Interview: Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, Part I

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Z Quiebra de Naranjal, Caldas" from COLOMBIA-Tierra de luz

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

Today we continue with the first of a two part interview with Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo.

Escobar-Jaramillo, studied architecture at the National University of Colombia and an MA (merit) in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His projects have been exhibited in over 70 individual and collective exhibitions. Santiago has photographed for Villegas Editores, UNHCR, MFO-Egypt and ICIPE-Kenya. He runs workshops for National Geographic Student Expeditions - London, Zona Cinco - Bogotá, La Havana, New York and Don Bosco - Cambodia. His project COLOMBIA, tierra de luz (Land of Light) was exhibited at the DRCLAS@Harvard. He is a former X-Photographer for Fujifilm and he is co-founder of the Colectivo de Fotografía +1, member of La Hydra and the Association of Urban Photographers.

fototazo: Let's start by talking about how you arrived to photography.

Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo: In 1999 I was sent to the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, as a Colombian peace soldier in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). There I was assigned the task of translator and photographer. It was the first time, at 19 years of age, that I held a camera and took photos.

Back in Colombia, I decided to study architecture at the Manizales campus of the National University of Colombia. During my studies, I continued with photography, taking part in nationwide competitions and young artists exhibitions.

In 2007, having obtained a scholarship from Colfuturo, I traveled to London to do a Master's in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

I have been working as a photographer and artist in various countries in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and in the United States. In 2006 and 2008, I traveled to East Africa, employed by the ICIPE institute of entomology (African Insect Science for Food and Health) to redesign its image and to create photographic documentation of its projects in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Langostas - Sudan" from ICIPE 2006-2008

I also have participated in several exhibitions and some photo festivals, such as the 42nd Salón Nacional de Artistas - Colombia (National Exhibition of Artists); International Image Festival in Manizales; as curator of Encounters in Photography and Design I, II and III; in Bogota's Photography Biennale-Fotomuseo 2012; in the Critics and Investigators in Photography Conference in Montevideo; the Books in Photography workshop in Oaxaca by Trasatlántica-PhotoEspaña; and the BBVA & Bank of the Republic New Names exhibition and in international art festivals with Christopher Paschall SXXI Gallery among others.

When I returned to settle in Colombia, I was hired by Benjamín Villegas from Villegas Editores to photograph aspects of idiosyncrasy, landscapes and urban life around Colombia which have been published in ten documentary and architectural photobooks.

While I was traveling around the country for Villegas, I could imagine and begin the social and artistic project COLOMBIA, tierra de luz, which was exhibited last year at Harvard and MIT Universities.

Since 2011, I have been leading photo workshops in La Havana, New York and Bogotá for Zona Cinco, in various cities for UNHCR-United Nations, in Cambodia for Don Bosco, in London for CUCR-Goldsmiths and National Geographic Student Expeditions and recently for Fujifilm Colombia as a former X-Photographer.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Uganda - Hoima, Honey Project" from ICIPE 2006-2008

f: Most photographers I know in Colombia haven't lived or worked overseas. How have those experiences influenced your own practice?

SEJ: Indeed. I have always said that living abroad brought me most of the opportunities and ideas I have had in my career. To live, study and travel around other countries (35 at this point) gives you a privileged point of view about life, arts and of course, photography. You get another sense of reality; you experience new places and environments which help you to adapt to circumstances you never expected before.

I had the possibility to develop projects and have experiences in other countries that I was not expecting to find in Colombia. For example, to visit top museums and galleries; to relate with other cultures and idiosyncrasies; to live in places with seasons; to travel across different geographies, ruins and architectures; and to make VIP contacts.

Every time I travel to other places I have the purpose to develop short- or long-term projects. Sometimes I work mainly on urban photography, in other moments I document people and landscape, while in other cases I imagine photography as an artistic creation.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Tanzania - Usambaras, Tomato" from ICIPE 2006-2008

f: And how have these experiences allowed you to reflect on the contemporary landscape of photography in Colombia in a way that might not have been possible working and living only within Colombia your entire career? What does this "privileged point of view" allow you to see as you return to live and work in Colombia again?

SEJ: When I became interested in photography, I didn't see it as a main objective itself, but as a medium to produce my artwork (i.e. Citadels in Conflict). I remember following Colombian artists: Óscar Muñoz, Miguel Ángel Rojas, Rosario López, Juan Fernando Herrán, José Alejandro Restrepo, Fernando Arias, Jaime Ávila and Doris Salcedo who were using photography to create amazing pieces. In art competitions, for example, photographs were always obtaining prizes and there was a sense that it would stay well-positioned for a long time which was something that had been happening for decades in developed countries.

I also have to admit, that at that time, I wasn't very interested in documentary photography and photojournalism. I knew few examples in Colombia or from around the world. Of course, this changed when I went to London to study and learned about [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Sebastião Salgado, Nan Goldin and Joel Meyerowitz plus many other photographers I managed to see first hand in exhibitions, lectures and books. I got new influences there to be applied later.

