In a small, peaceful village in northern Guatemala, a war for preservation is being waged.
The Itzá people of San José de Petén are some of the last remaining descendants of Mayan lineage in the expansive Petén forest, but their way of life is facing extinction. For years, they’ve watched as the environment around them has succumbed to deforestation and poaching. The plants and the animals that call the forest home are dying — and consequently, the Itzá culture is dying as well. Not only do they rely on the surrounding ecosystem to survive, but the lasting impact of colonization has contributed to the loss of the Itzá language and traditions.
Enter the Asociación Bio-Itzá, a local school aimed at preserving the ecosystem, language, and culture of the Petén province. Over the past couple of years, adventure photographer Michael O’Hara has worked with the program and, inspired by their persistence, has begun documenting the efforts of the school and the individuals who lead it. We caught up with Michael to learn more about his work and his experience in the Guatemalan village.
Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with photography?
My childhood was a game of ping-pong between the western and the eastern United States. I was born in Vermont but spent only the first few years of my life there, growing up mostly in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and on the road in between.
My siblings and I always had disposable 35mm film cameras in our hands, but I only started to appreciate photography as a medium for storytelling when I joined my high school newspaper. The editor-in-chief, who was a close friend of mine, saw that I had an eye for photography and convinced me to join the staff. Instagram was released not long after, and I discovered a community of photographers that welcomed me and gave me a niche to occupy. I’ve been committed to it with a passion ever since.
I see you went to Middlebury. How did your time there influence your love for travel, photography, and the outdoors?
I feel indescribably lucky to have been able to go to Middlebury College with the people I did. From the get-go, the community I found there pushed me to be a better person and a steward to both the human-made and natural environments. I’m still close with my first-year dorm mates, with whom I guided backpacking and snowshoeing trips, worked as photo editor for the campus newspaper, and managed the student darkroom. My passions came together naturally with those that I shared with friends and peers, and our social environment was creatively and intellectually stimulating.
While I had arrived at Middlebury with a passion for photography and dreams of medical school, I left with a passion for helping others and dreams of doing so through photography. The place itself and the people that I found there were foundational in this life decision — I think it’s safe to say that I would have continued along a very different path had I gone to school anywhere else.
Describe your artistic process — what are you trying to capture in your work?
Not having studied photography in a classroom, I often feel that my work is a derivative art. I wouldn’t say that I rely on the works of others to create my own original work, but they do play a major role in my creative process. Like many photographers, I grew up with a shelf filled with the golden spines of decades of National Geographic magazines that I could spend days poring over, consuming a seemingly endless supply of some of the best photos out there. Beyond the technical skills, it was really the photojournalists’ innate ability to tell a story that’s succinct — yet incredibly deep at the same time — that intrigued me.
I guess you could say that I have a bit of an archive of photographs mentally available to me at any given time — generally a collection of stills and frames or whole shots of video that have inspired me in some way. There are often times during a shoot when I feel as if I’ve taken a really new, unique photo, only to look at it later and see so much of the influence I’ve received from some of my creative mentors.
That being said, I’m not too concerned with how derivative or how groundbreaking many of my photos are, as long as I’ve been able to accurately and succinctly tell the story of a moment of history in a moving way. So often that comes from simply knowing when — or having the luck and proper timing — to pick up my camera and start shooting.
What brought you to Guatemala? How did you hear about the Asociación BioItza?
For the past 10 years or so, my dad has been teaching university courses in Guatemala. He’s a professor of philosophy, but he’s more likely to describe himself as an environmental philosopher, a title that carries broad connotations, many of which are true… Let’s just say we have some good dinner table conversations.
He co-teaches the course with a fellow professor at Augustana University, Dr. Craig Spencer, to whom we owe thanks for our introductions to the Asociación BioItzá. Long story short, an obsolete travel guide and a man on a motorcycle once led Dr. Spencer off the beaten path and right to the front door of BioItzá.
In 2011, I met Adérito Chayax Tesucun, the son of BioItzá founder, Don Reginaldo Chayax Huex. My Spanish was not nearly as good as it is now, but we got along well and kept in contact online until the opportunity arose for me to join the class in order to help document the course and the people who’d made it. My little project turned into something bigger with a slightly different direction — my focus shifted away from the class itself and toward the cultural preservation for which BioItzá is so righteously fighting.
Can you provide a little background on the project? What are they aiming to do?
The language and heritage of the Maya Itzá people are deeply rooted in their environment. The plants and animals that make up the tropical forest ecosystem are as important culturally as they are to the economy and general well-being of the Itzá.
