The Local Talent

Reliable, quick-thinking fixers are an invaluable necessity for my work as a photojournalist. As one of the most important contributors to journalism, they understand the cultural nuances and provide deep insight and connections into a region to help me gain intimate access and, sometimes, quickly.  I want to share the story about one of many important IWMF fixers. Meet Morena Perez, 34, a fiercely multi-talented film producer, documentary photographer, sometimes photo assistant (and therapist!) and student of Mayan spirituality, who learned the indigenous Q’eqchi language in her native Guatemala. I have photographed extensively in Guatemala for the last 10 years, but traveled to the country since 2003. This year, through the IWMF, I was fortunate to work with Morena during a four-day reporting trip to the Izabal department in Guatemala for a photo essay on how palm oil perpetuates poverty among indigenous communities.  After graduating university in science communications and social development, Morena founded a creative film collective, Artefacto, with close friends and colleagues in cinema. Today, they produce documentary and institutional films, teach workshops and publish photo books. Morena also frequently traveled to Coban, a highland city in the department of Alta Verapaz, when she worked as a communications strategist for governmental social programs and NGOs. There, she began to understand the detrimental effects of 36-year long civil war had on indigenous communities. And it was at those communities where she learned how to read the Mayan calendar and practice speaking Q’eqchi. Morena’s indigenous Mam grandmother taught her about the significance of traditional Mayan ceremonies, but not the calendar. “When I connected with the Mayan guides they were almost like my grandmother,” she said, who considers herself mestizo, because of her mixed indigenous ancestry. She then decided to learn Q’eqchi, instead of her grandmother’s native language. “When I work and travel, I want to talk with the indigenous people. I was traveling frequently to Coban so I wanted learn.” Morena strives to better understand the reasons why social issues happen within her country. She feels that this connects her to the country’s complex history and to her family’s indigenous roots. “I want to be observing and documenting social issues for my own interest so I am more conscious of the world around me,” said Morena. Her mother was “very independent and very feminist”, who also works with social issues and became a major influence on Morena path towards similar work. “She always pushed me to travel and study, which was very forward thinking in our country at the time,” she said.   When she fixes for journalists, Morena finds that in one day she can discover many contrasts between different emotions and situations while reporting, but the work itself, “it’s the same I do as a producer in cinema,” she said, who has completed three feature films with international crews. Morena’s strongest moment during the IWMF Adelante reporting project was actually celebrating her birthday! “For me to celebrate my birthday is to be in touch with the people in the communities in the mountains, but i found it difficult to stop working because I didn’t know what to do to celebrate me,” she said. “But I learned I can do regular celebration with colleagues too. IWMF had a birthday dinner for me and I feel so grateful for that moment.”

-Lianne Milton