2009
08.04

This project is an extraordinary and challenging classroom. Juggling various needs and objectives is difficult: ambient sounds, interviews and photographs all have different dimensions, requirements and relationships.

Sometimes, when I’m deep in conversation with a sound recorder in my hands, a photograph comes and goes before my eyes, and remains in my head. Sometimes when I’m in the photographic zone –  a place that is hard to describe, but that an artist or musician would probably recognise as a vital part of their creative process – I forget about sound all together, and afterwards think: ‘damn it, why didn’t I record any sound to accompany that photo?’

And sound can be a demanding friend. My approach to photography has always been an attempt to be as respectful as possible. I try to tread lightly, to be a friend before a photographer and ideally to share a moment, rather than take a photograph. But recording sound in the homes of Colombian IDPs can be tricky, especially when there’s only a plastic wall between us and the passing trucks and diesel buses on a busy road. We do the best we can, and I hope that in the end we will have a good range of sound, with a balance between the testimonies and stories of IDPs and the thoughts of academics who study their situation. It’s tempting, of course, to rely heavily on the interviews with experts, which are normally recorded in quiet, comfortable homes and offices. But that would defeat at least half the purpose, because the idea of hyperphotography is to give context to an image, and a voice to the photograph’s subject.

Giving voice can also be tricky. The women of the Embera Chami people, for example, speak very little Spanish, and in Colombia in general it is often the men who feel comfortable speaking with strangers, whilst wives, mothers and daughters listen respectfully, or brew a coffee to serve to their guests (and it has been a humbling pleasure to receive coffee in many of the homes we have visited, regardless of the family’s financial difficulties, which are often extreme. The rituals of hospitality are worth more in Colombia than the cost of the coffee,  sugar, firewood and water that are required to make a pot of sweet, black coffee).

Around 65 per cent of Colombian IDPs are children, and this is reflected in the photographs. However, interviewing children poses ethical difficulties that we have not been able to overcome. I have chosen therefore to include photographs of children, but to combine them with interviews with their parents, or other adult relatives. I am not a psychologist, and speaking with children about the traumas they have experienced is not something I’m qualified to do.

Earlier this year I read a book called After Photography, by New York based photo critic and academic, Fred Ritchin. The book is a call for a new, more responsible and responsive photojournalism that incorporates the interactive digital technologies that we now live with on a daily basis. When I read Ritchin’s book I felt that I was reading my own ideas, but expressed with a vocabulary that gave life and wings to my thoughts. This project, The Uprooting, is a first attempt to put an idea into practice, an idea that has been evolving in my head for several years. The Uprooting is self-funded, limited, and flawed in many ways, but I am learning every day, and I hope that this will be the first project of many, and perhaps an inspiration for other photographers and visual journalists.

I also hope that Fred Ritchin will see some of his ideas reflected in my work, as I saw my thoughts written in his words.

2009
08.03

Gledis has learned to smile when she talks about the day her dad was killed. She was only ten when five paramilitary soldiers walked into the family home and shot him in the head, at dinnertime, in front of the entire family. Now she has four children of her own.

Gledis says her dad was the first person in the family to be killed in El Salado. Two years later, when over a thousand paramilitary soldiers arrived in the town to carry out a massacre that would last five days, two brothers, an aunt, and an uncle were added to the stories of madness and death that Gledis tells to anybody who wants to know.

In a soft voice, between sips of coffee, Gledis tells the story of her closest friend who was raped by 40 paramilitary soldiers over two days; of her friend’s aunt who was forced to cook for the perpetrators, so that rape would not become murder; of the cord that was looped around a young man’s neck and attached to two horses that galloped in opposite directions; and of the game of soccer that the paramilitary soldiers played with the young man’s decapitated head in the town’s central square.

Gledis tells the stories of El Salado with her five-year-old son sitting on her knee. He is old enough to understand, and young enough not to know that the world might be any different.

2009
08.03

Last night sixteen families were forcefully displaced from their homes in the infamously poor district of Medellín known as La Comuna 13. I found out about the mass-displacement because I met and interviewed the leader who helped the families denounce it in a government registry at 4am this morning. Carlos Mario showed me the signed declaration, which described the ongoing violence between the local paramilitary factions that are fighting for control over the drug trade, and the lucrative ‘vaccines’ that local businesses are charged as protection money.

At lunchtime I watched the hour-long national news service, waiting for more information about those 106 people whose names appeared on the declaration. President Zelaya is trying to return to Honduras, and a Colombian man died in a traffic accident in Spain, said the news, but violence and displacement in a poor suburb in Medellín, it would seem, never happened. Finishing my lunch, I found myself in a country rendered deaf, blind and senile by its inability to speak of daily injustice. Of course, it’s not the country’s fault.

