Juan Brenner explores the culture surrounding a Mayan deity

The photographer’s new series, shot in his home country of Guatemala, examines the modern-day presence of San Simón

All images from the series El Poderosísimo ‘San Simón’ (The Very Powerful ‘San Simón’) © Juan Brenner

For over five years, Guatemalan photographer Juan Brenner has travelled the country’s highlands, documenting the effects of colonialism and war on the life of everyday citizens. In particular, he has focused on themes of ritual, belief and mythology, and how these have changed throughout history.

For his series Tonatiuh (the name of the Aztec sun god), he explored the ways in which the Spanish conquest of Guatemala transformed it into a “complex, segregated and deeply troubled society”; while more recently, in his series El Poderosísimo ‘San Simón’, meaning The Very Powerful ‘San Simón’, he returned once again to the region to understand the significance of this age-old deity – specifically, how it pertains to the country’s contemporary culture.

“Worshipping San Simón, along with other deities like La Santa Muerte, El Rey Pascual, and El Duende, is quite normal in the highlands, where people have a different perspective on syncretism and the veneration of these figures,” says Brenner. “Despite the strong and growing presence of the Christian movement, San Simón’s influence remains very much alive.”

Also known as Monchito, El Abuelo, Tatita and Maximon, the figure of San Simón is said to pre-date the Spanish conquest of the Maya people. With the worshipping of many of their other deities forbidden by the newly arrived Spanish priests, San Simón was given a Western guise by the Maya in order to escape persecution, and as such, was the only deity they were authorised to revere. Dressed in conventional clothing and depicted as having a beard, he is also known for his habitual smoking, drinking and womanising.

In El Poderosísimo ‘San Simón’, Brenner explores the pervasiveness of San Simón, predominantly in the highlands, but also in towns and cities, where he is still present, albeit in covert contexts. The photos show small gatherings and shrines revolving around the figure, some conspicuous, but many secretive.

“City dwellers tend to be more discreet about their beliefs and rituals,” explains Brenner. “I firmly believe that the cult of San Simón is far more extensive and significant than it appears from the outside, and that is one of the most important tasks I have ahead; extensively documenting private situations that prove my point.”

This latest series is the focal point of a new show by Brenner at the Belfast Photo Festival throughout June. Though he insists more work is needed to fully understand the history of San Simón, the current body of work does much to reveal his significance in modern Guatemalan society, hinting at the rituals and reverence that occur on a daily basis.

“My next step in this ongoing, possibly long-term project is to cover as much of the rest of the country as I can,” says Brenner. “It will be very interesting for me to step out of my comfort zone and explore areas I’ve never worked in before.”

El Poderosísimo ‘San Simón’ (The Very Powerful ‘San Simón’) is on display at Botanic Gardens, Belfast until June 30; belfastphotofestival.com