Behind the Lens: A Photographer’s View of Guatemala

Education , Leadership
On a recent learning trip to Guatemala, Girl Up visited programs benefitting girls living in rural parts of the country. In the first part of the trip, Girl Up met girls who take part in joint safe space programs run by UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and PAHO. In the second part of the trip, Girl Up traveled to Chisec, Guatemala to distribute 250 bicycles from the SchoolCycle campaign. Joining us on both parts of the trip was photographer Saul Martinez who captured everyday moments with poignance and shares the story behind his favorite shots from the trip.

Girls who participate in the joint UN safe space program, stand in front of a church in their town of San Andres Xecul, Guatemala. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

I took this image of the girls from the program in front of the church because it is the first thing you see when you enter the town of San Andres Xecul. It represents the heart of the community and is a common central meeting place. The girls had such energy and were excited to talk with us and share how the safe space program has improved not just their lives, but started changing social norms to combat child marriage in the community.

Yoselin, sits at her desk in Los Llanos de los Tuices school where she and her classmates partake in a safe space program that teaches girls about preventing child marriage and adolescent pregnancy. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

The first thing I noticed about Yoselin was that she had a great smile. She sat in the center of the room and was the first to raise her hand and speak about the “Abriendo Opportunidades” safe space program at the school. Like many girls in Guatemala, especially in rural areas where they face many obstacles and difficulties, Yoselin still has such a positive attitude towards life, which makes for a great image.

Two girls at Carrizal Arriba School talk before a school presentation in Huehuetenango. The students are participating in a sexual and reproductive health program run by UNESCO, UNFPA and PAHO, that focuses on anti-bullying themes and self-esteem. UNESCO’s educational materials have been adopted on a national level in Guatemalan schools. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

After I took the picture of these two girls, I asked a little bit about them and they mentioned that they were best friends and they both want to become teachers one day. They were part of a large class that performed an anti-bullying skit as part of their reproductive health class facilitated by a joint UN program at Carrizal Arriba School. They just seemed so happy and natural that they caught my eye immediately.

A Girl Up pin adorns a traditional, beautifully embroidered blouse that is traditionally worn by indigenous girls and women in Guatemala. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Anyone who visits the town of Chimaltenango is immediately struck by the beautiful clothing that women wear. It’s so colorful and vibrant that it instantly catches your eye. One of the girls who spoke to me about her experience as a mentor in UNICEF’s Paz Joven program was wearing a Girl Up pin with the “Tela Tipica” or traditional clothing. It was a visual reminder of the importance of what I was documenting – that these programs are here in remote areas of Guatemala to help these women better their lives and the lives of their families. In my eyes this image combined Girl Up and the experience of the girls we met in Guatemala perfectly.

Luz Marina, 14, rides her bike alone in a field near a primary school in Chisec, Guatemala. She received her bike through Girl Up’s SchoolCycle program. With her bike, she’ll be able to safely attend secondary school and continue her education. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Pecajba School in Chisec was one of two schools I visited with Girl Up to document the bike delivery through their SchoolCycle program with UNFPA. Luz Marina immediately took her to new bike and was riding it in the field near the school within minutes. I took this image because at the moment I didn’t want to forget what conditions these girls have to travel to get to their schools. Even in the best conditions, it’s hot and there aren’t always roads, but the girls were so grateful and excited for a chance to safely get to school. When I look at this photo, I still feel as if I’m there under that hot sun watching.

Girls stand proudly with their new bikes outside of a Pecajba Primary School in Chisec. Girls were chosen to receive SchoolCycle bikes based on how far they lived from school and for being high achievers in their safe space programming, which teaches girls about entrepreneurship as well as programming on ways to prevent child marriage and pregnancy. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

Every girl we talked to who received a SchoolCycle bike was so happy, and it was easy to see that on their faces as I photographed them. The feeling these girls must have had of not only just owning a bicycle, but a brand new one. That feeling of pride and excitement for the future is so clear with their huge smiles that hopefully will continue for a long time.

Girls in Santa Marta school wait patiently to receive their SchoolCycle bikes during a special bike ceremony. The girls spoke about how the bikes make them not just physically mobile, but mobile in their communities to achieve their dreams and move beyond their homes. (Photo: Saul Martinez)

When I arrived in Santa Marta, and saw that the ground under my feet was totally dry and cracking, I immediately thought of the girls and what living conditions they find themselves in. In this photo the girls were sitting inside their classroom on bare wooden benches. A simple shot of the girls’ feet is at once a powerful image and a reminder of the challenges they face everyday. The girls in Santa Marta, and their parents, spoke of their new bikes giving them mobility not just physically as a means to get to school, but mobility in their life choices as they are able to continue their education and choose a future they want for themselves.
To learn more about the work Girl Up does in Guatemala click here.
To see more of Saul Martinez’ photography work, check out his Instagram and Twitter.