News has to be new. I learned that in my first class of undergraduate journalism.

2009
08.01

In the pastel coloured evenings, under a Guayacan tree between her home and a blistered concrete street in Sincelejo, Paula Elena Rivera reclines on a plastic chair with her neighbours. Paula talks about the heat of the day, and complains that her eyes can no longer see. Her neighbours entertain the ritual with nods and consolations. They have known her since they were born, because Paula is older than the Guayacan tree, and older than the blistered concrete street.
The morning after every evening ritual, 96 year-old Paula Elena sweeps the small round Guayacan leaves from outside her home. She begins at 7am, and finishes before the sun begins to swell the air. Her eyes that no longer see don’t overlook a single leaf.

2009
08.01

ball07

In his fields near Sincelejo Ciriaco Padilla grew yucca, maize, and tobacco, which he dried and rolled into cigars that he smoked with satisfaction every afternoon. In his youth, which lasted well into his 70s, Ciriaco drove cattle between the coastal plains and Medellín. When he was born, the Medellín beef market was the second largest in South America. One hundred and four years later, on the 18th June, 2007, Ciriaco died, dancing a quick-stepping porro sabanero with his family. His great-great-grandchildren didn’t call him grandpa; everybody knew him as el chacho, ‘the young fella’.

ball08

2009
07.27

“What organisation are you working for?” people ask in every place and office I visit in Colombia?

“No, I’m working independently,” I explain. “I’m a journalist.”

“But you must be working with an NGO, surely,” people insist.

“The project is part of a university thesis in Australia, but, no, I’m not working with, or for any organisation…”

Self-funding a documentary project is perhaps an anomaly in any country, but in Colombia the communication of social issues seems to be the exclusive domain of NGOs and universities, and I suspect the same is true elsewhere. Human Rights Watch now has correspondents in more countries than either The New York Times or The Washington Post. Although its work in Colombia continues to be mostly academic, HRW is increasingly contracting well-known journalists to report on human rights issues, mostly in places where the traditional media cannot justify a correspondent, or in global regions that fall outside the mainstream press radar. Their webpage, www.hrw.org, has excellent multimedia reports from Somaliland, Greece, Uzbekistan, and many other countries.

Such ‘NGO journalism’ cannot claim the same type of ‘independence’ or ‘objectivity’ as other forms of foreign correspondent journalism, and indeed NGO communicators appear disinclined to call themselves journalists at all. But every news desk has an agenda, and NGOs appear capable of funding vital communications at a time when media moguls are hailing the death of newspapers.

During the last two months in Colombia I have not met or heard of another freelance journalist. No doubt they’re out there, but every calendar, website, book, poster and concert I see carries the insignia of a branch of the UN, the European Union, USAid, the Church, or some other, smaller humanitarian aid agency. Discounting possible prizes or other forms of financial recognition and remuneration, The Uprooting is unlikely to be financially sustainable. If in the future I hope to do similar work, I will no doubt have to respond to the common, aforementioned question by saying: “Yes, I work for…”

2009
07.27

In central Bogotá a young man selling chewing gum and cigarettes – by the smoke, not the packet – challenges two friends and I to a game: we can ask him the capitals of any three countries in the world. If he answers all three correctly, we must buy something from him. If he doesn’t know one of the answers, he will give us anything from his tray for free.

“What is the capital of Australia?” I ask, knowing that most people think it is Sydney.

“Canberra,” he responds.

“What is the capital of the Central African Republic?” asks Swen, who worked there with Medecins Sans Frontieres for two years.

“Bangui,” responds the young man, cheekily, and without hesitation.

It didn’t seem necessary to ask him a third capital. He had already earned our respect, our astonishment, and our loose change.

2009
07.27

Elsa is the assistant programmer of The Uprooting, and a good friend. She is working with me for the first few weeks of the project production to get some first-hand knowledge of Colombia and the uprooting that so many Colombians are forced to confront.

Elsa is from Broken Hill, a small but historically important mining town in far western NSW. Surrounding the hill that gives the town its name are endless plains of flat, arid land. In the belly of Colombia’s infinite green mountains, where the horizon is never flat and is usually somewhere above our heads, Elsa is geographically out of place; but comfortably so.

With her brilliant blonde hair and pale skin, Elsa is also a novel talking point for local people, and a magnet for fascinated kids. Playing with the children of two displaced families who live beside the main road between Medellín and the Caribbean coast, many questions arise:

‘Are your eyes real?’

