I've realized how life has a way of being cyclical – and not just in the boring, rote way. Over the past few years, I've repeatedly encountered this circular motion – moving back to my hometown, returning to photojournalism, returning to myself. It's as if the forces in the universe keep reminding me that things always return to the way they're meant to be.
Colombia has been another something that's kept returning to me for years now. More than a year ago, I had the chance to go to the country I'd started to focus on and become enraptured with from afar. That time, I decided not to go, for a number of reasons. But the universe had other ideas, and a few months later, I had another opportunity to go – a chance to realize a burgeoning dream to report on the country through the lens of the ongoing Paro Nacional protests.
It was an altering experience, in many senses. I'd always wanted to be a foreign correspondent – specifically a photojournalist. And I did just that – I did the work I'd always wanted to do. At the same time, I was struck by how unprepared I was for the work. I didn't have a plan going in, and I made some big mistakes. When I came home, I was happy with myself and what I'd accomplished, but I was also disoriented and confused. I didn't know how to move forward; I felt paralyzed.
Fast forward to now, about a year later. On Sunday, Colombia elected its first leftist president. It would be difficult to overstate just how significant this is for the country, in which leftist leaders have historically met tragic, violent ends. Incoming president Gustavo Petro won the runoff with a rock-solid 50.4% of the vote, reflecting frustrated voters' push for change following years of white-hot sociopolitical tensions stemming from decades of conflict, violence, inequality and other persistent challenges.
So, for the sixth photo in Anatomy of a photograph, I've chosen a photo I shot when covering the Paro Nacional protests last summer. It's become one of my favorite shots I took, one that reflects the bravery and resilience of the Colombian people amid a cascade of challenges.
This photo actually didn't stick out to me originally when I was in Colombia – I think probably because it felt like it had too much going on. But over time, I found myself really drawn to the subject of the photo – the demonstrator in the gray hoodie in the center of the frame. He's really the reason I love this photo so much: his natural position, the position of his hand, the near-total covering of his face rendering him anonymous – it's all so compelling.
Anonymity is important to touch on. (As you see, I also anonymized the other demonstrators to maintain their privacy.) When it comes to documenting public events, the technical rule is that you can take photos of anyone because, in essence, they waive their right to privacy because they are in a public space. (At least, that's how it works in the U.S.) This is the de facto rule in U.S. journalism.
I've really changed my mind on this rule, a shift that came about during the George Floyd protests; I found myself really absorbing what many people were saying about how it was unfair to assume protesters know the ins and outs of what's fair and what's not when it comes to documentation. Moreover, it's important to maintain people's privacy. Now, I try to anonymize people as much as possible, unless I ask explicitly, follow up or if they ask to be documented directly.
Going back to the point of how busy the photo is. While I think it's a weakness of the photo – a weakness more apparent in the B&W version below – I've come to see that the busy nature of the photo actually deepens the story behind the photo. This is not only because it's a photo of a protest, which are naturally busy, but because it documents a Colombian minga, a powerful act of protest in which Indigenous Colombians travel across the country on buses to fight for their territory and rights and, in the context of Paro Nacional, offer solidarity. La minga Indígena by nature packs a visual punch – it's important to show that in a photo.
As mentioned above, you can see better in the B&W version how busy the photo is. But I've really grown to like that about this photo, for the reasons mentioned above. At the same time, had I been a little more thoughtful in the moment, I'd have better centered the subject – I think the left-hand strip is distracting. (I don't like to crop my photos – I like to keep the final photo as close to the source photo as possible. I really try to get the best composition as possible in camera.)
Seeing the photo in B&W also emphasizes the subject and how he, despite being in the center of a lot of activity, still stands out. His striking pose paired with his anonymity creates an interesting dichotomy.
Colombia is a captivating place, not least because it evades any attempt at full understanding by one person – especially someone from elsewhere. At the risk of speaking for others, I sense this is why a lot of journalists are drawn to the place. One correspondent I spoke with there described it like this: "Every time I have a question about Colombia, instead of getting an answer, I get five more questions."
Colombia is at a pivotal point, which means even more questions will come. And how interesting it'll be to answer them – or try to. But for now, the palpable hope and relief in Colombia is something to behold and embrace.
I'm humbled to have witnessed the strength and resilience of so many Colombians over the past couple years, and I'm really proud of the journalists who have covered their complex journey to the current moment – and honored to have played a small role. I hope to keep covering Colombia as it steps into this new chapter. In the meantime, take a moment for the Colombian people and support journalism in some way you like – read a news feature about something you're interested in, follow a favorite journalist online, even subscribe to a paper you like.
With love and light,
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