Interview: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, Part II

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Hombresolo" from Ciudadelas en Conflicto

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
Carlos Villalon, Some frames I have made, fototazo
Q&A: Victoria Holguín of fotomeraki, fototazo
Interview: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, Part I, fototazo

Today we continue with Part II of our interview with Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, from "Can You Hear Us? / ¿Puedes oírme?" Intervention
to Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth," Tate Modern, Londres

fototazo: Let’s move back now to some of your previous work, including Pueblo Fantasma that you mentioned previously. My sense is that COLOMBIA, tierra de luz is a departure for you from previous work. Can you talk about that change in working method, and perhaps use that as a way to talk about your previous projects in terms of their process, form and content?

Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo: Before I go on, I want to thank you for inviting me to reflect on my own work. I have found it's an important exercise that one should do more often.

When I finished my master's degree and I was planning my return, I knew I wanted to try to take the next step. I was so involved in seeing scale and meaning from a different point of view that I came up with the idea.

Pueblo Fantasma as you suggest, became the base for what was coming next. To pass from 1:72 scale to 1:1 was precisely what I was encouraged to develop. My parents had moved to a new apartment which had the Morro de Sancancio, a tutelar mountain, just in front. I made some drawings of tents - monolithic pyramids - located on the slope of the mountain which simulated an invasion of a displaced population. And I asked core questions: What could citizens assume by seeing this event?; Isn't it very particular to Manizales that it has never been involved in the Colombian conflict?; How can land art be an act to call attention?; How can photography be a mechanism to register an event?; Does lighting the tents up also point out that these people also suffer during the night?; Can friends, colleagues and regular citizens be allies to fulfill my tasks?

Those were some of the questions I put on the table. And I have to say, the results were very positive. Not only because they resonated with me but also because they became the foundations for developing COLOMBIA, tierra de luz.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Mother, Dance & Calf" from Ciudadelas en Conflicto, INV!SIBLES

After Manizales, Pueblo Fantasma moved to Armenia, Medellín and finally to Santa Marta's shore. I put the same tents floating on the sea close to the marina to symbolize a water-break which steals land from the sea, the historical land which has been snatched from peasants by violence and large landholders.

Some weeks before doing this intervention, I visited a real ghost town in Magdalena. Santa Rita had hundreds of abandoned houses in ruins with only their walls standing as skeletons, without doors, windows, roofs and furniture. Everyone had left, leaving the image of a very sad story. When I went back, I talked to the very few people staying there as new returnees. We decided to light up the abandoned houses - through a simple wick system - to simulate the idea that the village was alive once again. Thus the whole village was alight with hope. Each abandoned house contained heat and a home within its walls as a symbol of return. The entire population took part in the intervention.

After these interventions, it became clear how to go on with the bigger project.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Abajo del mar, encima el amor" from Ciudadelas en Conflicto, INV!SIBLES

f: And looking back at your earliest photographic work, can you see the origins of these types of interventions, your interest in using art for social activism and the themes you currently work with, including displacement and violence? Or is your earliest work quite far away from these ways of making work?

SEJ: If you see my first major project Citadels in Conflict and the next one INVIS!BLES, then you find political statements which reflect on conflict. Using miniature plastic soldiers was a strategy for symbolizing that citizens and single men who are enrolled in the army are like figurines which can be moved and changed as in a chess game. They are the mechanism of power which leaders and commanders use to fulfill their goals. Nevertheless, to build these models was the manifestation of the platonic desire to have conflict contained only in imagination, rather than in reality. That was the purpose of using bright acrylics and mirrors to reflect objects in both planes: the positive and the negative.

In the same sense, COLOMBIA, tierra de luz involves the construction of sculptures on a bigger scale. Here, the power is given to the victims - and the photographer – countering the idea that violence is the only entity that can make decisions and make an impact.

We can also say the intervention works towards an understanding of space. The spatial conditions are given not only to be seen, but to be experienced with other senses such as touch, smell, hearing and taste. The intervention also emphasizes the importance of valuing activities, relationships, memory and imagination. These aspects can be seen in this work and also in my largest body of work, my urban and street photography.