As a result of colonization and cultural genocide, much of the language and oral histories of the Itzá have been lost, but BioItzá is working to prevent deforestation and poaching while simultaneously preserving as much of the Itzá language and culture as possible.
What was your experience like interacting with the people of the Petén province?
In general, all of the people we met were extraordinarily welcoming and kind. San José de Petén, the town we stay in, is small — it’s comprised of no more than 4,000 people. Since we were essentially the only gringos in town, it was not uncommon for us to hop in a tuk tuk — a three-wheeled passenger scooter taxi shipped from Southeast Asia — only to have the driver take us directly to the home of our host family without needing us to say where we were going. We felt very welcomed into the community, which made it such a unique and special experience.
You say on your site that you were particularly moved while working on this project. Could you elaborate a little on what it was that struck you most?
As I’ve said, the interactions with the people there absolutely struck me. Their utmost willingness to voluntarily self-sacrifice — opening their homes and their own beds for us to sleep in, insisting upon our comfort above their own — was humbling and uplifting. I try to bring gifts for the kids of the host family with whom we stay during each visit, and even they are as selfless as the rest, pressing small gifts of their own into my hands.
I also experienced an emotional connection with the people and with the location when we trekked some 40-plus miles from Cruce a Dos Aguadas to the ruins of Tikal. The act of walking along the same trails and roads that the ancient Mayans and their modern successors have walked for millennia felt incredibly special. It’s certainly easy to romanticize the connection that many indigenous communities and people have to the environment, but to experience it firsthand simultaneously tears down preconceived notions and builds new understanding in its place.
What are some of the main obstacles faced by those involved with cultural preservation?
It’s sad but inevitable to say that one of the biggest obstacles to cultural preservation is the general disinterest of younger generations, the lack of connection to their roots. My purpose in Petén is to help preserve the culture as it stands today. But, it is also necessary for me to understand that I am not there to try to convince these people to do what I believe is the right thing. That is far better decided by and for themselves — my job is to document, not to judge, and certainly not to dictate.
Other major obstacles that the BioItzá community face are the increasingly widespread practices of poaching endangered animals for their meat and their skins, as well as the illegal cutting of rare hardwood trees, many of which are centuries old. The rangers are also dealing with forest fires that otherwise would run rampant throughout the reserve. Many of my friends in Guatemala are currently fighting these fires and working to prevent them from spreading to where they might destroy animal habitat, farmland, and human habitations alike.
Are you planning on returning to Guatemala? If so, when, and what do you hope to accomplish there?
I hope so! I have not yet confirmed my next visit, but I hope to return within the next year or two to continue my talks with Don Reginaldo. Without him, it is unlikely that there would be a movement to preserve the language of Maya Itzá. In fact, without him, it would most certainly already be extinct.
The video portion of my photo story is only a tiny part of the several hours of interviews with Don Reginaldo that I have recorded, and even those barely scratch the surface. Scott Atrán is a linguist who has worked to document the language in a far more scholarly form, so I would highly recommend checking out his work if you’re interested in learning more about Maya Itzá and its intimate ties to the natural environment and the worldview of the Maya Itzá people.
What other projects are you involved with?
I’m actually currently in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the midst of a short solo trip within Western Europe — which, in itself, is more of an indulgence, but I carry my camera and a notebook with me wherever I go!
Another recurring project I continue to dedicate my time to is in Alaska, looking at the many faces of climate change and habitat loss. To date, this has taken me from the tidewater glaciers of Prince William Sound to the alpine rivers and lakes of Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks. In the next few years, I hope to make it up to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska to document permafrost melt and the effects of climate change on caribou migrations across the arctic tundra.
My next big project will take me to Ghana to examine the effects of illegal gold mining on river communities along the Pra River, a major source of drinking water, irrigation, and other daily needs for the towns that lie along it. My colleagues and I hope to tie this project into the more global issue of water sovereignty and the right of access to clean water to which we believe every human is entitled.
But I’ll always have a special connection to Guatemala — people, place, wildlife, environment, all of it. And I thoroughly encourage anyone and everyone reading this to learn more about BioItzá and their mission, to visit, and to learn from the people there firsthand. If you want to get away from the crowds for a more authentic experience in Central America to practice your Spanish, volunteer at the local clinic, help to preserve the tropical forest, and even learn some Maya Itzá while you’re at it, know that there are welcoming homes and some of the most fantastic classrooms imaginable in San José. ¡Vámonos! Or in Itzá; ko’ox!