
What was the impulse behind your series?
In Guatemala, one out of two children are chronically malnourished, the highest number in Latin America. Climate change is destroying the crops of hundreds of thousands of small farmers, fuelling a human crisis and creating a new pattern of migration: climate refugees. But instead of following the path of the refugees, I point my lens towards the daily realities of where these people come from.
How did you get close to your protagonists?
I choose to photograph using a fixed lens, as it demands a proximity to my subjects that a zoom lens does not. Proximity, especially among vulnerable populations, is a privilege that must be earned through meaningful consent and trust building. I seek to understand the lives of the people whom I photograph in order to portray them as truthfully as possible. The intimacy I aim to capture through images can only be achieved if people trust me to share their stories; this requires collaboration. This is my approach to visual storytelling, and it allows me to amplify in a dignified way the voices of people who experience hunger.
To what extent does your project also speak about Guatemala, the country itself?
Entire families and communities going to bed on an empty stomach is not uncommon in Guatemala. In fact, it is so recurrent that it even has a name: seasonal hunger. This phenomenon arises during the dry corridor that occurs when the population that depends on subsistence agriculture depletes its reserves. It happens around April, and lasts until the harvest in August. Consequently, just like there is a rainy, summer, planting or harvest season, it is normal that there are five months where food is lacking, and which is being extended due to climate change. Malnutrition is scheduled and inequality becomes natural.
Is your project an appeal for support and attention?
As Jean Ziegler, the former special rapporteur for the United Nations’ Right to Food mandate, said: «The destruction, every year, of dozens of millions of men, women, and children through hunger constitutes, the scandal of our century. Every five seconds a child under ten years old dies of hunger on a planet that is overflowing with riches. In its present state, world agriculture could feed twelve billion human beings, almost twice the current population. Therefore, it is not inevitable. A child who dies of hunger is a murdered child».
The words “millions of people are hungry” should mean something, cause something, produce certain reactions. But, in general, words don’t do those things any more. So I thought that something would happen, perhaps, if we could restore meaning to the words, accompanying them with a visual language. My main intention with this body of work is that whoever sees it, tries to understand, empathize and question themselves.
Petrona, a 10-year-old girl, sits on a wooden bench inside the “chuj”, a Mayan steam bath. She holds a candle in her hands, as electricity has not yet reached her village of Suntelaj. Her family has been rationing food for a week because the reserves of corn and beans are running out. They will soon head south to find work in the coffee plantations, where Petrona has been working since she was five years old. When asked about her future dreams, the girl gives a single answer: emigrate to the United States (Huehuetenango, November 2019)
Minga and her husband on the way to the hospital in San Miguel Acatán. She was on the verge of dying after several hours trying to give birth at home. If she had not gone to the hospital urgently, Minga would have lost all her blood. The precariousness of the health system in indigenous areas endangers the lives of thousands of women and men throughout Guatemala (Huehuetenango, November 2019)
Despite the dramatic subject, you compose your images using the beauty of colour and light.
When I decided to start this project, I asked myself two questions: how to photograph others, those farthest away? And how to talk about misery without falling into miserabilism, when using the tears caused by another’s pain? The theme of hunger is tragic, but Guatemala is also a place of brilliant, vibrant colour and searing light. Colour is an integral part of the world of this Central American country. Working in colour allowed me to explore the tension, the paradox, of a country that can be so terrible, so tragic and yet so vibrant and simultaneously beautiful.
You used a Leica Q2 for this work. What was your experience with it like?
It is a light and compact camera, with a 28mm fixed lens. Considering that I developed the project within the context of a mountainous terrain, where I had to walk long distances, following a population that lives far from new technologies, this camera allowed me to travel light and discreetly. Furthermore, the system’s AF is completely silent. On the other hand, it is a very tough camera, which didn’t give me any problems during the three years I worked in Guatemala, and the level of detail in the RAW files is exceptional thanks to the high resolution of the sensor.
Corn is the common thread that runs through your series.
For the Mayans, the indigenous people of Guatemala, corn is more than just food produce. It is a sacred element within their culture. Maize [corn] literally means, “that which sustains life”. According to Mayan mythology, man was created out of corn, and growing it was a sacred duty. Today, the Mayans who are the guardians of this culture, suffer enormous crop loss due to the effects of climate change.
Three brothers try to learn to read at home with an elder sister’s textbook. They still do not go to school, although they should according to their age. However, two of them are chronically malnourished, which hampers learning ability by impacting cognitive development, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty (Chiquimula, October 2019)
Dora Súchite and her daughter, Tomasa, of the Mayan Chorti ethnic group, peel corn to prepare tortillas, the basis of Guatemalan food. In recent years, climate change has destroyed more than half of their bean and corn harvest, forcing them to migrate as temporary workers to large coffee farms in order to feed their families (Chiquimula, October 2019)
Has this photographic project changed your view of the world?
Hunger has always been the reason for social change, technical progress, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. Nothing has had more influence on the history of mankind. What’s more, no plague is as lethal and, at the same time, as avoidable as famine. So, I share the outrage reflected in the question asked by the Argentine writer Martín Caparrós: “How the hell do we manage to live knowing that these things happen”
Lys Arango is a Spanish photographer and writer. She lives where she works, and is currently based in Paris. A graduate in International Relations and with a Master’s degree in Journalism, Arango develops long-term documentary stories exploring photography, text and sound. Alongside her personal work, she has completed assignments for international NGOs, the UN, and several magazines and newspapers. Between 2016 and 2019, Arango worked in 17 countries deeply immersed in the food crises. Now she tackles humanitarian issues from a new angle, exploring how they converge within a historical and cultural context. Driven by research-led, self-initiated projects, Arango seeks to fully understand the lives of those she portrays, in order to capture them as truthfully as possible. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram page.