Project Release: Juan Orrantia, "The afterlife of coca (and its) dreams"

The photographer and publisher Alec Soth and I have started a small project together on our mutual sites that will take a look at contemporary photography in Colombia. We're looking at trends and traditions; events, institutions, and venues; as well as photographers who deserve more recognition for the work that they are doing.

Even as we talk with more people and get feedback and suggestions from readers - as well as from the photographer and educator Gabriel Mario Vélez who will be joining us on this project - we've started looking at and posting work. Soth published a piece today on the work of Guadalupe Ruiz and here we feature the work of Juan Orrantia along with a short Q&A with him that follows below.

"The afterlife of coca (and its) dreams" (2010-in progress)
After three decades of the so-called war on drugs, not much has changed for many whose lives have been crossed by the narcotics trade in Colombia. Coca fields are continuously burnt and destroyed and peasants are left with illusions and memories of what remained. In many of these places the images of heavily armed young men hanging out at cantinas, of bundles of cash and moments of petty luxury seem to linger in the atmosphere. Stories of excess, of wealth and fear are now part of reality as peasants find new ways of making a living. Young people are wondering what to do, seeking ways of recovering what they lost, because as they say, money, lots of it came, but it just went away.

During my college years I passed through one such town repeatedly. I never really stopped there much, as there seemed to be a heavy mantle of fear that would cling on to me and not let go until I was sure we had already left. Armed young men were seen at cantinas while others patrolled town. In the outskirts were the coca fields and one could see the paths leading off to the processing labs. Mules would be seen carrying big tins of chemicals. You could feel eyes on your back. Rules were clear; keep quiet, mind your business and move on. This was the turf of a very well known paramilitary who controlled the fields, and with out a doubt, was king. Today he is serving a prison sentence in the US. Besides the drug trafficking, there are processes of murder and sexual violence against him. Memories are complicated here, entangled in politics, rights, loyalty and imagination.

Recently I decided to return here. Glimpses of the past came about in every corner, and I felt a kind of thrill as I walked into homes once partially forbidden to me. Forbidden for the mere act of fear. The last time I saw this town it was filled with men in army fatigues carrying grenade launchers and looking despairingly at me. It took me a few days to get rid of that sense of surveillance and begin to uncover a present filled with images of things past.

This project is about engaging such a place; about people’s lives after the dream dissipates and what is left are the loose ends of what once was and what there is. It is also about my own memories—those that I was never able to photograph back then—and how they are entangled in the web of a complex history that partially begins to reveal itself.

fototazo: What surprised you or particularly interested you as you had the chance to return to the pueblo and go inside doors and have interactions that had been off-limits previously?

Juan Orrantia: My impressions of this town were based on college years, passing through, and working based on stereotypes as well as very direct engagements with the reality of such places, like dealing with paramilitary rule in the area and hearing the stories of coca and cocaine production. Chatting with a friend who also knows the area very well and is now working with me on the project, we have both spoken about the first night we spent in the town, post-coca times. It was a mix of fear of past images and the reality of waking up at a new time, in a place we both probably never thought we would actually really experience. It has been putting a face on names that I associated with fear for example. And then, it has been a space to engage the reality of people living in these situations, themselves also dealing with the stereotypes and the reality of what can be the beginnings of a post-conflict situation. Ultimately, dealing with the real people behind the images and stereotypes, but doing it through my own personal memories in the present.

f: You're based in South Africa and were born in Bogotá; does being an expatriate photographer returning to Colombia influence your ideas, vision, or perspective when you photograph here?

JO: I have been living outside of Colombia for some years now, but I am not sure if its been that long to be an expatriate as such. Also, just the fact that I am from Bogotá means I am engaging this situation from an outsider's perspective. And that is something we definitely want to bring to the project, an element of reaching out to the experience of memory in the Colombian conflict across class lines, where the role of imaginaries really played a part in how people were defined. Having said that, being involved in other photographic communities and traditions in the south like the South African one, and more recently the Indian one, has been incredibly rich and nourishing, and is shaping the way I see my own place, photographically that is. It is also a challenge to not be comfortable with the situation, since I think many times we can be a bit lazy by relying on the fact that we photograph "our communities" because we are dealing with our country, and it's not necessarily so.

f: How does your project attempt to move the conversation beyond the visual stereotypes of drugs and violence in Colombia while still considering these themes?

JO: That is the biggest challenge I think. The fact that we are dealing with our own memories as well as the past and present experiences of these people implies an engagement and commitment with the way the conflict has been lived and experienced differently across very demarcated lines that define Colombian society, but that nevertheless implies points of contact between these different experiences. That is an issue we want to raise through this. It is also an engagement with going back to memories of fear and confronting them today, moving forward so to speak. In that way, we are trying to take the element of time and its relation to the conflict from a more complex manner, instead of "freezing" the images of people into a "this is how they are" or "this is how they were." Rather, we want to open the space for the complexity of the situation to come across through less defined images.

f: How do your images fit into the context of other photography created in Colombia?

JO: I think that photographically there have been limits imposed on the representation of the conflict (and the country) both from outside as well as from within, in terms that people want to "see," to take the role of the photographic medium as something that illustrates, denounces - makes visible. But that is one part or one way of engaging the medium, and it usually gets caught up in the unproductive divide between "documentary" and "art." However, I think there is now a space for people to be engaging with the recent experiences of the conflict in a way that deals with the more murky implications of it, and does not fall into cliches. I am thinking for example of the works by Clemencia Echeverri or Jose Alejandro Restrepo. These are works that bring to the fore the role of experiences and histories of violence as such, and its relationship with memory (both personal and collective) and representation. These are things that definitely interest me.


Juan Orrantia, born in Bogotá, Colombia; based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Working in the documentary arts, my practice is based on the evocative possibilities of photography as a critical form of documentary. I also explore the medium in its relation to text, sound, ethnographic film and new media. I have been interested in questions of memory, history, dislocation and time, through projects on the aftermath of violence (Colombia and Mozambique); postcolonial cities and nostalgia; autobiography and the Colombian cocaine trade; and more recently, the anticolonial thinker Amilcar Cabral and his traces in Guinea-Bissau.

Awards include the Tierney Fellowship in Photography (2010) as well as various grants and residencies at research institutes. Solo exhibitions have been held in Germany, Colombia, and South Africa, as well as various group shows including the New York Photo Festival, Le Cube (Paris), Cape Town Month of Photography, Bonani Africa Festival of Photography, and Ethnographic Terminalia (New Orleans). My work has appeared in publications such as Sensate (a journal for experiments in critical media practice), Visual Anthropology Review, Iconos, and online platforms such as Foto8, Documentography, and F-Stop.