For 36 years, civil war raged in Guatemala, killing as many as 200,000 men, women, and children. Over the last decade, mass unmarked graves have been discovered, laying bare the atrocities of the 1980s. While the government claimed armed rebels were responsible, crimes committed by military and paramilitary groups had long gone unreported.
Daniel Hernandez, an artist and photojournalist who's worked for Reuters and the Associated Press, volunteered to help identify the remains of thousands now being exhumed. DNA testing is expensive and time-consuming, he says, so most of the dead have been identified by the clothes they were wearing when they disappeared. "Many of the family members were witnesses to the murders," Hernandez says, "so they vividly recall what the victims were wearing."
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the country's peace treaty, Hernandez orchestrated the "100 Bells" concert in Guatemala City on December 29, 1997. Using a special score composed by Horenz Barber, 50 musicians rang 100 bells in 20 churches spread across the city at exactly 8:30 PM, causing more than 100,000 people to take to the streets. "People were crying, cheering, and hugging one another," Hernandez says. "I think they liked the concert, but after years of silence they were overjoyed to be together again."
Hernandez continues to help document the mass graves as a way of making sure that history will not repeat itself. He recalls visiting one site where a massacre had occurred years earlier. It took place on a rural farm from which peasants had marched to the capital and demanded two years' worth of back wages amounting to about four U.S. cents a day.
When they returned to the farm, the peasants were tortured, killed, and buried. Hernandez and the forensic team set up shop in the farmhouse. "You could still see the marks on the beams left by the ropes they used to hang the people," he says.
It was during these excavations that Hernandez decided to incorporate bones into his photographic artwork--once they were cleaned and tagged with serial numbers. One of his recent pieces uses a set of scapulae, which looks like a pair of angel's wings, behind three male figures holding their hands over their mouths, ears, and eyes. He hopes this work now speaks for those who cannot.
Hernandez's photos are on view this weekend at the Aldo Castillo Gallery, 233 W. Huron; hours are 11 to 6 Friday and Saturday. Call 312-337-2536.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Daniel Hernandez photo and other uncredited photos.