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Federico Rios and the two Colombias

            There exists certain disjoint when growing up in a Colombian city like Bogotá, Medellin or Cali. Large population centers have their fair share of issues, muggings and gang related violence, and yet this is simultaneously countered by a growing art scene as well as by a blooming tourist industry. While in decades past growing up in Bogotá, where I did, meant an inevitable awareness and daily overlap with the phantom of drug violence, which shadowed the country for a large part of its history, in the present this is hardly the case. While my parents were forced into a predominantly doors-in upbringing, where going out at night or loitering the street meant putting yourself at risk, my childhood would not be as indistinguishable from that of an American kid as one would imagine. Herein lies the disjoint. That while an armed conflict took place in widespread rural areas of the country, my childhood, as well as the city’s daily life was hardly disturbed by it. The images I saw of the FARC, the Marxist-Leninist guerilla group that has been fighting the government for the last fifty years, the longest any guerrilla has in South America, showed up only on TV or on the morning papers, next to the previous week’s ball scores. The closest I got to the conflict was when I was eight and a bomb went off in a local social club which some of my friends frequented. Even though I’d been inside the place in the past the attack still felt inexplicably foreign. That was one of the very few city-centered attacks the FARC have committed during my lifetime.

            People in the city have their own routine and daily worries and aren’t thinking too much about what happens outside their own lives. The “guerrilleros” interchangeable faces in camouflaged gear become a threat used by politicians on the campaign trail, an all-evil enemy. Granted, the war crimes and deaths they were responsible for are incalculable, as are the ones the Colombian Army and Paramilitaries are responsible for, themselves. And yet, what is so troublesome about that cartoon-worthy representation of the FARC is that it ignores that the FARC rebels too are people who ended up being enlisted on the other side, simply because they were born in a different part of the country. One where the FARC set up community programs and built roads in poor disconnected areas where the government wouldn’t dare or care set a foot. That’s where Federico Rios’ work comes in. The photographer, born in Manizales, with a childhood probably not too different to my own, took it upon himself to photograph the FARC members starting in 2012. When peace talks between them and the government which would lead to the signing of a disarmament agreement in 2016 first started, even if away from the public eye. He’d previously been involved in photographing other complicated sites and events around south America on assignment for the New York Times, but his work on the Colombian disarmament deal was perhaps the closest he’d worked to home besides a collection taken on the Medellin youth gang violence that he’d undertaken years prior. Nonetheless his FARC project stands out from his portfolio.

            In the past there have been other Colombian photographers concentrated on capturing the conflict in their work, even if the calling was rare enough. Someone like Jesus Abad Colorado is a good example. Colorado is the Colombian war photographer by excellence, a reference point brought up by any who attempt anything of the kind. However his black and white snapshots, although powerful, still felt somewhat distant to me when I first saw them, maybe because the lack of color made them feel less vibrant and contemporary, something out of a history book. In contrast, Federico Rios’ images show the FARC not in combat, or through the aftermath of their clashes with the government, but as people. In Rios’ images the FARC rebels have faces and personal identifying traits: in some they shower in the river, in others they sort themselves into teams and play football in their encampment. It’s an approach to the guerilla that far from being apologetic, does however show them as human beings and not as a faceless entity. It subverts exactly the image I grew up being exposed to: that of the evil faceless terrorist threat. Many have accused Rios of excusing the FARC of their crimes. There’ll unavoidably be a lot of pain and hate left behind by a years long conflict and that can’t just be brushed under the carpet. At the same time, there’s also many in power that may benefit from a dehumanized image of the enemy to use as a populist campaign platform. However what Rios is doing is not only a first of the kind but also a crucial step towards reinstituting the FARC soldier into society, a necessary step in leaving a painful period behind. Rios’ images force a break in the reigning narrative that the press has built and are a start in closing up the disjoint present between the Colombia I grew up in, and the one a large part of the rural population experienced. It’s no wonder then that his images went on to be displayed in the NY Times as the newspaper covered the end of Colombia’s decade long conflict. Images that few in Colombia would have thought of when the conflict was brought up, becoming its representatives abroad. Even though the choice highlights the split in realities and postures inside the country, the photographs seem like a perfectly appropriate insignia for the coming period on the international stage. The possibility is thus raised that through witnessing of the FARC’s everyday life, Rios is making a greater section of the population bear witness alongside him. The newspaper coverage of the war and statistics replaced by humanizing snapshots of the rebels who took part in it.

