Violentology: a Photographic Project on Colombian Armed Conflict

The Republic of Colombia has a long history of violence that goes back to its birth in 1810 and expands through more than two centuries. Colombians have grown up in the middle of an armed conflict that has had different phases, cycles, and scales. The last decade has been a phase characterized by spectacular military actions against the FARC guerrillas and a political process of para-military desmovilization. As a result of these actions, the state has recovered control over the roads, and the general public opinion, specially in the urban centers, agrees that the country is more secure. People has started to travel more by land and the tourism has increased considerably. However, the war continues in the remote areas of jungles and mountains, and, while the actors of the conflict (state army, guerrillas, and para-military militias) keep fighting for controlling territories and narcotraffic routes, civilians continue being displaced from their lands or killed between the fire. As an attempt to reflect on this ongoing warfare and on the violation of human rights, the photographer Stephen Ferry has been working on a project called Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict. Last Thursday, I listened to the presentation of this project during the event Picturing Crisis: Engaging the Viewer that took place at the Austin Center of Photography. I was pretty moved by the imagery and by the aims of  Violentology.

Violentology unfolds in various formats: a book, an exhibition, pdf booklets, and a website. Ferry shared with the audience a proof copy of the book so we could experiment touching the “newspaper” quality of the pages (“Bulky” paper stock), and looking at the big format of the images. By choosing such material and format, Ferry wanted to make a homage to the Colombian printed press and to the graphic reporters who have documented the conflict. He said that there is a rich tradition of photographic documentation in Colombia that he wanted to bring to the foreground. Ferry has assembled a collection of photographs that tells the story of the Colombian conflict since 1948 until today. He has looked at the historical archives in the search of visual evidence that  complements, at different levels, the photographic work he has done in recent years. By covering this period of time, Ferry reminds us that the so called historical period “La Violencia” (1948-1958), perhaps has  never ended. Instead, the conflict seems to  expand until today as a chronic illness. An example of this effort of historical contextualization are the images of “Sangre Negra,” one of the most ferocious criminals from the 1950s.

sangre negra

The pages of the book  can become posters when Violentology is exhibited in galleries, classrooms, and public spaces. Thanks to the quality of the paper, the pages can be easily wheat–pasted or taped to any kind of wall. The exhibition at Bogota’s Galería Valenzuela Klenner displayed the images as a sort of long film strip.

Although I didn’t have time to read the articles that are included in the book, I was struck by the images. They reminded me of the violent history of my country and the repetitive narrative and symbolism of  Colombian armed conflict. Somehow, this symbolic imagery of the war and violence is very limited.  It is as if a country and its people could not escape a recursive story of civil wars, lies, violations, and corruptions. I agree with Ferry in that the distribution of big format printed photographs has the potential to change the way in which violent imagery is read by the public. The medium is the message as the famous aphorism says. In contrast to the Colombian mainstream media reiterative and rapid coverage of the conflict, Violentology freezes the frame of the TV news political spectacle, unfocus the action of a fight, and re-contextualize graphic evidence from the historical archive. Hopefully, this message, would help Colombians to think in solutions to our conflict that don’t rely in increasing the violence but instead in imagining future dialogues, and cultural  transformations.

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