Juan Brenner on creative evolution and finding your own path.

Juan Brenner on creative evolution and finding your own path.

Juan Brenner has had many defining moments in his life. Born during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala, he became familiar with life being interrupted from a young age. At 19, Brenner left his home in Guatemala City and bought a one-way ticket to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion photographer. He made a name for himself there, honing his craft and shooting for magazines like Vogue and Nylon before the unrelenting and toxic lifestyle left him jaded and burnt out. He quit photography and returned to Guatemala City. However, it wasn’t long before Brenner longed to make pictures again, but this time, he had a fresh perspective and an entirely new mission.

"When I got to New York, I didn't want people to know where I was from. I was trying to escape my culture," says Juan Brenner. The artist grew up in a hostile time. Guatemala, ravaged by a 36-year-long civil war, was then devastated by an earthquake in 1976 that destroyed the country's infrastructure and killed over 23,000 people. Fantasizing about a creative life, Brenner's instinct was to escape as soon as he could. "I thought there was no such thing as a Latin American artist, and I just wanted to get out. As soon as the war ended, I ran away from Guatemala City to be a photographer in New York," Brenner recalls, "I knew only a few words of English. I bought a one-way ticket and ended up staying for twelve years!"

Looking back, I realise this decision saved my life.

On paper, Brenner found success and the creative output he longed for in New York. Like many photographers, he started hustling, assisting and meeting everyone he could. Eventually, Brenner got an agent and began shooting editorials worldwide for Vogue, L'Officiel and Nylon Magazine. After years of dissociation growing up in Guatemala, New York offered him the sense of belonging he had always craved, but this newfound stability didn't last long. "The lifestyle got to me," he explains. "It all went to my head: the money, power and the partying. It was inevitable that it would become unsustainable, and I started to feel mentally absent. Although I was doing well, I realised I'd never reach the top. I finally decided to go back to Guatemala and take some time out. I eventually checked into rehab. Looking back, I realise this decision saved my life."

Returning to Guatemala was a reckoning for Brenner, who found himself in familiar territory but with an entirely new perspective. Resettling in his home country made him realise he'd been "naive and ignorant" about his roots and that so much of Guatemala's history was untold. After a seven-year break from photography, where he started a design company with his partner, Brenner began to yearn for the medium he had always loved. He returned to his practice with new ideas - the work became deeper and more personal - as it accompanied him on a personal journey to understand his identity while paying "tribute to my territory."

In Tonatiuh, Brenner traces the steps of the Spanish Conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. The tender and unexpected images describe the repercussions of colonisation on the indigenous lands and culture and how it still affects society 500 years later. "Alvarado was so blond and white when he invaded Guatemala, the Indigenous populations nicknamed him Tōnatiuh in Nahuatl," says Brenner while explaining the book's title. "This translates to The Sun." The publication, shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Book Award in 2019, offers multiple readings to create an intimate and complex narrative about the country's past, present and potential future.

by Juan Brenner, Guatemala, City, 2019

Genesis by Juan Brenner, San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán, Guatemala, 2019

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Fascinated by the concept of "Indigenous Power" and what could happen if Guatemala embraced its own is the subject of Brenner's upcoming book Genesis. The project animates the tension between war and peace, survival and loss, tradition and modernity to portray a new phase of life emerging in the Guatemalan Highlands.

"The younger generations in Guatemala right now are creating their own story,"  says Brenner. "They are establishing a dialogue with their contemporaries worldwide, thanks to social media and the internet. They are bringing new vitality to the culture while honouring its traditions." This hybrid culture embraces the visual codes of reggaeton and hip hop music and see's young people compliment their traditional dress with streetwear icons like gold chains, grills, acrylic nails and colourful hair. It signals more than a redefinition of beauty and style; instead, imagining a new set of values and aspirations for living. "I like to think of my work as the B-Side of Guatemala," says Brenner. "It's a surprise that no one has heard, but it turns out to be much better than the single."

Control over my images is really important. Over the years, I’ve had many issues with copyright, and I’m interested in the trackability that Web3 offers.
by Juan Brenner

After a tumultuous journey, Brenner is entering a new phase of his career rich with wisdom and self-assertion. As an artist, his work is now distinctly his own, something he feels strongly about protecting. "Control over my images is really important. Over the years, I've had many issues with copyright. Bloggers and organisations have taken my work and put it into a different context or twisted its meaning. I have a photograph of many girls and women swimming in thermal springs that is often stolen and used to visualise women's freedom, but it's actually about colonialism and white tourists swimming in Guatemala's sacred waters. This violation deeply concerns me. In this era of Instagram and TikTok, people think images are expendable and can take whatever they find. I'm interested in the trackability that Web3 offers and how you can trace ownership."

Coming from a traditional photographic background, Brenner is excited by the potential of NFTs to push him out of his comfort zone. "I've been interested in it since the beginning - especially as it offers a new idea about what an image could be. I'm into slow photography; I've always shot film and worked on long-term projects. I'm excited to explore the photograph as a digital object and think about what new markets could open up through shared ownership."

As Brenner embraces his mission to document Guatemala's emerging Indigenous power, his journey offers an essential lesson for all creatives to trust their gut and make space for self-compassion. An artist's life is never a linear journey and rarely lands where you initially imagined - while Brenner's story embodies this struggle, it also illuminates the power and liberation born from following your own path.

Sculpture/ Juan Brenner, Guatemala, City, 2019
The Ravine, the Virgin, & the Spring/ Juan Brenner, Guatemala, City, 2019

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