by Jonathan Blaustein

Let’s be honest: last week’s column was long. The week after I agreed not to mess with the format, I went and added 10 paragraphs to your reading load. Forgive me. (Even my Dad had to read it in two stages.) I thought it was worth it, as the chance to hear from such talented publishers was too good to pass up. But this week, allow me to rectify the situation. We’ll keep it short, just to maintain the balance. Book review only. No rambling personal narrative. (Until next week.)

When I visited New York last Fall, I saw some posters strewn around Williamsburg. Intense and more than a little scary, they advertised a project called “Sicarios,” which was showing somewhere in Brooklyn, I believe. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means Hitman in Spanish. (Or Assassin, if you prefer.) There are a lot of them running around Mexico and Central America, as the skill-set is in high demand.

So when the book ended up in my pile, (by Javier Arcenillas, published by FotoEvidence in Brooklyn,) I was relieved and disturbed at the same time. While I would normally drop into a story about the dangers I faced traveling in Guatemala back in ’99, I won’t go there today. Got to honor the promise above. But the photos in this book offer a stark, black and white vision of the red bloody mess going on down there at present.

Is this book for everyone? No. Definitely not. It’s a collection of gruesome, troubling and poignantly tragic photographs. They’re expertly rendered, and may or may not lead to any sort of social change. But they do, for certain, bring humanity to what is, for many, an abstract Geo-Political problem. The US can swing it’s military dick around the Middle East all it wants, but that doesn’t make the drama to our South any less real, or horrifying.

It was only two weeks ago that we collectively meditated on the concept of suffering with Donald Weber’s new book “Interrogations.” He left much up to the imagination, which was what lent a talismanic power to the publication. “Sicarios” does not. Which is why it’s not for everyone. But for those of you who hunger to stare down the ugly “truth”, this book might offer a sumptuous repast.

Dead bodies, naked streetwalkers, scowling psychopaths, blood trails down the side of a car door, young kids strolling through their perilous reality without a second thought, women crying in hand-me-down American T-shirts (West Virginia- No Lifeguard At The Gene Pool,) barbed wire-topped prison walls, cowboy hats, machine guns, machetes, crucifixes…it’s all there. Does this sound like fun? I sure hope not.

But, if you’ve read any or all of my previous columns, you’ll know that I don’t believe Art must always be pretty. Quite the opposite. Dave Chapelle once did a skit on his show called “When Keepin’ It Real Goes Wrong.” This book pretty much nails the concept. A cycle of violence, once kicked off, is hard to stop, no matter where in the world you live. Some places, as Malcolm Gladwell has mused, have it worse than others. Cultures of revenge and blood lust. Guatemala is such a place.

So let’s end this now, shall we. After all, I guaranteed you a short piece. This book is worthy of your attention. Mr. Arcenillas is laying out the gory bits for all to see. It’s up to you if you feel like looking. I won’t judge you either way.

Bottom Line: Super-hard-core book, not for the faint of heart

To purchase “Sicarios” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


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  1. Depth of content is not always a good thing.
    I think we can be visually gagged by over doses of humanity or lack there of.
    I guess the lack of a provenance of nobility in duty, like we superficially perpetuate with the US military’s own slaughter in the Muslim world, makes this set of images a nice sanitary and detachable view into our dirty neighbor’s troubles.
    Disgust, sympathy, outrage,hey what time is the Kentucky game on. . .

  2. Very interesting book with that touch of truth and realism that’s very rare.

    The style of the images also moves it away from a regular photo journalism book towards daydream nightmare.

    I’m getting the clear feeling that Arcenillas is deeply affected by the ghostly creatures of the sicarios, and at the time hints on their everyday, ordinary roots – a chilling side by side of tale and fact.

  3. Some kind of context might help photographs like this say more than I think they do now. Something like contrasting the images with the other side of the equation–the people up north consuming the drugs. Or even on a different note, comparing the violence directly with the violence of the Conquistadors, gold seekers, rubber barons and other such Europeans that arguably helped set up a culture of brutality (given how long their involvement lasted, and how brutal is was).

  4. @scottRex Ely: It is not a US military slaughter. If it is a slaughter, it is a US citizen-supported slaughter. Were there a draft, you wouldn’t have the war because then everyone would be vulnerable to going, not the current 1% which allows the rest of the country to relax at home, say “Thank you for your service” and pretend they have no responsibility.

    As for long posts, don’t worry about it. Long posts can be interesting. Not everyone’s mind has been google-ized yet.

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