César David Martínez has portrayed Colombia like few people have, traveling with his lens across 32 departments, 700 documented destinations, 22 World Heritage Sites in the country, more than 20 indigenous communities, 35 fairs, festivals and carnivals representative of Colombian cultural heritage, twenty volcanoes, 25 national natural parks, 17 heritage towns, all the hydrographic frontiers in fresh and salt water in Colombia, 5 archaeological parks, 15 maritime islands and 18 moors, among others. Martínez has 26 years of experience in photographic production, has published 42 large and medium format photography books and has won 42 national and international photography awards. For each destination he photographs, he plans, produces, coordinates and carries out expeditions (135 expeditions and photographic trips in 32 departments of Colombia and 15 countries, so far). With each photographic trip, he documents the soul of Colombia.
Latina Republic had the pleasure of speaking with César David Martínez about his journey as a photographer, his passion for nature and heritage photography, and his inspiration to capture the light and essence of Colombia with each production. His body of work is an impressive heritage collection that preserves Colombian beauty in all its facets for today and the generations to come.
Latina Republic: When was your passion for photography born? Did you always know you were going to be a photographer?
It all started 26 years ago in 1994, when my passion for mountaineering also began. At that time I was doing nature photography in the moors and high Colombian mountains but I didn’t think I was going to be a photographer.
I studied at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and graduated as an industrial designer with an emphasis on the environment and at that time in my life I thought I was going to be an industrial designer. But I took a trip through South America that lasted about eleven months and I visited 60 destinations from Colombia to Chile.
After that, I arrived in Colombia and did an exhibition that was very successful, and in 1996, I won first place in a national nature photography contest. At that time, I realized that photography was becoming more than a hobby. And finally in 2006 (I was an amateur for 11 years), I won first professional place in the Fotomaratón de Bogotá.
Then I told myself, life is definitely taking me down this path and has given me so many signs. Around that time, I started working in the Jardín Botánico de Bogotá as the official photographer of nature. In the years 2005-2006, I made up my mind.
After that, I worked for Villegas Editores, the most important publishing house in photography in Colombia and, possibly, in Latin America.
I had the great opportunity to work on 20 books with Villegas Editores, and spent 7 years working with them. I worked day and night without rest, and that was my school. I never studied photography in an academy. Villegas Editores was like a school to me and I worked with them until 2014. Since then, I have developed my professional work independently.
Latina Republic: Your website says that you “look for the light and meaningful stories.” What have been the most prevalent stories you have documented and why do they represent the light?
The reference of looking for the light has to do, first, with photography. I have spent 25 years looking for the light in photographic situations. And on the other hand, I also seek the light from a spiritual standpoint. I took a trip to India for a 40 day spiritual retreat and I visited the Ganges river. I am also interested in wisdom; the ancestral wisdom of not only Colombia but of different peoples of the world.
I try to impregnate a little of that in my work, so that my photographic work is not simply to take a nice photo or make a postcard; but that it has a meaning, a depth to it, or a teaching embedded in it.
In recent years, I have had many assignments and jobs. But my main focus, the most important thing I do, is look for those elements that capture the Colombian essence. In the case of my country, I focus on us as Colombians, our culture, our traditions, what it means to be Colombian, what is most important to us, and what is really worth knowing, and preserving for us as Colombians. In Latin America, we are very influenced by other cultures, such as the American culture for example, the European one, and other countries. I am looking for the opposite.
What is the essence of us, Colombians? That question has led me to specialize is nature and heritage photography. I have delved greatly into culture and have visited 21 indigenous communities throughout the country.
My journey to document our culture has taken me to Colombian fairs, parties, carnivals and celebrations, which inspired my book, De Fiesta por Colombia, which highlights the immaterial cultural heritage of Colombians represented through its celebrations. I toured and documented 35 of those parties. Many of them impressive, wonderful, such as the carnivals of Negros y Blancos de Pasto, or those of Barranquilla.
On the other hand, I have documented the culture of our pueblos. In Colombia, there are more than 1,100 towns, municipalities and 17 of them are considered, Heritage Towns. I have visited them, documented them with attention to what happens locally because they are part of our national patrimony and they represent us.
