Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Moller studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and received a BFA from Tufts University. He resides in Denver, Colorado, where he is working on a book that pairs his photographs with testimonies of the repression and violence against indigenous people in Guatemala.
As a photographer and human rights activist, Moller has spent seven of the past eleven years in Central America. One of his photographic projects from that period is El Salvador in the Eye of the Beholder. In Guatemala, he collaborated with human rights organizations supporting uprooted populations and photographed the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries with a forensic anthropology team.
Moller’s photographs have been widely published and are in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, among others. Refugees Even After Death: Photographs of Exhumations of Clandestine Cemeteries in Guatemala, funded by the Daniele Agostino Foundation and Amnesty International, is currently touring the United States. A duplicate show is touring Europe.
Moller received the Fellowship Award from the Society for Contemporary Photography in 2002 and the Henry Dunant Prize for Excellence in Journalism in 2001. Moller’s first book, Our Culture is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge and Healing in Guatemala, was published by powerHouse Books, New York, in September 2004. The Photo District News (pdn) Photo Annual 2005 chose it as one of the 25 best photography books of 2004.
Moller is currently working on a project in Peru with the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) photographing family members of the disappeared and exhumations of clandestine cemeteries, as well as a long term project photographing people in transit. His ongoing project in Guatemala with the educational edition of his book Rescatando Nuestra Memoria (together with a separate teachers’ guide and an interactive CD version) continues into its fourth year; the project is formally known as the Educational Program Recovering Our Historical Memory for Civic Education and a Culture of Peace (original name in Spanish: Programa Educativo Rescatando Nuestra Memoria para la Formación Ciudadana y Cultura de Paz); to date 29,000 books, 13,500 teachers guides, and 2,500 interactive CDs have been printed and are being distributed for free and put to use in Guatemalan schools, universities and communities.
Between 1993 and 2001, as a human rights advocate and freelance photographer, I worked with indigenous Mayans uprooted by Guatemala’s long and brutal civil war. Spending much of my time in rural areas, I supported the country’s displaced and refugee populations in their struggle for basic rights. Most recently, I collaborated with the Catholic Church’s Office of Peace and Reconciliation’s forensic anthropology team, documenting the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries.
My work focuses primarily on the communities that emerged from the army’s violent repression of the civilian population in the early 1980s. While tens of thousands of indigenous peasants spilled across the border into Mexico, others fled to remote mountain and jungle areas where they formed highly organized, self-governing Communities of Population Resistance that silently resisted army control and extermination. These communities remained in hiding until the mid-1990s, during which time they were accused by the government of being guerrillas and were hunted by the army. The United States Truth Commission concluded that the United States trained, aided and directly supported the Guatemalan military in their genocidal counterinsurgency campaigns against civilian populations.
After Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended with the signing of the Peace Accords in late 1996, entire Communities of Population in Resistance migrated from their mountain and jungle refuges to new regions, having negotiated property rights with the government or purchased land with support from Catholic charities. Visiting these newly settled communities in 2000, I began to photograph the people and their tenuous circumstances.
Six years after the signing of the Peace Accords, the country continues to experience a culture of impunity, violence, poverty and exclusion. Guatemala’s civil war led to the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 civilians; hundreds of thousands of others became refugees or displaced people. By the army’s own account, more than 450 villages were wiped off the map during its five-year scorched earth campaign; massacres of women, children and the elderly occurred on a regular basis. As the country moves toward peace, survivors of the war, including the Communities of Population in Resistance, seek the remains of their loved ones who either disappeared or were massacred. Exhumations allow the survivors to begin healing and, as the truth emerges, even seek justice.
My photographs illuminate the strength and dignity of these people, document the atrocities that occurred, and depict the story of the repression and unspeakable violence suffered by the majority of indigenous Guatemalans.
Ten years ago, in those profoundly beautiful mountains and jungles, I married my passions for photography and social justice. I hope that this work speaks to my vision as both an artist and an activist, and especially to the lives of those in Guatemala who survived and resisted death and exploitation and who continue to struggle for their land, their basic rights and their culture.
—Jonathan Moller, January 2003