Argentine photographer Walter Astrada’s stark photograph of a murder scene in Guatemala won first prize for ‘contemporary issues (singles)’ in the World Press Photo Contest 2007. It is typical of his gritty, unflinching images.
Maria Esperanza Gutiérrez, her body shown directly from above, had been killed by 16 bullets fired by an unidentified man. This crime, in the outskirts of Guatemala City, was part of a rising wave of attacks against women that came to be known as ‘femicide’, a phenomenon the photographer has been recording over the last couple of years.
Astrada is no stranger to death and disaster, having worked for news agencies across Latin America and the Caribbean throughout his career. This included a period in crisis-stricken Haiti following the expulsion of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Astrada, who now lives and works in Spain, took time out from his recent visit to Buenos Aires to talk to The Argentina Independent about his work.
Why did you choose to begin your project about violence against women in Guatemala?
I wanted to do a project about violence against women in Spain, where I currently live, but when I began to read reports, Guatemala had the most alarming figures for femicide (the assassination of women because they are women) in Latin America, and at international level only Russia had higher figures.
How did you get access to the situations that you photograph in Guatemala? Did you work with the police?
I didn’t have many contacts but those that I did have were very good. The main contact was the Guatemalan women’s associations, who, among other things, gave me access to the only shelter for female victims of violence. Another contact was the diputada (female official) who facilitated access to the Public Ministry where the women make their reports. Also I was in contact with the press office of the fire brigade that informed me when there were cases of dead bodies appearing.
In particular, how did you take the photo that won the World Press Photo prize?
My contact at the fire brigade called me by phone and told me that the body of an assassinated woman had appeared on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Automatically we headed towards the scene of the crime with the taxi driver with whom I had been working throughout my whole time in Guatemala. I was able to take this photo thanks to some neighbours who gave me access to an abandoned house which was situated directly over the body. I spent five hours up there – two hours until the experts from the Public Ministry arrived and three hours while they did the tests.
Previously you worked in Haiti, when it was suffering a state of crisis and collapse in 2004 – how did that feel?
At that time I was working for AP in Dominican Republic (DR) and as Haiti and DR share the island of Hispaniola I was the first photographer that they brought to cover what was going on in Haiti that required support. In the two and a half years that I lived in DR I spent seven months in Haiti, counting all my trips there.
Do you ever feel in danger doing your work?
At times yes – if there are violent situations it’s logical that you are in danger.
In Argentina you covered the fall of President Fernando de la Rua in 2001 – did you just happen to be here? What was this experience like?
At that time I was living and working in Paraguay for AP and as the political and economic situation in Argentina was getting worse, they brought me over to Buenos Aires on the 8th December in order to help with the coverage. As the days passed the situation got worse until the looting and cacerolazos (protests where people banged pots) began, and the president fell.
The coverage was hard because we worked a lot – we got up very early and worked until very late. It lasted almost a month and a half.
Is there a difference between taking pictures in your own country, and others?
For me there is no difference because if someone is suffering it doesn’t matter to me what nationality they are.
Can you ever see yourself coming back to Argentina?
Not for the moment.
What, if anything, do you miss?
My family and some friends.
You began your career as a staff photographer on La Nación – how was your experience there?
It was great because it was my first job and at that time I had no previous experience, so it allowed me to have a lot of contact with photographers who had already been working for a long time. So it was an apprenticeship, and I learned as I worked.
What do you remember most from your travels round Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile?
Before that trip my only travels outside of the country had been to New York, so the reason I decided to do this trip was to be able to get to know more about other countries that were closer to Argentina than the US.
What I got out of the trip was that it allowed me to meet a great deal of people and it helped me to lose my shyness when interacting with other people.
Did this time open up more doors for you?
At the end of the trip, when I was in Bolivia, I made friends with the Associated
Press (AP) photographer there. When they transferred him to El Salvador it gave me the opportunity to work temporarily for AP in Bolivia, and then later they contracted me to work as permanent staff in Paraguay.
When I worked on La Nación I also had contacts in AP because from time to time I took some photos of football and of demonstrations for them.
Your pictures are very natural – how do you get people’s trust? In particular in your series on transvestite prostitutes in Paraguay, how did you get them to feel comfortable with you?
You get people to confide in you by being clear with them about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and why. Also, spending time with people and having empathy is fundamental.
There is one picture which shows a prostitute with a client…how did you get them to agree to have their photo taken?
That was one of the last photos that I took as part of this project because I needed to spend time, almost a year and a half, for them to be able to trust that I wasn’t going to play dirty in taking that photo.
Do you ever feel like a voyeur?
The content of many of your images is very strong – do you ever feel traumatised by the situations you record? Does it keep you awake at night?
They are situations that you never forget and on some occasions you have flashbacks, but they don’t torment me.
Do you find that many media don’t want to print such strong pictures?
Yes, especially when they are photos of people from countries from the North. If the people that appear in those images are from impoverished countries, there’s not such a problem publishing them.
Much of the European press will rarely publish photos of dead people. When do you think it is necessary to print such pictures? Is it ethical?
I think that what is unethical is that people die for things that could be avoided. And often they don’t publish the photos as they don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. In reality, if they used the photos well it would mean that those people would not only feel uncomfortable, but also become involved.
For more information on Walter’s work, visit www.walterastrada.com