Spotlight: Carlotta Boettcher Looks at Edgy Guatemala City

By David Schonauer   Thursday August 8, 2019

Carlotta Boettcher was warned about Guatemala City.

After moving to Guatemala a few years ago, Boettcher, a documentary photographer, was told by people that the country’s capital city was dangerous. “I was surprised by the unexpected and numerous warnings I received,” she says, “and I became very curious therefore about what exactly it would be like for me to work in an environment where many Guatemalans feel fearful of hanging out.”

That curiosity resulted in a project focusing on day-to-day life in a city that, as Boettcher notes, “is not a tourist destination.”

“Nor have I yet to see any other photographers with cameras wandering around taking pictures at their leisure,” she says. “Guatemala City is certainly an edgy space, and I intuitively know I need to take care there. I did not underestimate the warnings I’d received. I began with some trepidation.”

The possibilities of practicing urban photography in a place where no one carries cameras outweighed the trepidation, however. “Due to the dangers people had warned me about, there is no current nor extensive visual documentation of Guatemala City in our recent times,” Boettcher says. “This further inspired me to take a fresh look at the place, especially because Guatemalans were not doing it.”

“There are certainly beautiful historical photographs from fine Guatemalan photographers from the early 20th century and through the 1930s,” Boettcher notes. “But so much has changed due to the political upheavals, in particular the armed conflict that convulsed Guatemala for close to 30 years, which officially ended with the signing of peace accords in 1996. The conflict left behind much bitterness, destruction, death,

Her work on Guatemala City was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 7 competition.

“You hardly see anyone at night, the streets are mostly deserted, hardly any traffic,” Boettcher says of Guatemala City. At other times, she notes, the traffic can be “very heavy, with very polluted air from buses giving the city a tarnished, dingy look. There are lots of security guards carrying large weapons in front of buildings and stores. Walls are covered with all kinds of colorful graffiti commenting on politics and many unresolved historical incidents.”

But Boettcher also made what she calls a “wonderful discovery”: Guatemalan artists who live and work in the city.

“Chaos breeds creativity!” she says. “The other wonderful aspect I have encountered is how eager Guatemalans I encounter on the streets and public places are to be seen. They do not shy away. They want their pictures taken, they want to talk with me, they smile! They look at me and into the camera. Children come over and want their pictures taken! There is a genuine sense of rapport and a desire to be seen. I have not encountered this before.”

One of the images from Boettcher’s project (above) was made in a ravine community in part of the city that sprang up when survivors of Hurricane Mitch left their rural villages in the 1990s. “I had been told that they were home to the many gangs or "maras" that exist in Guatemala and that it was extremely dangerous to engage with them,” Boettcher says. “I wanted to see and experience all of this first hand.”

“I am basically a ‘minimalist’ when it comes to gear,” she says. “I travel very light. The camera I have been using is a Leica V-Lux Typ 114.”

Boettcher herself has led a nomadic life. Born and raised in Cuba, she came to the U.S. at age 15 after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. She later studied in Spain and France, where she became interested in photography.

In 1971 she moved to San Francisco, where she lived for 21 years, during which she photographed the city’s cultural and social scene (above). Her images were collected in the recent book San Francisco 70s: Urban Portraits (Blurb). Several years ago she moved to La Antigua, Guatemala.

“I want to publish my work from Guatemala City as a book and print selected images and eventually exhibit them in Guatemala,” she says.


Dispatches from Latin America