Documenting Honduran Youth Looking to Reclaim Their Lives
Visual storyteller Tomás Ayuso, a native to Honduras, has used his lens to draw attention to a narrative that has eluded mainstream media.
Blink’s Kyla Woods spoke with photographer Tomás Ayuso, winner of Festival Errante’s Portfolio Review Prize and the recipient of an award sponsored by National Geographic, about the importance of photographing youth in Honduras, the challenges that he faced and solutions that could help to deter susceptible youth from joining gangs.
KW: How long have you been documenting youth in Honduras?
TA: Since 2009, I have witnessed the violence escalate. Around 2014, when the violence in the cities was at its worst, the foreign coverage given as to why Honduras had plunged into such butchery was, in my opinion, superficial at best. At worst, it didn’t appear that people seemed to care that this was happening.
Why was this happening in Honduras? Why was it mostly the youth dying? I embedded myself in the gangs to answer these questions. What I discovered was that most of the people being killed were minors caught in the crossfire or fighting between themselves. And many who weren’t killed, were fleeing the country to save their lives –– most headed towards the United States.
I then realized that the right to grow old in Honduras had eroded into nothing, and that the younger generations were going to do whatever it took to survive these simultaneous crises ravaging the country.
KW: What drew you to this particular subject?
TA: The Right To Grow Old is a chaptered project that looks at the different ways Honduran youth are ensuring that they live. One takes place following migrants through southern Mexico, another with Hondurans living in the undocumented shadows of the United States. I wanted to show why young folk are leaving Honduras. To start, I chose to show how the putrid mix of violence, corruption and dispossession has transformed one neighborhood into a killing field.
KW: May you talk a bit about the title — A Right to Grow Old? What is the average life span of a gang member?
TA: Gang members aren’t long for this world. The saying goes that if a gang member is over 25, they’re already OGs. There are only two ways out: joining a church and devoting their life to God. Or, death. There are no other ways.
The title, however, A Right To Grow Old, refers to Honduran youth as a whole. I believe that in a country besotted by violence, corruption and dispossession, and that the youth have been disproportionately hit. This has forced many to find different ways to survive the chaos wrought upon the country.
For some, its migration. For others, joining a gang. But, for the majority, it is in suffering and resisting the madness. Whatever the case may be, Honduran youth are in a fight to reclaim their right to life; a universal human right that has been decimated over the past ten years.
The project itself looks at how different subsections of Honduras that are doing just that.
KW: Can you speak about some of the challenges you faced while documenting these youth?
TA: There were some risks in telling the story. However, through the help of a local community leader, I was able to navigate the mine fields.
For instance, he helped me contact the boys. From there I entered the paranoid, suspicious, and pressurized world they live in. I had to persuade the gang leadership and, really, the whole of the community that I meant them no ill will. It took some time to earn their trust, but eventually we were able to connect and build a bond.
The threat of violence is always pervasive, and I look for the boys’ cues to make sure we were in the clear to chat and work. This was the only way to go behind the harsh exterior and understand the boys’ and community’s particularities.
KW: Can you speak about the difference in relationship between family members and the companionship of gang members?
TA: Gang members themselves foster a camaraderie as “brothers in arms”. They go through training so to speak, cross milestones and undergo rites of passage, until they’re reborn into their gang persona. They also adopt a new name and mostly sever ties to their previous life.
Whereas, the biological family remains family –– if they have family. Many of the boys are product of broken homes, destroyed by violence or migration. They might not have much in the way of biological family. For some joining a gang fills the void left by their absence.
They don’t often say why they choose to join gangs, but one time a boy let his guard down and gave me some insight: His mother was a sex worker who worked out of their single room shack. One day, the boy happened to be asleep in the home while the mother was visited by a client. When he woke he thought she was in danger and went to his mother’s succor. The mother, upset at her son’s interruption, grabbed him and shoved him to the street, warning him if he ever showed again she’d “get rid” of him.
He drifted until he met a gang strongman who promised him they would be his family.
KW: Can you speak about Moises — why is he particularly susceptible to becoming a gang member?
TA: Moises is at a difficult juncture of his life. He has dropped out of school, and he is his father’s apprentice as a bricklayer.
His neighborhood is cross-stitched by the many front lines of the many concurrent gang wars in the city. Even as a non-member, he is persecuted by the police and often at times beaten to force a confession or squeeze intelligence about his neighborhood. Outsider gangs who conduct raids on his neighborhood looking for their rivals have seen Moises caught in the crossfire.
Though many of his childhood friends have been caught up in gang violence, he has resisted––but has considered it. He could protect his neighborhood, he says, even though he knows gangs do more than that. The reason he hasn’t joined is due to his father’s strong opposition. Going so far as to tell him that if he chooses the gang as his new family, he’ll lose his real family.
But his father has another idea: leave this country that’s become a nightmare and try to start a new life somewhere far away from the brutality of the streets.
KW: Are you planning to continue documenting the life of Moises?
TA: I speak with Moises quite often. He’s kept me up to date on his plans, as have most of the other boys.
They have all told me about the highs and the far too many terrible lows. I hope to follow their stories wherever they may take them. It pains me to say that its impossible to know where that may be, and it frightens me to admit where I think it could end. I do believe that the fate of these boys, and especially Moises’, are a bellwether of Honduras itself.
KW: What are some ways to counter this issue of Honduran youth being involved in gangs?
TA: I believe indifference, corruption and violence is sabotaging Honduras’ path to peace. As long as corruption runs rampant and investment in communities is absconded by pilfering public servants, gangs will remain powerful and appealing for at-risk youth.
These gangs thrive where hope is all but died out ––which is the case for the communities at the edges of the cities. So, in the same vein, as long as society does little for the already dehumanized people living at the margins of society, then, again the gangs and similar criminal groups will remain. And if the response towards these communities that are under gang influence is to bring them to heel through sheer force, well, recent Honduran history has shown that this is when gang ranks swell the most.
It should be noted that there are people working within communities to break the cycle. They are brave and often stand alone. With compassion and empathy, they work case by case. Like the pastor who negotiates truces between quarreling gangs, or the missionary who preaches mercy and disarmament, and the bishop who finds safe passage away from imminent death for boys looking to quit––with selfless leaders like these setting the pace, and investment in mending the atomized communities coming in, I think that neighborhoods like Moises’ can come back from the brink so that one day he can raise his baby girl in a peace he never knew as a child.
This interview has been edited and condensed from the original transcript.