That's why, when I headed back [to Colombia], I was paying a lot of attention to great national photographers such as Carlos Pineda, Fernell Franco, Jorge Mario Múnera, Libia Posada, Erika Diettes, Cristobal von Rothkirch, Jesús Abad Colorado and Santiago Harker, who had a sense of space, aesthetics and meanings and who stood out from the crowd.

During the last five years, I have gotten a better idea about what's happening with photography in Colombia. I feel that photographers, museums, schools, publishers and critics are on the correct path mainly because international photographers are coming to lecture and develop projects here (last year I assisted Bruce Gilden from Magnum in his Bogota project); new festivals are being held (Fotomuseo, Festival Internacional de la Imagen, ArtBo, etc); students can apply for scholarships (Colfuturo and Estímulos Ministerio de Cultura); cameras and accessories are imported quickly (Fujifilm Colombia just launched their new X-T1 simultaneously here and in Tokyo); and Internet has brought immediate access to knowledge, editing programs and other references (webpages such as the Lens Blog of The New York Times, Fundación Pedro Meyer, MoMa, Tate Modern, etc).

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Child Eyes. Kenya" from ICIPE 2006-2008

These facts sound positive, however the overall art scene is doing much better in comparison and photography is still relegated to looking for sponsors and receiving benefits from public political entities.

And it is around this fact that we should have the debate: "Should photography in Colombia be more open to art, new technologies and authorship?" I think so.

I feel that photographers must make an effort to see photography less rigidly and more freely: to create new narratives which are not merely linear; to defend authorship; to have more dialogue and dynamism in the scene; to include others (the photographed) in the make-up of their images; to use mobile phones as allies to develop new projects; and to combine other skills, tools, thoughts, formats and references from other disciplines rather than being harnessed to a classical photography based mostly in the technical, obviousness and rationality.

The challenge is big, but there are many talented photographers such as Jorge Panchoaga and Federico Ríos from Colectivo +1, Federico Pardo, Daniel Santiago Salguero, Álvaro Cardona, Emilio Aparicio, Ana Adarve, Guillermo Santos, Max Steve Grossman, Manuel Vázquez, Angélica Teuta, Karim Estefan, Camilo Rozo, William Fernando Martínez, Juan Diego Cano and César David Martínez - to name some - who are combining photography with others disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, politics, biology, journalism, architecture, literature and arts, which will increase the level of photography we are used to seeing in the country.

These guys are also seeing photography as a multi-tasking tool for education, research, exhibitions, publications, field work and commercial use.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Aguas Vivas, Córboda" from COLOMBIA, tierra de Luz

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Pachamamas de luz - Tesoro Yuche" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz

f: How do you feel that your own work, especially COLOMBIA, tierra de luz, fits into that landscape? Do you feel it is a project that fits into the type of increased openness to new modes of photography you're talking about here?

SEJ: I am confident that COLOMBIA, tierra de Luz, is a project which enriches our photography landscape. I feel that I have been taking risks by leaving my comfort zone to propose something different.

It occurs by combining photography, art, architecture and sociology to produce a series of symbolic acts of support for victims of violence and those who are displaced in different parts of Colombia.

As is well known, violence and forced displacement in Colombia have been two of the most worrying and most direct effects of the armed conflict for over five decades.

The selection of locations for the intervention reflects Colombia's rich variety of multicultural groups, regions, landscapes, climates, historical contexts, traditions and celebrations, geopolitics, as well as social problems and the different armed groups inside the country.

During the interventions (artistic actions, poetry workshops, music performances, celebrations and testimonials), villagers and indigenous people express their thoughts and emotions through words, gestures and singing while they help to construct and light up the sculptural objects and settings using electric light, lanterns, mobile devices, candles and bonfires.

In this sense, the documentary and interpretative photographs made of the interventions are indispensable as vehicles for memory and imagination for the children, teenagers and adults who participate in the actions. Thus the photographs made of light - through the process of capturing light by the camera - are considered as memorials when copies of them are given to each family to be hung in their houses.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Pueblo Fantasma" from COLOMBIA, tierra de Luz

f: How does the way you are using photography in COLOMBIA, tierra de luz relate to how you've used it in the past? What have you discovered about the medium and its potential through this project in relation to your other work?

SEJ: Before beginning the project I was seeing scale as a relevant topic in my work. I felt I had had enough of my miniature figures (1:72 scale) [used in previous projects] and wanted to work on one-to-one models (urban and landscape interventions). This is why I designed, constructed and photographed Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town), consisting of thirty-six tents lit inside on the slope of a mountain in the city of Manizales.

After this successful intervention, I challenged myself to create COLOMBIA, tierra de luz. I wanted to structure it from an artistic point of view as well as a social one. I needed to make it clear that it was a real social action aiming to help people.

I knew I was taking risks.

First, because politicians, social workers and rural farm workers doesn't take artistic practices very seriously. Second, photographers, artists and critics usually think that arts shouldn't have a function, nor have a didactic result. I struggled to combine both artistic and social activist perspectives in a symbiotic and creative way.