            There has been up to the point a prevailing history regarding the events, one of absolutes where one side is “good” and one “bad,” but to what extent does Rios’ undertaking undercut or shift this narrative. There are several who consider that empathy for the FARC shouldn’t be built and that such association is counterproductive and diminishes their crimes, but at the same time going into a peace process it feels like Rios’ work if anything is much needed right now. Rios himself has often-stated in interviews that he only records what he sees and has no agenda, but his images definitely come with an emotional load. Not only in humanizing their subjects, but also, in color, making them tangible. The work somehow helps to start reconciling the two Colombias I’ve previously mentioned, simply by forcing one to look straight at the other. Not being able to ignore its existence and claim to the nationality any further than it already has.

            When one contrasts Rios’ pictures to those taken by someone like the previously mentioned Colorado, it becomes clear what the former’s work is doing. Each photographer’s work is of course responding to their specific era, but in contrast they together paint a complex picture of Colombia’s conflict, both in its private and public spheres. Colorado’s photograph deal with the conflict as images that document and raise awareness: A man leaning in grief upon a coffin, a schoolgirl peaking out through the bullet hole in a window, the ruins of the destroyed Bojaya church (hit by a stray mortar while at least 200 villagers tried to find shelter from the combat outside). The work focuses on depicting the victims, and when created, was key in reminding the Colombian public that these kinds of massacres were going on not far from their very homes. Colorado’s images denounced overlooked moments of pain. Rios’ photographs serve an opposing purpose. They concentrate on the perpetrators, making them in a way the victims of a government system that failed them. Looking at Rios’ colorful photographs it would often be easy to forget that the people we see in them are in the position that they are, if it wasn’t for the recurring uniforms or rifles showing up in frame. In some the characters do line up in formation or examine their weapons, but in other they seem almost civilians, watching TV or hanging their clothes to dry. Perhaps the ones that extend this disjoint the furthest are those where the rebels are seen doing everyday tasks and yet can’t be separated from their equipment: a man plays pool at a bar with a rifle hanging from his back, a woman sits on her cot and brushes her hair, all while suited in military gear.

             One that particularly complicates the reading is a portrait of Rodrigo Londoño, Alias Timochenko, the top FARC commander. While his appearances on television usually see him in full gear, in rough conditions, Rios’ portrait shows him in a white t-shirt in front of a wooden background, his hair neatly combed to the side and a tranquil look on his face. It’d be easy to confuse him for any other 50-ish Colombian man one could bump into on the street in Bogotá itself. It’s perhaps easier to process the FARC’s foot-soldiers as people caught in a struggle grander than themselves, but this is the man currently in charge, the mastermind behind the FARC’s activities over the last few years since he took charge. When one thinks about the photograph he doesn’t look all that different to the politicians in power on the other side of the conflict, which unsurprisingly is what he aims to become after the peace agreement is implemented. The photograph normalizes him, as it does his troops so the question becomes rather what consequences, both negative and positive, this may bring. It’s an issue of representation that Rios is well aware of.

