A few years ago, I found myself sitting on a park bench in Parque Bolivar, a large town square in Medellin, Colombia. As I sipped scorching hot coffee from a thin plastic cup, an endless parade of fascinating characters passed by me. Businessmen clutched their briefcases, priests and nuns headed towards the cathedral, musicians serenaded couples, street kids picked through the trash, prostitutes eyed potential clients and young families ate ice cream. It was the good, the bad and the ugly of Medellin concentrated into a square block with free seating and ample snacks.
The show was fascinating and inspired me to do some sort of photography project. But what exactly? Photographs of people walking through the park would be boring, plus the light was often poor because of the shade trees. After ruminating on it for a few days, I hit upon the idea of doing white background portraits in the style of my hero Richard Avedon. For my “studio,” I found a nearby parking lot willing to rent me a space and let me use it to take pictures. (Random aside: the owner of the parking lot used to work for the Jerry Lewis, the comedian).
So I set up my background and lights in the parking lot, and then walked out into the square to find my first subject. Medellin was still a fairly dangerous city at the time, and this wasn’t the best part of town, and yet I was approaching complete strangers and saying something like: “Hola! I know you don’t know me, but I was wondering if you would follow me down this dark alley so I can take your picture.”
And yet most people I approached said something like “Sure, why not.” (I think my gringo accent must have made me seem harmless).
Over the following weeks and months, I photographed tons of people and listened to their stories, many of which were sad. One street kid told me how he had been the only survivor of a massacre in his village, then pulled up his shirt to show me the surgery scars and the bullet still lodged visibly in the skin of his chest.
After a while I felt that I had mined everything I could from the park, and my vision for the project expanded to the entire country. I wanted to produce a set of portraits that would represent the richness and diversity of a place I had learned to love. Colombia is physically stunning, and the people are warm and welcoming and have a great sense of humor. It takes very little to extract a smile from a Colombian, and there is no easier place to make friends. And yet for my fellow Americans at the time, it was a country represented by Pablo Escobar and Tony Montana from Scarface. A land of drug smugglers and violence and little else.
And so I wrote out a photo wish list of the different sorts of people who would represent the country in all its complexity: the Afro-Colombians of the Pacific coast, the white elites in Bogotá, carnival dancers, indigenous people, fashion models, paramilitaries and FARC guerillas, etcetera. I didn’t want to ignore the country’s problems, just present them in a larger and more fair context.
Some of these characters were surprisingly easy to get. It took me only two phone calls to get a short portrait session with Colombia’s Vice President at the time, Francisco Santos Calderón. (He was nice, not terribly interesting to photograph, and we joked about Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face). In order to photograph the paramilitaries, I went to a press event where they were turning in their arms and agreeing to rejoin civilian life. So I was able to take pictures of some scary dudes in a safe environment. With other journalists, I also had lunch with a surprisingly charming mass murderer called “Jorge 40”.
The hardest subject by far was the indigenous peoples. For what turned out to be just a few minutes of photo time in a village on the Pacific coast, I had to get on a plane, wait around for days, buy a bunch of supplies, address a tribal council, and travel four hours in a dugout canoe. Two of those hours had me clutching my camera gear nervously to my chest because the canoe driver was plastered on the case of beer that they had added to the list of supplies.
I photographed for a few years during my trips to Colombia until I finally felt finished. And so I folded up my white background, had a couple of gallery shows, and then stuck the photos in a drawer. And now as my portraits collect dust, the memories remain vivid and alive. I remain grateful to the Colombian people for granting me such intimate access to their lives. And I thank the stars that a shy kid from Baltimore ended up in a profession that allows him to sample so widely from life’s buffet.