During an exhumation in a former military base, a woman showed me a photograph of her husband, disappeared more than 30 years ago. The next day, his body was found in a mass grave along with 12 others. He was wearing the same pants as in the image. In the same grave, one of the deceased had his official identification booklet in his shirt pocket, along with a photograph of his whole family, taken in the early 1980’s in the park of San Juan Cotzal. To aid in the initial recognition of the victim, the forensic anthropologists showed the two photographs to all of those present. A woman recognized her husband in the ID photo and also herself, three decades younger, in the family portrait.
Many, virtually all, of the people I asked if they could show me a photograph of their deceased or disappeared family members responded that they never had any photograph of their dear ones, resigned to having lost the memory of the features of their husband, mother, daughter or brother.
In an attempt to fill this void, a woman took my hand and asked me if I could take a photograph of her with her mother and brother. I let her take me to the spot where an elderly woman was waiting, ready to take the “family photo”. The woman walked away signaling me to wait, and came back a few moments later with plastic bags in her hands. The bags contained bones that the forensic anthropologists had extracted from a mass grave moments earlier and had identified as her brother’s.
I spent several months visiting villages of the Ixil region searching for photos of “their faces”, because I felt it was an injustice to remember them only from their remains soiled by the earth that sheltered them for over three decades. My desire to get to know their life stories led me to submerge myself in the stories told by their family members, who zealously keep their photographs, embracing the memories between their hands, not ever wanting to let go.