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 majority of whom were novices. In the pedagogy process there was an initial workshop where I ran over the intentions of the project in the Pedro Nel Gómez Museum and explained a little about the cameras we would be using, and showed a presentation of photographs of photographers, such as August Sander, Bruce Davidson, Paul Smith, Benjamin de la Calle, Cartier Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark etc.

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.

The photographers:

51 photographers from the communities and institutions of the 4th Commune of Medellín, Colombia.

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 well enough.

We covered thirteen territories, also photographing elements of daily life and the territories themselves. In the latter stages of the project we became more ambitious and attempting more in depth documentary photography in “internal” worlds such as tenanted housing and within the homes of communities.

Photographs from the different territories.

The 4th Commune, Medellín

In parallel with the photographic process with the community groups we gathered anecdotal historical accounts of the personal histories of persons and families in the 4th Commune. In the project design I had intended the students to be involved in this process, but lacking the apparent interest and lacking the logistical support to do so the project assistant, Duvan Londoño, and myself gathered this information in our spare time.

Around a dozen historical stories were presented on panels in the final exhibition. More stories were gathered, but these were lost in a street assault when the Museum’s management arbitrarily withheld financing, obliging us to rely on public transport to transport ourselves and equipment.

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 panes 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.

El Mundo · Local Press report. December 2009.