I pushed hard to get images both successful aesthetically and charged with significance. I found in the effect of using light - tungsten, LED, torches, iPads, etc - to produce chiaroscuro a powerful symbol to get the desired sensuality to my images. This sensuality prompts memories, calls for reflection and captures the imagination. Photography depends on light to become matter. It is also light that lets architecture and spaces show themselves, show their textures and forms, with its heat. Through this, it is light that symbolically lifts us from gloom and lights our desires and therefore it is photography that captures a moment in these illuminated places, making the photographs [that document the event] a healing memorial. I also gave sincere respect to the victims of violence and forced displacement. Thus, I never created false expectations or went further in my requests.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Ainküin - Maicao, Guajira" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz

f: We'll go back to Pueblo Fantasma in a moment, but your response gives me one more question about COLOMBIA, tierra de luz. You talk about the project as being a social act and also about a general belief held by many that art isn't a vehicle for inducing social change or creating social action. What would you point to in terms of social effects produced by COLOMBIA, tierra de luz to someone who would argue art is a poor vehicle for social change or action?

SEJ: Partially, I agree with the doubt of the question. I do think that to give complete support to victims of violence, it is necessary to accompany the symbolical (artistic) act with other elements such as taking political action by issuing laws and decrees; making economic support visible through investment in infrastructure and livelihood; constructing housing projects; and promoting demonstrations of social responsibility by charities and NGOs.

Artistic and cultural expression - be it photography or other contemporary practice - can make a difference. Art and aesthetics have the capacity to generate transformations in emotions by activating conscience, building protests, bearing witness to moments, producing corporal sensations and perceiving changes which human action generates in individuals, territories and the landscape.

Photography, for instance, bears testimony to the present which we are living and is witness to problems of violence, inequality and damage to our environment. Photography is also a tool for proposing solutions, expressing opinions and imagining new realities. It is the reflection of the individual photographer, who seeks to become the collective conscience.

Finally, I want to share a personal experience I had when I was a child. My uncle was murdered by corrupt policemen close to his farm when he discovered drug trafficking in the region. I was having nightmares afterwards and couldn't sleep properly. I remember being shot constantly by these guys in my dreams. After many months of this, I came up with a solution: I imagined myself protected from the bullets under a glass or ice helmet, and I could sleep properly after all. From that moment on, I trusted creativity as a powerful tool to change attitudes and stir emotions.

Basically, that was the main question which motivated me to develop COLOMBIA, tierra de luz: if this helped me, why not apply this idea to others?

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Green Lantern-Carmen de Apicalá, Tolima" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz

f: A number of other Colombian artists including Diettes as well as foreigners working in Colombia, such as Stephen Ferry, have worked with witnessing violence as a theme as well. They have used quite different approaches from yours.

What projects beyond your own navigating the issue of Colombian violence have had an impact on you that you would recommend to readers? Is there an overlap between your work and the work of Diettes, Ferry or others in the treatment of the theme?

SEJ: I learned about Diettes' and Ferry's work when COLOMBIA, tierra de luz was already advanced. I find their work very touching. Erika's Sudarios is sensorial and spatial as she hangs portraits of women in pain inside churches [editor's note: see our review of Diettes' Sudarios here]. I see Ferry's Violentology much more about showing a historical reading of Colombia's violence by having photojournalists collaborate and by using news articles written by others.

However, before starting the project I was studying Libia Posada, Doris Salcedo, Beatriz González, Óscar Muñoz and Juan Manuel Echavarría's works – those I mentioned earlier. And I agree with writer and photographer Jose Falconi when he says: "this proliferation of memorials within the Colombian visual arts to the point of transforming itself into a tradition is a topic which, as far as I have seen, has not been dealt directly [sic] in academic writing, and which certainly constitutes an area for future exploration." [ed: an essay by Falconi on Escobar-Jaramillo's work can be found here]

During the last few years, there have been an increasing number of projects working on memory, symbolical acts of support and people's resistance. The [Colombian] Government peace talks with Las FARC occurring right now at La Havana are influencing institutions, universities and communities to develop new strategies for the post-conflict era.

A powerful project to follow is Jorge Panchoaga's La Casa Grande which is going one-step further in documenting and reflecting on Cauca's communities. He beautifully combines camera obscura techniques with an insight on families' struggle to keep their traditions, land and health under violent harassment. Libia Posada's Signos Cardinales, which has been presented widely, is a striking dialogue between artist and victim, body and drawing, memory and meaning. Or you can see Doris Salcedo's Plegaria Muda which confronts the audience with silence and loneliness, wood and grass. Also, the Centro de Memoria Histórica is collecting important information and documenting projects which use art to make things easier for victims of violence.

Part II will be published shortly.

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Santa Rita" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "El León Dormido, Obra Viva - Pasto, Nariño" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz

© Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo, "Finca La Sombra, Magdalena" from COLOMBIA, tierra de luz