Portrait of A City

4th Commune, We are history

In February of 2009 I began a project in one of the oldest Communes of Medellín, the Comuna 4, with the intention of working with communities, teaching photography clases whilst documenting the people and daily life in the area. The invitation to design a project had come some months earlier from Carlos Velasquez, communications director of the Pedro Nel Gómez Museum. I wished to use the opportunity to integrate taking pictures with collecting pictures and stories to build an ongoing historical archive of the Commune. Many of these I knew would be anecdotes of forced migrations to the city, either through forced displacement or economic necessity, and of stories of hardship and community during the construction of neighbourhoods that had lived through violent times.

When I began taking pictures and looking at other photographers work I came across, and was immediately enthralled by the work of August Sander, a German baker who would ride around on his bike during the 1920s and 1930s take portraits of all, regardless of social class, wealth or identity. His spirit was that of an ethnographic photographer; a vision that seemed not to discriminate, but to attempt to explore and show the world around him as he saw it, and without bias. His camera captured the German people at a pivotal moment in German history: that between two world wars, the great depression and the rise of Nazism. However, Sander’s unfettered vision was not convenient for the powers that were taking hold, and much of his archive was destroyed by the Nazis as the diversity it showed did not fit with the then political narrative of a homogenous superior race. Sander desisted from taking pictures it would seem, but carried on baking bread.

At the end of the first decade of 21st Century the city of Medellín was undergoing change, commonly called a Renaissance by national and international media as well as the administration. The city had changed: it was not the infamous one of the years of the rise of narco-trafficking and that of Pablo Escobar in the late 1980s and early 1990s; nor was it that of the inter-gang, and gang-militia territorial neighbourhood wars that I came to know in the mid 1990s and the early years of this century. However, neither was it the city that the municipal authorities painted: that of smiley happy people in some kind reborn urbanism – the “Most Educated city of the Americas”. Far from it!

I wished to document a city that I saw and understood as a more nuanced and chaotic urban sprawl – a patchwork of communities of folk striving to survive, and aspiring to thrive. Medellín is essentially a young city; one that has grown from a small town to a vast metropolis in the space of one hundred years. It increased its size by more than 40x in the hundred years between 1909-2009. It is marked by violence and inequality, but is also where communities and families have grown and worked together for the common good. Much of the city has sprung up during waves of migrations fleeing violence and insecurity in the countryside, as well as of trickle of those seeking a more prosperous future. Medellín, as I understood it, is a mixture of collaborations and impositions. And the research and encounters during the project “4th Commune, We Are History” and subsequent years have not changed my mind.

My team of photographers for those a few months between late-February and early-May of 2009 were 50 photographers aged from 12 years to 59 years who lived in the Comuna 4, or studied or worked there. The project was sponsored by the Pedro Nel Gómez Museum, and our support network were the inhabitants and workers of the zone who helped us and watched out for us every step of the way.

The story of the project in itself I think is readily told by the photographs and the texts (those of historical anecdotes are in Spanish – but readily translated by Google), and the maps will help you visualise a little better the territories we worked.

Welcome to the project “4th Commune – We are History” – just one fragment of the history from a dynamic, chaotic, and sometimes violent urban sprawl that is steadily creeping up the valley sides and over the green mountains of the Central Cordillera of the Andes. Enclosed by those mountains it is a somewhat insular and somewhat frustratingly self-important city, but for inquisitive minds it not a dull one.

Paul Mark Smith – Friday 13th of August 2021.


In the elaboration of the project we worked in thirteen different areas and themes with five groups of photographers from communities throughout the Commune. The vast majority of the participants were novices. There was an initial workshop where the five groups attended the Pedro Nel Gómez Museum and where I ran over the intentions of the project and explained a little about the analogue cameras we would be using. Not all the photographers were present during this introduction as the project grew as we proceeded. I showed a presentation of photographs by photographers, such as August Sander, Bruce Davidson, myself, Benjamin de la Calle, Cartier Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark etc. After this introduction the groups did not come together until the presentation of the final exhibition.

Previous to this I had researched the area and gone to visit schools, local NGOs, local social workers, community action leaders and groups, schools and social clubs. At each of these locations I would run over the intentions of the project and gauge interest. The bottom line for me was that if those who wished to participate were willing and had the time to so, then we were good! I wanted to work with around 20 to 25 people, but the Museum asked me to convoke 40 participants. I went with this number, but knew that the project would grow rather than diminish in size, as was the usual with previous workshops.