‘Is Australia near Villavicencio?’

‘Are there houses made of plastic in your country too?’

And Elsa, pointing at a cow impossibly placed halfway up a cliff beside a waterfall:

‘How did it get up there?’

‘The cows here know how to climb cliffs,’ responds one of the kids, who later tells her mum about the funny question that Elsa, the blonde girl asked.

2009
07.27

When people ask why I love Colombia, I answer that the country is mysterious, beautiful and unpredictable, and it’s people warm and resilient. But it is also because a rusty old Dodge truck parks outside the family home every Saturday morning to sell amorphous fruit with dirt on it.

The truck arrives mid-morning, honking its horn and creaking to a stop. Four men organise the crates of fruit and veggies on the street, and one man sets up a scale that hangs from the truck’s roof. Unlike the produce in Colombia’s supermarkets – much of which is imported, and almost all of which comes from mono-crop farms where fumigation and pesticides are the norm – the fruit on the back of the truck is organic produce from the small properties of local, small-scale farmers and peasants. Few people recognise it as organic, however, and unlike farmer’s markets in Sydney, the produce on the truck is cheaper than in supermarkets.

The fruit is not ‘perfect’ in the commercial sense. Discriminating shoppers would leave most of the produce on supermarket shelves, eventually to be thrown out. In Australia and Britain, 20 per cent of what is bought from supermarkets is wasted, mostly fresh produce, meats and dairy products. In Australia that means $10 billion of senseless annual waste, and three million tonnes of landfill, not including what the supermarket disposes of, which is rationalised as part of a supermarket’s running costs. The price of a supermarket banana accounts not only for the costs that the individual piece of fruit represents, but also the cost of the bananas that are bruised, split and left on the shelf. Food has been transformed from a nourishing necessity to a commodity that obeys market laws. During Africa’s famines of the 1980s and 90s the continent was a net-exporter of grains. On a continental level, there was always enough food to avoid starvation, just not enough people with the capacity to buy it. And rather than buy local produce, food aid from countries like the USA was conditional on the food being supplied by, and shipped from American farms, thus further distorting the African food market and sending many local producers broke.

It’s refreshing, then, to see that the fruit on the Saturday morning truck has dirt on it. It is small, amorphous, delicious, and represents a logic that has little to do with money.

2009
07.27

There’s a saying in Colombia that there’s no such thing as an unlucky fool – no hay bobo de malas. In this country where the unexpected, ridiculous and impossible seem to happen on a daily basis, independent of sense and reason, it is easy to feel like a fool. Luck, however, has been kind…

Within a few hours of arriving in Quibdó, the capital of Colombia’s geologically richest and demographically poorest state, Chocó, I found myself shopping for gumboots in preparation for a five-day journey into the tropical jungle. I had gone to the offices of the Association of Chocó’s Indigenous Nations (OREWA) to express interest in visiting an Indigenous community as part of my documentary project on forced displacement in Colombia. In the last ten years over 25 per cent of Chocó’s population has been forcefully displaced, the overwhelming majority of which is Indigenous and Afro-Colombian.

I explained my project to an ebullient middle-aged man named Dionisio, and presented him with my letter of introduction from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ).

“The day after tomorrow we have a commission leaving to visit five indigenous communities that are currently living in a state of precarious confinement. Perhaps you could go,” said Dionisio.

The commission consisted of OREWA’s president, Jorge Luis Cheche, two members of the Diocese of Quibdó, and two international organisations, Swefor, from Sweden, and Mundobat from Spain, which accompany civilian leaders in conflict areas to facilitate safe passage.

After receiving the go-ahead from the commission, my hasty preparations – shopping for food, a torch, the aforementioned gumboots, batteries and garbage bags to keep everything dry – were made more difficult by a tropical downpour that turned the city’s half-paved streets into torrential rivers. Chocó receives over seven metres of rainfall annually. I hastily added an umbrella to my shopping list, and continued.

mujerembera

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC) recognises 102 distinct nations within the country, 28 of which are at high risk of cultural extinction, mostly because of the fragmentation that results from forced displacement. The Embera, meaning ‘people of the maize’, is one of the largest and most organised indigenous nations in Colombia, and also one of the most affected by forced displacement because their ancestral territories are rich in minerals, ideal for growing coca, and are strategic corridors for arms and drug trafficking. Both the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla groups maintain a strong presence in Embera territories, as does the Colombian Army.