Of course, my interest in conflict is not seen specifically in my urban and street photography. In this work, I'm more focused on giving order to chaos by finding geometry and through aesthetics, and vice versa. The work is critical by making satirical comments about daily life and normal people. On the street, I apply a different method to relate to people based more on observation and invisibility, rather than being an omnipresent participant of the event.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Antony Gormley's" from London, gap my mind

f: You're part of a photography collective with Jorge Panchoaga and Federico Rios called Colectivo de Fotografía +1. What are the reasons that you decided to form a collective? What opportunities and advantages has being part of this collective brought you as a photographer? And are there things that you also have had to give up as an individual photographer to be part of the collective?

SEJ: During this entire journey I have been meeting great photographers. Some of them national and others from different countries, some experienced and younger ones too. However, I have been particularly attached to working alongside those from my generation. It's important to notice that these days, the photographic praxis is very different to the one happening two and three decades ago. Today we have a lot of access to information and more opportunities can be found to develop yourself as a photographer, and I find contemporary photographers more adaptive to these conditions.

That's one of the reasons that motivated me to form the Colectivo +1 with my pals Federico and Jorge. I profoundly respect their work. For instance, I see Federico's work as an extension of his life. Federico is very coherent about his work: how he feels and thinks, he photographs, and that's uncommon to find. He always researches his topics plus his advanced skill level with the camera helps him express himself as a serious documentary photographer who seeks longer-term stories, rather than hard news. He never puts aside his artistic sensibility to produce projects such as Comuna 13 - Medellín, Ocupas - São Paulo and La Firma de los Ríos among others. I am curious to see the edition of his latest project about reconciliation. He is also very generous and shares his knowledge which is a huge benefit for being around him.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Manizales, el alma" from London, gap my mind

Jorge is very talented as well. I truly admire his work as he takes time to analyze the world surrounding him, which combined with his good eye and vast knowledge creates powerful and beautiful projects. His latest work, La Casa Grande, is the best example you can get of this. Also, working along with him for Fujifilm as an X-Photographer for the past few months has been an opportunity for me to see his street photography series Casi Café and Guatever in shadows which I like a lot. As you can imagine, I feel very proud of being part of this cohesive, experienced and creative group.

Furthermore, we share similar interests. We think that knowledge and experience as teachers and photo-leaders has to be shared. When you give to others, you receive at the same time. Another aspect is the importance of working with communities. We have been doing that for the last ten years as individuals and it is inspiring. When we came together, we knew that this must be continued. One example of this is the huge project we developed in Quibdó, Chocó. We were invited to document Las Fiestas de San Pacho, the people's carnival. We convinced the authorities to extend an invitation to local photographers to participate in a free and open workshop. During the celebration we managed to walk around with the students while we photographed. It was a really cool experience, which helped us to create the first installment of the visual memory generator project - GEMEVI (generadores de memoria visual) - that will contribute to producing some future visual language of the city and their celebrations. The last and not least aspect, is the permanent activity we have as photographers. We are lucky to travel permanently around the country and abroad on different photography commissions which make us actively involved in the themes we are looking at. We are constantly refreshing our portfolio, methods, contacts and knowledge.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "W-in-t-t-t-t-t-t-er" from London, gap my mind

I don't feel it is an impediment to work with others. As a collective, we are still assured of having our own space to produce personal projects. Sometimes we collaborate as pairs or between the three of us. We give freedom to our personalities to express things sincerely. For sure it could be seen as problematic to negotiate our different points of view, though at the end we always work out a compromise. I strongly recommend to other Colombian photographers to do collaborations.

f: Any last things you'd like to add, Santiago?

SEJ: Sure! I just want to add that photography has to be moved by conviction, knowledge and practice. Success shouldn't be expected if you are looking for results. Photographers must give value to the process and recognize it as the milestone of our profession.

I also want to recognize the labor you and Alec Soth are doing to promote Colombian photography. Certainly, Colombia will have something to say about the topic in the upcoming future. And in my case, I don't want to miss it. I hope I can continue adding some photos to the album!

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "B O O N" from London, gap my mind