I have documented the rural Colombia of the peasants, and the old republican colonial architecture.
In terms of world heritage photography, UNESCO has declared places such as the Chinese Wall, Machu Pichu or the Pyramids of Egypt as world heritage sites. The organization has declared 24 world heritage sites in 3 different categories, including the category of immaterial cultural heritage, which includes the oral histories, the cultural teachings and the traditions that are transmitted from one generation to the next. There is also the natural heritage, which includes the biosphere reserves.
If you combine those categories in Colombia there are 24.
I have had the great opportunity and perhaps, I will become the first Colombian if I succeed, to know all 24 Colombian heritages. Each one is totally incredible, but unfortunately, we, Colombians do not know what a world heritage site is, nor have we visited them. I have spent the last 9 years of my life on this pursuit.
To explore each one, I have learned to dive, to paraglide; I have ventured into the caverns; I have climbed volcanoes, I have slept in the craters.
I go mountaineering. I go up the mountains when it snows. I visit the indigenous people. I tour the national parks. I look for fauna, among other things, and each story is wonderful.
Latina Republic: Who do you photograph for?
My photographs are mainly for Colombians. But, world heritage work is also international and for a general audience; especially for the people who are interested in issues of identity, culture and natural heritage.
Latina Republic: How do you prepare for your trips before going into the communities? What are the challenges of photographing indigenous communities?
I have done 135 different expeditions. If we are talking about communities, one must first study them, investigate who they are, where they are, their values, their cultures, their traditions, their history, and if it is easy to approach them or not.
Many times, it is difficult because they do not like to be photographed, and acquiring a permit entry in their territories is complex. So one prepares through preliminary, logistical research, and by obtaining local permits and connecting with guides. Sometimes the elders from the indigenous communities are the ones who grant the permits, so you have to process those permits with them.
Once you have a permit you can access the territory and find them. Perhaps that is the most difficult step. And after that, many times they don’t speak the language and you have to go with a guide who can be a translator. Besides that, there is also the whole ritualistic aspect, where one investigates their traditions and tries to document them to show them to the world, always with great respect for those traditions and their values, and trying not to intervene.
Once you obtain permission to enter a community, you also have to gain their trust so they will let you enter their homes, photograph their children, or allow you to photograph them working the land or with their animals, or using their sacred plants.
You also have to take into account that they do not speak the Spanish language. The psychology of the photographer is important as the photographer tries to break that ice with them and achieve a photographic production, always considering their values and traditions.
Regarding the logistics part, I travel with my photographic equipment: lenses, lights, tripods for interviews, professional audio equipment to record them, video equipment, a drone to show the towns, villages, the region, the territory where they live.
On a particular trip, I traveled for 1500 kilometers along the Apaporis River for 5 days, navigating through a jungle to find an indigenous group and be able to document them.
Latina Republic: What are the challenges of photographing nature?
When your subject is nature there are things you can plan and there are other things that are impossible. The only thing you can do is be prepared in case they happen. You cannot program a rainbow, you cannot plan a meeting with a condor in a wasteland; you cannot program a meeting with a bear. There are other things that can be planned, for example, the moonrise. You know when it will rise. The sunrise and sunset, you know when they will happen. The natural rhythms of the species, for example, migrations, you can anticipate, so it’s like a mixture of those two things, being at the right place at the right time with the right equipment to be able to document something wonderful in the natural. So for that, I often get up at 2:00 a.m., or 3:00 a.m. in the morning to reach a key point, to be ready at the moment the sun rises and take a picture.
To be ready, I sleep in the craters of the volcanoes, or sometimes you have to take underwater photos. You have to be an advanced diver to be able to maneuver and take pictures 40 meters underwater.
Once we made a book called Volando Colombia, Paisajes, (Flying Colombia, Landscapes). This was the first book made in Latin America shot from a paraglider. At that time drones were not so accessible. We toured 23 departments of Colombia mounted on a paramotor (a motorized paraglider), and from there we photographed rural Colombia from the air.
Each topic and each assignment is different and according to the technical, logistical, landscape, geography, climate and destination requirements you have to adjust your photographic equipment for each exploration.
