Guatemalan Maya women posed for photographer Tom Cogill in their village community center where the walls were painted with images and people’s names from the civil war they had endured. Cogill, who lives in Charlottesville, says the legacy of the war was ongoing in their lives: although usually reticent, they wanted “to share their experience of suffering and endurance.” His photos are on exhibit in the University of Virginia’s Brooks Hall Commons, open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Brooks Hall houses the College of Arts & Sciences’ anthropology department.
In Cogill’s description of the exhibit, which he previously showed at Piedmont Virginia Community College, he writes:
During many trips to Guatemala between 2001 and 2011 it had become obvious to me that the war was still an enduring force in people’s lives. Although a treaty had been ratified in 1996, the legacy of the war was ongoing in grief, anger and distrust.
Communities of Popular Resistance (CPRs) were indigenous Maya communities presumed by the military to have close ties with guerrilla forces. As such, these communities were singled out for persecution and even extermination. Those that survived were driven into exil in remote regions of the Petén, Ixcàn and Chiapas. They lived in semi-permanent camps, always under threat of pursuit, and suffered hunger, exposure and disease. During this time they also learned to rely on one another, and formed strong communal structures for food production, child-rearing and self-government.
One such CPR, a community of 80 families returned from exile in the Ixcàn in 2002 and resettled in a former coffee plantation called Union Victoria. Their desire for self-reliance had led them to reach out to Central American Solar Energy Project to learn and use solar ovens for cooking.
Bill Lankford, who founded the Central American Solar Energy Project, colleague Laura Brown and Cogill arrived in Union Victoria in 2010 to talk with a group of women about the benefits of solar ovens and to answer their questions about how CASEP operated.”
Cogill recently elaborated on the trip, saying the first time the project went there, men of the village were taught how to build the ovens, but when they proudly presented them to their wives, the women said, “What’s wrong with the way we’re cooking now? You don’t like our cooking?”
Lankford and his team quickly realized they should have involved the women who would actually use the equipment, and so they taught them how to build the ovens – and why. The project has become an empowering activity for women, Cogill said.
The photographer had a different learning experience among the Maya.
“While they discussed it among themselves, I wandered around the village and into their community center. A combination of school, meeting place and performance hall, its walls were painted with depictions of the war and with lists of the heroes and martyrs from the community. It was a moving memorial. When the women had finished their discussions, I asked them if I could photograph them in the room. They readily agreed. I gave them no direction except to choose a part of the room that had a special significance for them. These pictures were the result of that visit and another, longer, stay the following year.
“The quiet eloquence of the Guatemalan Maya has never resonated with me more powerfully than during those days in that room. They want to share their experience of suffering and endurance; they want to record it for their grandchildren to know. I have been photographing people professionally for the past 35 years, and on the occasion of these pictures I had to brace the camera against a chair to keep my heartbeat from shaking the camera.”
Environmental portraiture – Tom Cogill photographs people in ways and places that express what they feel, what they do in the world and who they are. “The way is rapport,” he says, “and the places include laboratories and landscapes, offices and operating rooms, classrooms and coal mines, Guatemalan villages and Kenyan health clinics.” It is used in magazine stories, advertising, education and fundraising.