Leaving a soggy Quibdó in the back of a ute at 6am, Wednesday 8th July, the commission began its trip to the five Embera communities. When the car stopped after several hours of slow progress along the rough, ascending road that links Quibdó with Medellín, we could see the first community, Consuelo – ‘Consolation’ – through the drizzle and mist on the far side of the upper Atrato, a rapid mountain river that becomes a broad, brown, ambling artery connecting Chocó’s main towns and cities as it flows to the Caribbean coast, several hundred kilometres away.

The commission soon got a bird’s eye view of the pristine upper Atrato, since the only way to reach Consuelo from the road is via an 80 metre flying fox. We later found out that the cable and pulley system that the Embera use is less than reliable, and that unless they can build a bridge across the river the community of Consuelo will disintegrate: “without a bridge, we have no life,” said Julio Queraca Macheche, the community Cabildo, or chief.

Only a few days before arriving in Chocó I had interviewed an Embera man named Gonzalo who in January this year was forced to leave his community because the ongoing conflict did not allow his people to move around their territory to hunt and cultivate at will. His people were starving, and ill. Nobody from his community remained, Gonzalo said, and the fourteen families who had lived there had all gone in different directions.

It was a rare privilege to now be able to visit Embera communities in almost identical situations, where I could attach images and experiences to place-names and statistics. And what images! Rocky creeks running into streams, down cascades, into rivers carving canyons through thick green rainforest. I’d never seen so much fresh, running water.

Or so much mud. The entire community of Consuelo had to resettle six months ago because its previous site lay beneath an increasingly unstable slope that would have demolished the community in the case of a landslide. The community cleared a new section of forest on higher, flatter ground and constructed homes and a communal hall, which are made from timber and raised from the ground on wooden pillars. Without the forest shelter to absorb and help drain the torrential daily rainfall, however, the cleared ground has turned to bog.

mujeresembera

At first site, Consuelo is pure misery. Embera women in their bright, traditional dress and beaded jewellery walk bare foot from home to home carrying their youngest children on their hips, often arriving at a neighbouring house with mud up to their thighs. A deceptively deep mud puddle is cause for laughter, but the children are becoming ill, and the constant bog is cause for concern.

In the afternoon the commission gathered with the community to hear and discuss the many problems facing Consuelo, and the Embera more broadly.

In March of this year the people of Consuelo were confined to their homes and immediate surrounds for 15 days because the Colombian army and FARC guerrillas had made bases on opposing sides of the community, illegally occupying Embera territory. The community lived in constant fear of armed confrontation, or of being mistaken for a soldier of one armed group or the other. Indigenous communities are frequently accused of collaborating with guerrilla groups – a charge the Embera emphatically deny – and community chief, Julio Queraca, told stories of men being shot at with machine guns from helicopters when they were walking to their mountain fields to work.

The Embera use a traditional form of agriculture whereby many small-scale crops are maintained in the surrounding mountains, often several hours walking distance from the community. Confinement for the people of Consuelo was therefore synonymous with starvation, and this was accentuated in following months by the loss of their maize crop. Eventually the community had no choice but to leave their homes to work their fields, come what may.

“It was either leave our homes and risk being caught in crossfire, or die of starvation,” said Jaime Queragama, the community teacher.

The other major issue facing the people of Consuelo was the absence of the State in everything not concerning war. Where is the school? The blackboard, chairs, pens and pencils? Where is the bridge we need to survive as a community? How can there be so much money for the army and so little for the people?

They were questions we would hear from many different voices in the days to follow.

At dawn the next day we began a five-hour trek to the next Community, La Oveja. The ‘five hours’ was in reality closer to nine hours of difficult walking in tropical sunshine, traversing boggy plains and steep mountain tracks. Our Embera guides soon realised that one hour of their walking meant two hours of walking for us. The constantly evolving landscape more than made up for the exhausting conditions, however, and it was good to feel my body working again after many weeks of relatively sedentary urban life.

The homes of La Oveja are scattered in a wild and beautiful river valley. Plantain (a starchy, bland banana that is a local staple) and maize crops are visible on the surrounding mountain slopes, and roosters are heard welcoming the spectacular daybreaks with rehearsed choruses that seem to begin enthusiastically at 2am. Everything that denotes an active, healthy community was evident in La Oveja when we arrived, except people.
machinamoler

The commission knew that there had been a lot of displacement in La Oveja, but we were shocked to find that the community was completely abandoned. There are no roads between Embera villages, and although communication has always been vital for trade, information, marriage, and other cultural rituals, it is increasingly difficult and dangerous to move between communities due to the armed conflict. Our guides from Consuelo knew that there was at least one family still living in La Oveja – a family who refused to be uprooted from their ancestral homes, we were told, preferring loneliness and persecution to forced displacement – however the family was not in their home, and it was not clear what had happened to them. Our guides suspected that they were away working their fields.

