I arrived in Bogotá on the 26th of November 1994 – 28 years to the day – with some trepidation. Below me was a dark pool in the Andes Mountains in which street lamps sketched out the form and the barrios of the Colombian capital. I listened on headphones to a cassette of Mano Negra’s Sueño de Solentiname and wondered what awaited me. I never liked to arrive in big cities in the dead of night and was quite nervous.
I soon found my feet in the city but recall that I was not enamoured. The first line of the first letter I wrote and posted back to Europe was “I am in the arsehole of the world.” It was not a pleasant city. I stayed downtown in the Hotel Internacional, just off Avenida Jímenez and daily would be stopped and searched by police. On my first morning, I learnt the word “nuca” – the nape where I was to rest my hands as the police frisked me.
But still, the city also had its dons – friendly people – and I began photographing in the centre (always exercising caution) and in communities in the south – San Cristóbal and Ciudad Bolívar. I preferred the south which seemed more laid back, friendly and safer than the centre. Many people in the centre and north of the city I encountered warned me of the dangers of the south because their perception was that it was full of criminals but I reassured them that the folk there were just like them, only poorer.
My original intention had been to do a story on homeless children, a theme I had previously covered in India, Guatemala and Mozambique but I soon desisted when I figured that things were not as the NGO had painted. The story of Papa Jaime the hero of the sewer children had been eagerly lapped up by the press but it didn’t quite wash with me. I decided to let it be and move on and for that reason found myself at a loose end. It was via contacts in the Catholic Church I started to photograph in the south and also travelled to Magdalena Medio and Medellín. I returned to Bogotá to bid farewell to many who had befriended and helped me out but I was robbed of all my equipment and everything else as I made to leave the city.
Undeterred, I reclaimed the travellers’ cheques and bought a camera from a pawn shop and over a few weeks managed to pull things together with the help of a very kind family that was part of the Mennonite church in Bogotá. Nevertheless, I would not photograph again in Bogotá until many years later.
Here, I share with you some of my first impressions and first pictures of Bogotá (there are many that were not scanned) taken with a Canon F1 and Canon A1 before these cameras were stolen away.
Medellín – 26th November 2022.