El Sistema (2014)
On March 19th, 2014 I returned from a three-week photographic journey to Guatemala. I traveled to document the work of Sistema de Orquestas de Guatemala (SOG), a non-profit whose mandate is to create a network of new symphonic orchestras which offer free classical music education for the country’s youth. This mandate resonated with me. Guatemala is utterly torn-apart by violence and the fellowship and discipline of learning classical music brings hope, self-esteem and the joy of culture to the lives of thousands of children who so desperately need it.
During my trip, I photographed three different orchestras. The first was located in the small agrarian town of Santa Cruz de Balam Yá. This orchestra was founded ten years ago by local musician and farmer, Edras Nehemías. Maestro Nehemías manages to finance this orchestra solely from the proceeds of his yearly crop of vegetables. My second destination was a rural orchestra in a larger town. This orchestra has 50 musicians and functions under the auspices of the City of Carchá in Alta Verapaz. Before earning the sponsorship of the city government, a core group of five musicians sold home-made burritos from backpacks in the local marketplace to pay for instruments. My third and final destination was also the largest orchestra I documented, some 70 musicians strong. It is made up of students who attend San Judas Tadeo school in the crime-ridden and embattled neighborhood of Santa Fé in Guatemala City. For several months, this Catholic school has been under siege by local gang members who are trying to extort money from the school. On several ocassions students and teachers have been fired upon. The school perimeter is surrounded by razor wire and armed guards.
“El Sistema” is particularly interested in how the turbulent political life of Guatemala collides with the didactic project and impacts the country’s youth. However, it is also a testament to the spiritual force of music and how its practice helps elevate humanity above its sometimes desperate condition, bringing hope and light to a broken-down society.