Interview with John Edward Heaton

Interview published in the exhibition catalogue John Edward Heaton : Guatemala (Ediciones Catherine Docter, 2015)

© Patricia de Gramont

Interview published in the exhibition catalogue John Edward Heaton : Guatemala (Ediciones Catherine Docter, 2015)


Jean-Luc Monterosso, Director of the Maison européenne de la photographie, interviews John Edward Heaton

J-LM: You’re a world traveller, a visual anthropologist, a conservationist, presenting an exhibition of images about your “country of adoption,” Guatemala. But in fact, you were born right here in Paris. Can you tell me a little about this?

JEH: I consider Paris my hometown, though most of my life I have lived elsewhere. I was born in 1951 to an American father and a French mother. Much of my early life was spent in boarding school in England, France and Switzerland. But Paris is “home” not so much for living there, but for a sense of belonging. Every time I return, I feel as if I have completed a full circle and just awakened from dreaming my invented life. Like Tintin, all travelers need a Moulinsart—a safe haven that marks the starting point of a journey and the end of a chapter. From an early age, Paris has been mine.

J-LM: Would it be fair to say that you come from a family of adventurers?

JEH: My mother’s family–Genest and Verrier—comes from Normandy and Paris. My father’s side–Heaton and Trowbridge—were shipowners and ocean traders from England. They came to America in the early seventeenth century among New Haven, Conneticut’s early settlers and plied the trade routes to the West Indies, China and beyond for generations. My father, John “Jack” R. Heaton, and my uncles were schooled in France, England and Switzerland, and were accomplished sportsmen by their late teens. In the 1928, 1932 and 1948 Winter Olympics they won 5 medals in the Cresta and the Bobsled for the US. In addition to sports, my father was a traveller: Tahiti in the late 1920s, Brazil’s Mato Grosso and Amazon in the 1930s, a pioneer of Portillo in the Chilean Andes in the 1940s.

J-LM: What first led you to explore Latin America?

JEH: Growing up in Paris, what fascinated me most was either captured in a photograph, in a zoo or in a museum showcase: inaccessible, too dangerous or too fragile to be touched, as if part of some forbidden kingdom. Inspiring tales told by my  father and intrepid mentors like my late, great friend Jean “Johnny” de Caraman unleashed my urge to discover what lay beyond and to craft my life around my passions.

In 1973, at age twenty-one, I travelled to San Francisco to spend time with my aunt and ended up spending three years studying fine art and graphic design at the Academy of Art there. That is also when I took my first road trip to Mexico, an experience that ignited my fascination for wild environments, native communities and different ways of life. It was a breath of fresh air and a far cry from the Avenue Montaigne and Swiss boarding school upbringing. I was captivated and immediately knew I wanted this type of new experience to be part of my life.

J-LM: What happened then? Did you remain in Mexico?

JEH: I returned to Paris in 1976 to care for my ailing father. A year after he left us, I spread my wings once again. I flew to New York and bought a 4×4 jeep, which I lived in for the next three years while exploring Mesoamerica’s roads less travelled. I remember it was New Year’s Day in 1978 that I crossed the border into Mexico and was immediately pulled into its magical realism; the doors of the forbidden kingdoms had flung open, the constrained roamed freely and the untouchable and fragile served their intended purpose in magnificent ceremony and ritual!

While exploring the trails of Mexico’s Pacific coast, for instance, I stumbled upon an isolated fishing village, Caleta de Campo, that seemed idyllic. I befriended two artisanal shark fishermen, Julio and Javier, who adopted me. For the next months, I lived out of my Jeep, braved threatening jaws, ate three meals a day with a local family, and learned Spanish. I furthered my journey, including exploring the magnificent Sea of Cortez. I set up camp for a while—with my girlfriend and a stray lynx we adopted—on one of its deserted islands. Throughout my explorations in Mexico, I connected with artisans, observed ancestral rituals, climbed mounds of ancient stone and absorbed myths and legends. Although I did not quite know what to make of it all, I felt certain that one day it all would serve some purpose. Later that year, my journey brought me to Guatemala.

J-LM: Why did you ultimately decide to settle in Guatemala?

JEH: Quite apart from the country’s intrinsic cultural attributes and stunning beauty, it was its off-the-grid quality that greatly appealed to me. It was raw, mysterious and alluring while detached from worldly norms: a vibrant ethnographic paradise, with an edge. Each land marks you with its first impression; Guatemala felt like a parallel world, terra incognita where time stood still and where one could easily get lost and no one would ever find you…a land of ancient men and smoking volcanoes where the patina of its turbulent history exuded a particular aroma a little like jungle mulch after rainfall. I knew no one there, and no one knew me; in Guatemala each step would be my own. It was adventure pure and simple.

J-LM: What led you to photography and when?

JEH: Catherine, my partner of 12 years, teases that the places I wanted to go did not sell postcards, so I had to start taking photographs. It really probably started in my teens, though, only back then I could hardly call it photography. I began with video, which at the time was the most affordable way for me to capture information. I wish I had put more thought into still photography earlier and had realized that what I was experiencing would soon become culturally extinct. I think I began to take the still camera seriously in the mid-eighties, in tandem with a small video camera; the digital age opened up a new realm of possibilities. At least one did not have to lug film around, lose it or have it radiated when coming back from suspicious countries.

J-LM: Can you tell me about your photographic process? What is the place for spontaneity in your work?

JEH: I rarely stage my images. There is so much to be gained from observing and not controlling. It gets back to my being really curious and wanting to capture the world’s winks, not something I set up or made happen. The most amazing things do happen if you look. I feel one should be able to recognize in real life the world a photograph reveals. A manipulated image may be visually impressive, but will not offer that possibility; the real world does not really look that way. I carry a small camera like a diarist carries his pencil—as if writing visual notes. I am usually familiar with the context or people I set out to photograph beforehand, and as I become part of the decor, my camera becomes invisible to most. I could be holding a flashlight or a bottle of water, it would almost be the same. I respect the people I am photographing, I try to find and portray them at their most authentic selves. And if I am lucky, the magical moment of beauty and light meets and winks at me.

J-LM: How does your work come to terms with the dramatic changes that have occurred in Guatemala in the last decades?

JEH: The changes in Guatemala have been jarring, especially in the past 20 years. Dramatic increases in population, new religions, new economic forces, a huge US remittance workforce, a confused but rabid desire to modernize and participate in the global world. I have seen a very ancient, important indigenous culture stumble and struggle at the doorstep of the 21st century.

Comparative photography (before and after) is a powerful tool to educate those lacking points of reference to understand what they have lost (or are standing to lose). As time passes, images taken decades ago can help preserve what remains. Positive change comes about by offering the best one can, no matter how small, one step at a time.