On the street during the first workshop with students from Fe and Alegria school in the Moravia/El Bosque district. Here we familiarise the students with the cameras before starting to photograph the same afternoon.

On day one with each different group we would begin to photograph after a basic familiarisation with the cameras which would generally last for one hour. I consider photography an empirical exercise where one learns through ones mistakes, so the idea was to go out and take some pictures, begin to engage with the neighbourhoods and the people therein, and make some mistakes. I wished to mix people different ages and backgrounds within the working groups, thus moving out of their peer groups a little. Also, the exercise of having to make formal projects of people in the street required the students to acquire the confidence to approach people they did not know, explain what they were doing and cooperate with the project. Thus so the whole exercise and the final work we produced was as much a work done by the students and myself as well as by the local community itself.

In parallel with the documenting the people and daily life in the commune I also wanted to gather anecdotal stories of peoples life events and to see if we could find historical photographs from their personal collections. This we began to do with the students but the requirements of time needed and the lack of personnel made this impossible to continue so. The project assistant, Duvan Londoño, and myself did this work during the time we were not with the students. Given more resources we could have achieved more, but working with so many students required a lot of dedication and time, as did the other logistics such as taking material for processing and viewing all the images produced. Where we lacked resources we put in our time. This made the project pretty much a full on labour, seven days a week for the best part of three and a half months.

The photographers:

Fifty photographers from the communities and institutions of the 4th Commune of Medellín participated in the project. The ages of these ranged from 12 years to 58 years and included mothers and their daughters, retirees, skaters, school students, housewives, mothers, NGO workers and informal workers. (The 51st photographer was a 3 year old girl – Melisa – who grabbed a camera and photographed her mum. The picture we featured in the exhibition, as it was a good photo).

Principally the project was based around the taking street portraits to make an ethnographic record of the city at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. The intention behind doing street portraiture was to require the students to engage with the people that they photographed; stepping outside of their respective peer groups to communicate with “others” and to explain and thus socialise the project in the community. By all accounts the methodology was a success – though many struggled to engage with strangers – but the students appropriated and socialised the project very well.

In the latter stages of the project we became more ambitious and attempted more in-depth documentary photography of “internal” worlds such as tenanted housing (inquilinatos) and within the homes of communities. We also strayed from the commune to document the Pablo Escobar barrio, as the story of this neighbourhood’s history is entwined with the 4th Commune. I wished to also include the Aurora neigbourhood of the city, as this area also has it’s history entwined with the 4th as another mass migration sponsored and impulsed by another patrón, the municipalitu of Medellín. Unfortunately the resources were not there to do this.

The 4th Commune, Medellín

The Photographs


El Hueco (Aranjuez)

Campo Valdez (La Plaza de Mercado)

El Chispero (Lovaina/San Pedro)

Inquilinatos (Lovaina/San Pedro)

San Pedro/Sevilla

Jardín Botánico / Parque de Los Deseos

Moravia / El Bosque

Palermo / San Isidro

Las Camelias

Puerto Nuevo

Playa Rica

Barrio Pablo Escobar

Whilst not in the 4th Commune, the Pablo Escobar neigbourhood was a mass migration from the municipal rubbish tip in the Moravia neighbourhood. The trip to Barrio Pablo Escobar was the last outing we made as part of the project. The intention was also to visit another neighbourhood in the city that was also a mass migration from the Moravia area, impulsed by another Patrón, that of the Municipality of Medellín. Medellín and the province of Antioquia, of which the city is the capital, is enveloped by a culture of the patron which underpins a culture of illegality and is a bedrock for the tolerance of violence.

The Moravia-Escobar migration, which came on the night of the asassination of the Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, on 30th April 1984 as people scrambled to occupy the houses build by Escobar’s foundation Medellín Sin Tugurios (Medellín Without Shacks). At a later date I will be writing these in along with the other historical anecdotes related to the 4th Commune.


NB. This historical section will be completed to feature the stories of migration, settlement, neighbourhood building and daily life at a later date. When time allows!

Paul Smith – 3 Nov 2021

The Exhibition

Photographs from the exhibition opening. (Bottom right: Project assistant, Duvan Londoño).

The opening of the exhibition of some 470 images on around sixty panels was in December of 2009. The idea behind presenting the work on panels with the name of the area on each was so that the exhibition could be broken up into sections and toured around the city by the Museum in communal and open-air spaces in the barrios. I don’t think that this happened though.

El Mundo · Local Press report. December 2009.

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