We settled down for the night in an empty home where the corn-grinder, clothes and beds spoke of both recent habitation and sudden abandonment. We boiled rice and plantain in an unknown stranger’s pots, and lay down to sleep on their verandah with the uncanny knowledge that we were in a home that was now only a shelter in the mountains for anybody who might pass by.

The aforementioned rooster chorus awoke us the following morning to a sunrise that bridged every colour between purple and gold. We ate more rice and plantain for breakfast and began our walk to the next community, Mambual. The scenery was again stunning as we traversed a steep, thickly forested mountain and then followed a pristine narrow river that carved its path through limestone cliffs. Although our only direct experience of the armed forces in the area was the occasional sound of a military helicopter, it was bizarre to know that guerrilla soldiers were probably observing us from their positions in the hills. It’s their job to know who is coming and going in areas they control, or contest.

We arrived in Mambual at midday, and went straight to the river. Unlike Consuelo, Mambual felt like an isolated paradise. A dozen, curious bare-bottomed boys accompanied us to the river and happily displayed their acrobatic skills from a rock that overhung a cool green pool. It was the first time that the ostensibly shy and reserved Embera people seemed to be entirely themselves, unconscious of the alien presence of foreigners with their cameras, notebooks and sound-recorders.

Embera women are particularly shy, and rarely know more than a few phrases of Spanish. As is the case in most of the world, they also appear to do the bulk of the work. Besides cooking, housework, sewing and caring for children and the elderly, Embera women are often seen carrying large baskets on their backs full of plantain, firewood or corn. They cart the baskets with a strap around their foreheads, which is made of the same colourful cotton that they use to make their embroidered dresses.
ninosembera

The Embera men receive more education and have greater freedom within the community to leave to study or work for periods of time in non-Embera territory. Their Spanish is therefore fluent, although certain grammatical errors and a particular indigenous accent mark them as having learned Spanish as a second language, usually in their teenage years. The men traditionally do most of the agricultural work, and also hunt small mammals in the mountains and fish in the rivers. Frequent forced confinement jeopardises these activities, however, and when the commission gathered with the community after lunch, one of their major concerns was the gradual loss of hunting and fishing skills amongst the younger men and boys.

Another complaint was that both the Colombian Army and Guerrilla groups make their camps upstream of Mambual for weeks and months at a time, often with over 100 soldiers living, eating and defecating beside the river, contaminating the water downstream and making it unsuitable for drinking. Most of the population has suffered from diarrhoea, and one child died of dehydration earlier this year. The illegal presence of guerrilla groups in indigenous territory has many other consequences. José Chamorro, the teacher at Mambual, told a frustrated and angry story of not being able to travel to municipal centres and return to the community with food or medical supplies because the Colombian Army confiscates everything on the grounds that large-scale supplies could be destined for the guerrilla groups. The Embera are angry with guerrilla groups, but more so with the State, who they say should act to protect, not vilify and persecute.

Community leaders also denounced the lack of understanding of local culture and language on the part of the national army, who take advantage of Embera children’s lack of Spanish with questions like, “Is your dad a guerrilla?” To which a child might reply, “yes,” simply because it’s the only response he or she knows, or because the child wants to please the soldiers, or is afraid.

The commission also heard cases of indigenous men being beaten, tortured and killed by guerrilla groups and, more frequently, the national armed forces. José told of Embera men being amongst the victims of what is euphemistically called ‘false positives’, the Colombian Army’s increasingly common practice of executing poor, homeless and indigenous men, dressing them in guerrilla uniforms, and claiming a military victory with such-and-such number of guerrilla soldiers killed. According to a recent UN report, there have been at least 1800 ‘false positives’ in recent years, a result of the government demanding results – ‘positives’ – from its soldiers in the war against Colombia’s guerrilla armies.

platanal
The following day we visited the final two communities before catching a bus back to Quibdó. Like Mambual, Rio Playa and El 18 were idyllic places where the suffering of the people seemed at odds with the postcard landscapes. The stories, too, were similar or identical to those the commission had heard in the preceding days: a lack of attention from every level of government; persecution from armed forces; illness caused by the polluting practices of soldiers encamped beside waterways; and prolonged forced confinement causing malnutrition, systemic fear and the loss of cultural knowledge and practices.