A woman I photographed a few months ago in Guatemala was killed recently, shot 14 times by someone who hasn’t been identified and will probably not be caught. She was a prostitute and a drug addict. I drank beers with her once as I often do with people who live in the so-called sub-mundo. I never even knew her name. I took her picture and that’s all.
I’m not going to wax poetic or try to turn some clever phrase to make this piece of writing more dramatic or tragic. A woman is dead and it’s a miserable, piss-poor thing to find out about while walking down the street taking pictures.
I know perfectly well that “shit happens.” The world is a rough, dangerous place. There are bad people lurking not only in the shadows, but strolling down boulevards in broad daylight. It’s true that victims are sometimes people who put themselves in harm’s way. But the sanctity of this woman’s life was the same as anyone else’s.
Nor do I live under any illusions. A number of people I’ve photographed are dead, probably more than I know or would care to know about. On one hand, this makes me feel disgusted by the work I do. I did not set out to be a photographer for obituaries of the future. I feel tainted by a hatred and a violence that are not my own.
On the other hand, this kind of murder is an attempt to render a person invisible. Even as I accept (with great difficulty) that other people I have known and photographed will be killed in similarly jaw-dropping ways, I take a real and true pride in these small picture-gestures, which make it absolutely impossible for anyone to rub these people’s memories from the face of the earth. Let other artists manufacture emotion and sell it the way real estate agents sell land. I will do my tiny part to draw attention to this terrible, generalized, global violence against men, women and children. This cannot go on forever. We cannot become an impotent community that says “terrible things will always happen, and oh well, what can you do?”
Monsignor Oscar Romero, gunned down at the closing of a mass in San Salvador, said the punishment for murder was ex-communication, not only from the church, but from the “community of God,” by which he meant the whole world.
“It is the repudiation of an entire community saying to the criminal, ‘You now have nothing to do with the people who walk with hope, who obey the law of God, who don’t want blood, who want love, who want peace, who want reconciliation.’ And this gesture of the community that ex-communicates is without hate, just as the scream that rejects violence is without hate.”
I confess that a killer’s symbolic removal from society under Roman Catholic doctrine doesn’t offer much relief. But when acts of heart-wrenching cruelty happen, we should remember, as Romero reminds us, that we are a society, here to protect each other, and to cast out those who do unspeakable things.
She was an older woman, the kind you might see at a laundrymat, and she was no threat to anyone. Maybe she really pissed somebody off. Maybe she was a killer herself. She was not remarkable or beautiful. She was a mom, daughter, sister, and according to what she told me, somebody’s ex-wife. She never finished elementary school. She took drugs to dull the pain and wretched indignity of having sex with people for the equivalent of about four dollars on a rotting, broken matress in a hotel you’ve never heard of in Guatemala City. I remember she said she hated herself.
Somebody else hated her more.