Colombia faces growing political violence and a possible return to civil war despite a peace treaty in 2016 between the government and the country’s largest guerrilla group. This project aims to reduce the violence and promote reconciliation.
Mehamorphosis focuses on the demobilization of the FARC rebels as they make the hazardous transition from living under arms in hidden jungle camps to rejoining civil society. The project consists of exhibitions, talks, slideshows and a photo book, with images from before the final ceasefire until the present.
Without defending the FARC’s past actions or ideology, this project opens the door to empathy for the former rebels. They emerge as people with recognizable emotions, hopes and fears – very different from the sub-human monsters depicted for more than 50 years by the country’s mainstream media. I believe that by challenging the hostility of many Colombians towards the former fighters, the project will reduce public tolerance of violence against them and against supporters of the peace process.
The project also aims to help forge long term reconciliation by providing an accurate record of this critical phase of Colombian history – showing who the rank-and-file guerrillas were when they agreed to the treaty, how they felt about it, and what happened to them as a result. In the future, political interests opposed to peace in Colombia may present a distorted version of events. Peace processes worldwide show that authentic national reconciliation requires recognition of how things really were. This project provides it.
Because the project relies on images instead of words, it avoids the verbal stereotypes that dominate political debate and contribute to polarization both in Colombia and worldwide. Its visual language also bridges the country’s deep educational differences.
Reviewing an exhibition of the photos for Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, art critic Nelly Peñaranda said it was “an opportunity to promote solidarity, appreciation and respect, to dismantle derogatory falsehoods, and to work for tolerance and inclusion in a highly polarized panorama” (March 5, 2018).
Hundreds of former FARC rebels have returned to the jungle since the signing of the peace treaty, disillusioned with the government’s inability to fulfill many of its promises. Others currently sticking with the peace process say they will abandon it if their friends continue to be killed – a scenario that may be more likely after Colombia elected a new president in August who has pledged to undo key parts of the treaty.
History shows that it is not only former guerrillas who will suffer if the civil war is reignited. The heaviest toll will be on ordinary civilians. They accounted for more than four out of every five people killed in conflict between 1958 and 2013, according to a report by the state-funded Center of Historical Memory.
Colombia’s peace process also has an international dimension that makes its success critical for other parts the world. Governments and transnational organizations pledged their support as its guarantors, President Juan Manuel Santos was honored with a Nobel Prize for his role, and the Pope made a special visit to put the weight of the Catholic Church behind the agreement. To allow the process to fail in spite of such massive pressure in its favor would set a negative precedent for the resolution of conflicts worldwide.
Since 1989 I have photographed conflicts and other major news stories for magazines and newspapers worldwide. Recently I co-authored a book about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tijuana, Mexico (Tomorrow is a Long Time: Daylight Press, 2015), which was featured at the international photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France. My work has shown consistently that my viewpoint is based on humanitarian values and not tied to an ideological position.
Over the past two years, I have spent months with the FARC, both before the final ceasefire and during the demobilization process. I continue to photograph the former rebels in transitional camps, new communities, and family homes. I am also trying to gain access to groups of former FARC fighters now known as “dissidents,” who have abandoned the peace process and returned to the jungle.
My commitment to help reduce violence in Colombia is rooted in a life-long relationship with the country. I came here first in 1976 just out of school, returned as a foreign correspondent from 1985-86, visited frequently, and have lived here since 2015. I believe Colombia has reached a critical phase when entrenched attitudes to the conflict must change if the country is to move towards a more peaceful future.
The project has attracted wide media attention. Selections of my FARC images have appeared in the French magazine VSD and online at BuzzFeed.com. The project has been featured by BBC World-TV, Financial Times-TV, Capital Channel of Colombia and CityTV among others.