The aftermath of Guatemala's 1976 earthquake – in photos

The aftermath of Guatemala's 1976 earthquake – in photos
James Hayman was travelling to the country when a 7.5 magnitude quake hit, killing over 22,000 people. Joining the relief effort as a volunteer, his images capture the scale of destruction and the process of rebuilding.

In early 1974, James Hayman was travelling through Central America with a friend. He'd completed a degree in photojournalism at a university in Washington D.C. a few years before – but, after pulling shifts at a local newspaper, decided that capturing the stories of the day wasn’t for him, and that he wanted to see the world outside of his home country.

“We were hoping to get all the way down to South America and we were waylaid in Mexico for a while,” Hayman says. “Then, just as we were travelling to Guatemala, the earthquake hit.”

On February 4, 1976, around 3AM local time, a disastrous 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit the country. With its centre located about 100 miles northeast of Guatemala City, its effects led to an estimated death toll of more than 22,000 people, left 76,000 injured and over a million homeless as houses, entire villages and almost half (40%) of the country’s hospitals were reduced to rubble.

Hearing about the tragedy, Hayman decided that he and his friend would continue onwards with their journey, passing through the country swiftly and leaving as light a footprint as possible. Hitching a ride with some students, the pair were driven across the border, past miles of destruction, and dropped off in Guatemala City where they spent a night at a hospital. It was there they received a proposal that would upend their plans.

“Some students from the American University came by and said: ‘Are you interested in doing any volunteer work for the UN?’” Hayman recalls. “So I said ‘yeah, absolutely’ and I spent the next four months working for the UN and also photographing.”

Top to bottom: A barbershop post-earthquake. Mountains outside Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 1976.

Nearly half a century later, a number of his black-and-white photographs, taken from his time helping with the country’s rebuilding and response effort are now presented in his series Guatemala, 1976. Travelling around the country’s wild terrain, Hayman would help provide communities with food, clothing and building materials. “We were going out to the middle of the jungle or up in the mountains and ask people what they needed because of the earthquake,” he says, with a gentle smile. “They would laugh at us and say: ‘We need everything we needed before the earthquake – we have nothing.’”

The pictures hint at the severe scale of the damage, from a cross atop a church knocked from its position to a makeshift barber shop erected among wrecked buildings. “The majority of buildings in Guatemala were made out of brick and mortar,” Hayman explains of how apparent the devastation was. “There was no such thing as being tested for earthquakes, so they just crumpled."

“The majority of people had [then] built houses made out of wood and thatched roots,” he adds. “For one because that was all they had but also there were always aftershocks and if the roof collapsed it was [less likely] to kill you in the way a concrete roof would.”

Top to bottom: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala. Guatemalan Military, 1976. Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

While the situation was bleak, the shots also demonstrate a level of coming together and community as people rebuilt their villages, towns and lives. With candid close-up portraits of families and shots taken among tightly huddled crowds – a humanity and spirit of resilience shines through. For Hayman, seeing and being part of that process during the four months he spent in Guatemala would be deeply formative for him, both personally and professionally as a photographer.

“I was overwhelmed by the destruction – people that were forced to live in a tarp tent or under a thatched roof next to their destroyed home,” he says. “People not having electricity, or potable water, and then that led to [me thinking] I need to do whatever I can to help people. 

“It became a political thing for me, I became politically aware of the inequities in the world,” he continues. “It sent me on a path that I continued on today.”

Guatemala, 1976 and other photography by James Hayman can be seen on his website and Instagram.

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