For photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado, the Colombian armed conflict is something that has marked his entire life. Abad Colorado, who grew up in a family of Antioquian farmers in the countryside, lived alongside violence from a very young age.
His grandfather, José María Colorado, and his uncle, Germán, were executed for their politically liberal opinions in the conservative village of San Marcos. Shortly after, his grandmother, María Dolores González, died of sorrow. Their memory was frozen in time with a portrait that would later teach Abad the importance of photography in preserving the stories of those who experienced the war in Colombia.
Several other cousins of his were forcibly disappeared and kidnapped by both the FARC and the Colombian armed forces, and his parents were eventually displaced from the countryside with which they had a profound connection, to the city of Medellín, fleeing from the violence. In spite of all the pain his family suffered, the bravery and kindness of his grandparents shone through: “My grandparents had always brought up the family with love and not desire for revenge. That’s why they fled and why they never wished to spread hate” says Abad.
It’s because of these experiences that Abad has so much empathy when it comes to managing the camera, and connecting with the people he photographs on a very human level. His photographs help to ensure that the stories of ordinary Colombians who suffered during the war won’t be forgotten, because it is in a state of amnesia that atrocities such as the armed conflict happen again. It is estimated that between 1958 and 2012, the Colombian conflict claimed 218,094 victims, and 81% were civilian casualties.
Abad describes his work in the following way: “war is represented by the media in a banal way that turns human life into statistics. What I do is take picture, facing people, looking into their eyes, to give a name to those who I saw crying many times, but also to those who I saw pick themselves up again, always respecting their humanity”.
During my first year of university, around 20 students and teachers were killed, and these were people I knew. In this country, words have always been dangerous
Abad begins his career as a young journalism student at the University of Antioquia, Medellín in 1987, in a very challenging social context. “I was always interested in journalism, but I was scared to write” Abad tells us. “During my first year at the University of Antioquia, around 20 students and teachers were killed, and these were people I knew. In this country, words have always been dangerous, especially those used to speak of social justice, equity and human rights”.
In spite of this danger, Abad Colorado knew he was destined to carry out a very important endeavour for his country, telling the story of Colombia through the gazes of those who would protagonise his photos.
The photographer who walks
The language Abad Colorado uses to describe his practice as a photojournalist is particular in that it speaks to the very human element of his work. “I like to walk with people and look them in the eyes” he tells us, emphasising the importance of understanding in depth the stories of those he has worked with. “I’ve walked across this country, and I’ve walked with its people”.
Due to the difficult and complex situation which Abad Colorado has decided to document, many think his photographs only deal with pain and suffering that many experienced during the decades of conflict here in Colombia. However, he stresses that his photos also portray stories of hope and human strength. “I don’t just speak about pain, I also speak about resistance and life itself. One doesn’t go out looking for pain, it finds you, as does dignity, humanity, and the luscious fields of this country, and people harvesting”.
“Memories consist of many different fragments and my work is to document that so that we can understand ourselves and each other more as a nation and a collective”. The idea of his photographs is to tell stories of the farmers and peasants of Colombia’s countryside, stories that seldom reach those who live in big cities or those who have had little to no direct experience of the war.
Abad Colorado wants to make us see that in every war there are winners and losers, and to break the cycle of violence, it is necessary that we understand these power dynamics. “The poor people are the ones who end up going to war”, says Abad, and as long as there is a political class who profits from arms sales and violence, there will be many Colombians who will suffer and lose everything.
How to overcome revenge and achieve peace
Colombia is profoundly divided, and these divisions became more apparent than ever during the peace referendum in October 2016, when 50.21% of Colombians voted against the agreements. The region of Antioquia, where Abad Colorado was born and where the city of Medellín is located, was particularly surprising in its stance against the peace accords and 62% voted against them.
We must educate future generations so they don’t forget, but also so they don’t perpetuate hatred and violence
After the referendum, ex-president Santos takes the unilateral decision to go ahead with the implementation of the peace accords, but does so in a context of profound political and social rejection at what was seen as a disregard of the results. Feelings of revenge on the part of the Colombian political elites would later become the biggest obstacle to advance with the peace process.
“Often we see that the people in power don’t have any desire to unite and move their societies forward, but to plunder them and benefit only certain groups” Abad tells us. “And this speaks volumes about our societies because it points to the lack of education, of political culture. People need to have a bigger sense of responsibility when they go out to vote, being aware that this type of politician that is capable of manipulation and lying exists”.
For Abad Colorado, the only way to overcome these polarisations is through educating the future generations about what happened here in Colombia. “We must educate future generations so they don’t forget, but also so they don’t perpetuate hatred and violence”. And Abad’s photos are a powerful educational tool that can transport the experiences of those who suffered during the war to those who continue to believe violence is the only option for Colombia.
Time will go by, but Abad Colorado’s photographs will remain as a reminder that there is no bigger threat to peace than forgetting the events of the past, and that we simply cannot allow for another war to occur in Colombia.