1.24.2014

The Image: Carlos Villalon, Some frames I have made

Photographer and publisher Alec Soth and I have started a small project on our mutual sites that will take an extended look at contemporary photography in Colombia. Medellín-based photographer and educator Gabriel Mario Vélez will also be joining us on this project.

We're looking at trends and traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers themselves. We plan to approach the project through a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Posts so far in the series include:
What is happening in contemporary Colombian photography?, LBM
Popsicle #40: Guadalupe Ruiz, LBM
Project Release: Juan Orrantia, "The afterlife of coca (and its) dreams" fototazo
Portfolio: Matt O'Brien, "No Dar Papaya" fototazo
Interview: Camilo Echavarría, fototazo
Jorge Panchoaga on Contemporary Photography in Colombia, fototazo
An Interview with Mateo Gómez Garcia, LBM

Today we continue with images and writing from the photojournalist Carlos Villalon.

Villalon, born in Santiago, Chile, has photographed extensively in Colombia. He studied graphic design at VIPRO University in Santiago and photography at Parson's New School in New York City. He is a contributor to Redux Pictures and splits his time between New York City and Bogotá. His work has been published in many magazines including National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Colors, Newsweek and Nature Conservancy.
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© Carlos Villalon, A girl walks through the flooded streets of Riosucio, Chocó, Colombia

One morning, while drinking coffee, I saw this story, printed in one paragraph, in a local paper in Bogotá, Colombia. It said something like:

Chinese immigrants travel across the jungle to get to their American dream

That's why I went to the Darién Gap.

While doing some work in Titumate, across the Gulf of Urabá, I ran out of film. I had to go to the other side of the gulf and try to find film in the city of Turbo, a small city where the chances to get at least Kodak Gold were dim. After several searches around town, I found only Konika film which I didn't even know how to spell. Anyways, a few days later I landed in Riosucio

The Darién Gap is a no man's land where the Pan-American highway, which stretches 16,000 miles from Patagonia, in Argentina, to Alaska in North America gets interrupted by 108 kilometers of swamps and tropical rain forest. It is almost impossible to determinate where the Darién ends or starts in Colombia, there are no clear maps, so for my own project I labeled Riosucio as it's center on the Colombian side of the Gap.

It rains 9000 mms of water in the Darién, making it one of the wettest places on earth.

When I arrived in Riosucio and saw the streets flooded by the Atrato river, I thought that this was one of my pictures to explain the 9000 mms of water in the Darién.

I was not sure about the film quality, so I was scared thinking about the results. But in the end I liked the result of this picture in particular. What used to be a street in the town of Riosucio in the Chocó region of Colombia is now flooded, and the replacement streets are wood planks which passersby use as bridges.

The picture was shot with a Canon EOS 1N, Konika film, 800 ASA, at about 6:00 PM in the evening.
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© Carlos Villalon, A gold miner sits outside his home, an abandoned school in the Acandí Seco River, Chocó, Colombia

This guy invited me to a great trip, for a price, back in 2007. He and his partner decided that while they wanted to dig for gold in the Tuquesa River in Panamá, they could guide through the forest towards the town of Bajo Chiquito in the Comarca Emberá [an indigenous territory] of the Panamanian Darién, a five day walk, starting from the town of Acandí in Colombia through rivers, tropical rain forests and breathtaking views in the mountains that divide the Darién between Colombia and Panamá.

After four days of walking to where the Chuqunaque River meets the Tuquesa, both guides decided that there was the spot where they had to finish their walk. "For us is to dangerous to continue," they said, "if the Panamanian border police stop us, we will spend, as Colombians, five years in jail for entering the country illegally. But you can continue, four hours away from here is Bajo Chiquito, even at your slow rhythm, you’ll reach town late in the afternoon."

I had to walk for a day and a half without food, fire or anything that could make a comfortable night in the jungle, but the full moon over the Chuqunaque River is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Shot with Kodak Portra at 400 ASA, at about 3:00 PM
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© Carlos Villalon, Coal mine in Lomas de Calentura, Colombia, 2013

I was assigned to cover the Drummond coal mine operation in Colombia in 2013. As soon as I got the assignment, I was very worried since Drummond in Colombia is well-known for not allowing photographers into their mines, but I took on the job anyway.

The next morning while driving towards the town of Lomas de Calentura, where the mines are located, my guide, a coal union worker stopped the car and told me, "Here is where you need to get out of the car and walk fast to the top of this mine waste hill and you'll get the picture you are looking for." Soon enough after climbing a mound of dirt and mud I saw this scene, a coal mine on strike. Soon enough an armed guard came up to me and told me that to take pictures was prohibited.

Shot with Canon EOS 5D at 200 asa. 8:00 AM
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© Carlos Villalon, Immigrant train called "The Beast" near the town of Arriaga, Mexico, September 22, 2011

I was driving from Tenosique to the city of Arriaga, a long ride of about twelve hours to see illegal immigrants who ride the train towards the city of Ixtepec and possibility of riding with them. We knew that the Beast might be passing through an underpass of the highway near town. We were advised of the time the train left Arriaga so we went fast just to see if we could catch up with it at that precise spot. A few minutes after we were standing on the bridge, the train showed up and it was a lucky shot. The train was packed with immigrants from Central America riding the train on top of the roof, a picture I did not have the chance to make before.

When you ride with the right people and have the proper connections sometimes you are able to plan ahead and get what you need to tell a story the way you want to.

Shot with Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 400 ASA at about 5:30 PM.