In 2006 I worked with a group of youths in the 13th Commune of Medellín which had previously been a battleground between gangs and guerrilla militas, and then guerrilla and paramilitary militias. A relative calm had fallen over the area since October 2002, when the State sent in troops to combat the guerrilla militias killing many innocent youths. After the military occupation many more were disappeared by right-wing paramilitaries.
The residents of the 19 neigbourhoods (some 120,000 at the time of the project) were much stigmatised as much by poverty as the presence of ilegal armed groups. However, during this period there was a relative calm in the whole city as the right-wing paramilitaries had co-opted and/or annihilated the gangs and militias that had previously and battled for control of the city’s neighbourhoods. There was a co-governance of the city during the years of Alvaro Uribe’s presidency and Sergio Fajardo’s mayoral term which allowed free movement in the entirety of the city and a semblance of peace.
It was in this context that I began working with the youths of the area after being invited to hold workshops by a local photographers’ collective – Click por los barrios – to which I did not belong and chose not to continue with after the project which was financed by the local municipality. Beginning the project with four students it quickly grew to 16 participants (15 from the Comune, and one the son of a local newspaper photographer), of whom 14 finished and exhibited their work (though not in the Commune itself). Two had to withdraw because of school commitments.
During a period of some three months we did 16 workshops under my tutelage, and I accompanied the groups as we wandered the territory and taking pictures and discovering the Commune, often introducing the youths to areas most did not know, but which I had come to know working as a photojournalist or whilst working with local communities.
I was my intention that we should make a portrait of the Commune and destigmatise the folk who live there: to show that there is no lack of dignity not in being poor, nor having to live with complicated social issues and sometimes violence. As we went along I would school the students in observing and analysing that which they observed, and to make decisions as to what they would choose to photograph and in which moment they would decide to take the picture. As we proceeded, in my opinion, they became a lot better and more autonomous as we moved through different territories. I was very proud of the work they produced, some of which you can see here on this page.
Many of the photographs they selected to be exhibited (with my agreement as editor) came from the last weeks of the project when their photographer’s eyes were more finely tuned and were capturing “those” moments, some of which I would loved to have captured myself. As happens more often than not, I didn’t have a camera the majority of the time as my students were the priority and I tried as much as I could to ensure that each one of them would have a camera in their hands at all times and not have to share.
All the images were taken on analogue cameras.
The Photo Book
Below is a photo-book that I put together to present to the the Mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo, as we were unable to present the photographs as part of an exhibition for the inauguration of the San Javier (13th Commune) public library.
A group of the students presented the book to the Mayor on 31 January 2006 during the event which was attended by national and local media and dignitaries.
Click for slideshow