Luis Corzo, PASACO, 1996

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Kult Books (here). Hardcover (23 x 27.5 cm), 96 pages, with 49 color and black and white photographs. Includes an essay by Claudia Méndez Arriaza in English/Spanish. Design by Claudia Rubin. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: PASACO, 1996 is the first photobook by the Guatemalan photographer Luis Corzo, and it tells the shocking story of how the artist and his father Juan Corzo, Jr. were kidnapped at gun-point by the organized crime group Los Pasaco and held captive for thirty-three days. At the time, Corzo was just six years old. He first started working on an artistic interpretation of the events while studying photography in Barcelona, but the effort of focusing on the trauma of the experience triggered a bout of depression. Years later, Corzo returned to the personal story with fresh eyes, with the idea to approach it with more distance, like a research project.

To tell the story of his abduction, Corzo applied dispassionate investigative methods, deliberately using neutral language and carefully assembling the available evidence. He has meticulously collected various documents related to the abduction, including his own photographs of various locations and people, archival photos from the police report, Polaroids of the father and son while in captivity (which were sent to his mother by the captors), audio recordings, screenshots from videos, and other objects that bear witness to this event. The photobook collates these materials and shapes them into a coherent narrative. 

PASACO, 1996 is an elegantly modest photobook, its unassuming design elements creating a subtle contrast to the book’s daring content. A small tipped-in photo of audio cassette tapes appears on the top right corner of the book’s cover, hinting at the clinical nature of the book’s visual flow. The artist’s name and the book title are placed at the top and the bottom of the cover along the spine in a vertical orientation. Inside, the book has a clear and meticulous structure, the sections with photographs and visual materials interspersed with light blue pages containing factual details of the story delivered with a neutral voice. The refined design of the book, with its legible structure, attention to detail, and bold use of typography, presents the project in the format of a formal report.

The book opens with an essay by Claudia Méndez Arriaza, putting the personal story of the Corzos into the larger context of corruption and violence in the country. The first three photographs bring us to the town of Pasaco, a place with a population of about 10,000 people, which also happens to be the namesake of the gang “Los Pasaco”. Here we are introduced to the residence of the Corzo family, a building with a solid gate and barbed wire. The abduction happened at this house, on April 18th, 1996, at 7:00 o’clock in the morning, as a group of seven men forcefully entered the home through the garage as the family was about to leave for work and school. The sole purpose of the kidnapping was to exchange them for ransom. 

The story of the Corzo abduction unfolds in a linear narrative, and to construct it, the artist returns to various symbolic locations related to the event. As we move through the pages, we learn that as a precaution, all of the members of the Corzo family were moved to a different location as negotiations were taking place. A photograph documenting this temporary residence shows a building with white facade and two garage entrances, again with barbed wire at the top. As the situation unfolded, a core group was created to make decisions and communicate with the abductors. 

One powerful spread contains eight small photographs that document one of the locations where Corzo and his father were kept. The images were taken by the authorities months after the abduction, based on the information provided by the father. These images are followed by a more recent shot of the same house taken by the artist in 2019. He has also included a photograph of a DVD with labeled words “La Preba 5”, which contains an audio recording of voices of the artist and his father, part of which is reproduced in the associated caption. 

A number of materials, used by the gang as proof of life, document the horrors of captivity. Two screenshots from an evidence video are printed on slightly grayish paper: in one, Juan Corzo, Jr. is seen lying face down, his back bleeding from razor cuts, and in the other, a blindfolded Luis calls for his mother. An accompanying letter written by the artist’s father (presumably directed to his own father) starts with the following “Dad, this has reached extremes that I could never have imagined. This is too much for Luis Pedro and I. We cannot endure all of this that is happening to us anymore.” Three weeks after the abduction, his left ring finger was cut off by the captors. A striking photograph shows his left hand today, set against a plain beige background. 

A photograph of the artist with his father and a number of other family members taken the day after their release is printed full color and glued to the page in the book, its physicality a thoughtful and powerful design element. A couple of months later, the police captured some members of the gang and contacted the grandfather of the artist offering to assassinate them for a payment; he refused, allowing the criminal trial to proceed. 

As Corzo was working on this project, he managed to bribe his way into the most notorious prison in Guatemala and meet up with and interview Jose Luis Barahona Castillo, the leader of the group that was in charge of the kidnapping. They spoke for an hour, and since Corzo wasn’t allowed to bring his photo equipment to the prison, he asked Castillo to write down his name, the date, and the name of his hometown. A photograph of that piece of paper is the last image in the book, effectively ending the investigation and symbolizing a kind of personal closure for Corzo. 

Elements of Corzo’s photobook bring to mind recent books that have probed incomplete family histories, like Tarrah Krajnak’s book El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (reviewed here), which imaginatively re-examines the circumstances of the artist’s own birth and adoption. The investigative approach of Corzo’s storytelling also echoes Testimonies of Corruption: A Visual Contribution to Venezuela’s Fraudulent Banking History (reviewed here) by the Venezuelan artist Luis Molina-Pantin, which offers an incisive object-oriented indictment of the Venezuelan banking crisis.

As a photobook object, PASACO, 1996 is exciting in both its content and its presentation, and is beautifully produced, thoughtful and elegant throughout. As Corzo reconstructs a map of memories of the event, he also develops a more universal story. He says that one of the objectives of his book is to initiate conversations about violence, corruption, and criminal rehabilitation, themes that directly relate to his experience. Further, the book arrives at a moment when sharing the complexity of personal stories, and connecting and recontextualizing them in larger narratives, feels more urgent and necessary than ever.

Collector’s POV: Luis Corzo does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website or Instagram page (both linked in the sidebar).

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

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