            In his pictures the FARC are made tangible, but are also, accordingly with what comes after a painful long conflict, personified. Thus the decision to take their portraits is a strongly political choice. One in this case in favor of the peace process that created a large divide in the country, but still one that comes with a very clear agenda. Thankfully it’s Rios’ agenda and not that of either party involved. The photographer made sure it remained so by setting very clear ground rules with the guerrilla before entering their camps and taking their pictures. He agreed to come in, take photos of what he chose to, and leave without having to show them to FARC representatives for approval. Then publishing wherever he decided. It’s a process that allowed him the autonomy such a historical undertaking demands. The question is raised however on whether photographing such a topic can be a-political at all, and on what ripples Rios’ representation choices may create. The importance of the occasion however, brings a technical choice into question: should images that will forever represent such a complex and murky chapter in a country’s history be beautiful? There are a number of ethical choices to be made when taking on a project like Rios’.

            In the hands of a foreign photographer it might be easy to end up fetishizing the conflict, so in that sense it could be taken as a positive that Rios is a local and is well aware of the history he is capturing and shaping with his lens. Not to say that a foreigner couldn’t have documented the period, but rather that the project would have been a very different one had it been so. It was after all Rios’ appeal to the guerrilla as a fellow Colombian that allowed him to get as much access as he did, even if on assignment for an international paper. As the photographer mentioned in an interview, it was through meeting these people (cracking jokes, sharing a coffee with them) that he managed to break into the private sphere of a regiment that usually holds such a strict public face. The project thus becomes more than a simple record of what it is like in a FARC camp and instead represents how a Colombian, from an environment not different to my own, can bind with his countrymen enough to try and see past the conflict they’ve been involved in. Even if “seeing past the conflict” doesn’t exactly mean forgetting the pain that was caused, but rather acknowledging the people on the other side as alike oneself.

            There’s value in that emotional step, but going back to the aesthetic nature of the photographs, the question remains: would beauty undercut the goal? Rios is a professional photographer and he knows how to frame an image or choose a moment. In a particular photograph of his, a FARC sentinel stands on a boat during the day. A caption explains that the sharpshooter, Junior, is guarding his companions while they take a bath. His gaze is lost beyond the frame and he holds his rifle by his side, in case he’s suddenly called to action. The sun glints off the shimmering water in the background, and the water droplets that hang suspended in the air are backlit, giving the whole afternoon a golden hue that again seems to be at a complete disjoint with the potentially tense scenario the image is depicting. The scene looks peaceful, but it nonetheless feels odd for such a calm capture to illustrate an otherwise complicated foggy period. It speaks perhaps to what Rios has been doing, trying to portray these soldiers outside of war, even if the musket and sentinel post, stop us as viewers from disconnecting the two. Can focusing on beautiful pictures be counterproductive to representation? Or does the image, an unlikely moment of beauty in an otherwise rough setting, drive the point home even more so?

A tool which if often used to document and reveal, to denounce, is here instead used to create. To build a public face for those who haven’t had one: Not the FARC commanders and ideology, but the average foot soldier. The most basic urge of the viewer to see something which he can’t in real life purely because of geographical bonds, is exploited and politicized through the image. Rios photos are unique exactly in their attempt to be common. Not grandiose events that go with the important historical period, but self-contained ones. The most famous war-photographs are usually ones that contain violence in one way or another, but Rios’ photography shifts the public’s understanding of the conflict by representing a war without showing the war, and there’s boldness in that choice.

            It is images and recounting that shape the past, and as most of the one’s representing the FARC have originated from a side that sees them as enemies and terrorists, Rios’ work is instrumental in widening our understanding of them, although it goes without saying, still acknowledging the crimes they’ve committed as an organization. In photographing an unseen side of the FARC, he’s opened a door to them being understood differently. The disjoint between both Colombias is not a unique symptom but one that has by now become common to most countries trying to grow in a fast-paced world while still being haunted by the phantoms of their past. However, it is by acknowledging, and by considering the ways in which we process these pasts and these segments of history, that any progress or growth can be undertaken. Moving on from such a stage is complicated and there’s no one single easy path, but I find works like Rios’ photographs to be a strong push in the right direction, and to evidence how the ways we witness mark how we construct our narratives. The grander picture of the war making it easy to forget that those who we’re fighting are so often very similar to ourselves.

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