One example of this is the department of Santander in Colombia, which has more than 1000 caves and 90 percent of them are still unexplored. In these caves you can spend 2 or 3 days traveling without finding the beginning or the end. For these trips. you need another protocol for lights, harnesses, helmets, ropes, descenders, ascenders, and even tents for the caves. That’s another aspect of Colombian history. But all that is nature.
Latina Republic: What are the challenges of photographing fauna?
When you go out to photograph wildlife, you try to get close to the animals. There are some that are very easy, but there are others that are very difficult. You have to camouflage yourself and hide. To approach fauna, is always more difficult than photographing flora.
I use 4 different types of camouflages. The first is visual camouflage, which includes clothing, boots, camouflaged pants, jacket, you cover your face, and even gloves and the camera are camouflaged.
The second type of camouflage is auditory. You can’t make a noise. You have to make yourself as soundproof as possible. The pants have to be made of a material that does not sound when you are walking. When you are approaching a species for example you can crawl, or approach very quietly. If you go in a group, everyone has to have a protocol of silence.
The third type is motion camouflage. You can be camouflaged all over your body but if you are jumping the animals will detect you 100 meters away. There are a series of movements that are used depending on the species you are photographing to get closer in such a fluid and slow way that the animal does not feel at risk.
The last camouflage is the scent camouflage. You cannot wear perfume or lotion, or anti-mosquitoes.
Latina Republic: Have you experienced challenges or dangers?
Many times. Something usually happens. You lose things. When we did Volando Colombia, Paisajes, (Flying Colombia, Landscapes), we had 3 aerial accidents. Fortunately, paragliding accidents are not generally as serious. But these were accidents of intermediate severity. The most serious accident happened when a a tail wind caught us. We were operating a sort of cart made of tubes with 3 wheels, like a tricycle with a motor on its back. The tail wind pushed it as we were taking off and we went against the airport runway. All the weight fell on my arm, which turned raw and required a 3 month recovery.
Another time, I was 40 meters under water and almost died. I had taken a 36 hours boat ride from Buenaventura to Malpelo Island. The danger in Malpelo is not the sharks, but the currents, like the Humboldt Current that comes from the South Pole. While I was 40 meters underwater, I was caught by an intense current. While holding the camera in one hand, I made a very serious mistake and did not have the life line between the camera and the vest.
I only had one free hand and couldn’t let go of the camera. Faced with these strong currents, I had an episode of hyperventilation. When I looked up and saw that the water mirror was about 40 meters away, I said to myself, now I’m going to die. Fortunately, I was with my guide. He realized the emergency, applied some protocols and assisted me and this is why I am able to tell you this story.
Latina Republic: You have a lot of courage. Are you ever afraid?
Of course, there are things that scare me. For example, I am afraid of heights.
Latina Republic: But in some of your photos you are up in the clouds?
Imagine that. I have to climb on snow, on ice, on rocks, and I am afraid of heights. I face those fears and try not to let them overcome me.
If you don’t overcome those fears, you won’t be able to make a good photographic production. You have to understand what the risks are, evaluate them and know how far you can go with each situation.
Latina Republic: Have you conquered some of your fears over time?
My fear of heights is a tough one. Being in the dark has happened to me many times, where I am totally alone, at 1:00 a.m.. or 2:00 a.m. in the morning walking through the forest in the dark. That has scared me, but not as much as heights. Sharks, currents and sometimes, street safety are emerging fears. There are places in Colombia that are not so safe. And you have to learn to handle that situation and understand where you can and cannot go. But yes, you definitely have to have a bit of courage to do a lot of these productions.
Latina Republic: Can you describe the Colombian culture?
Colombia is a very particular country. We have a geographic diversity like very few countries in the world. We are divided into regions. Each of them has its own culture and its own identity and they are all different. The Amazon is one thing, the eastern plains, another; if you go to the Caribbean coast, everything is different: the dress, the way of speaking, the music, the traditions; if you go to Chocó, you will meet Afro-Colombians, if you go to the Andean part, we have the Andes mountain range, divided into 3 mountain ranges. There are many of the big Colombian cities there, that’s another thing. And finally, the ancestral communities. In Colombia there are more than 100 ethnic groups that still survive. Each one of them has its traditions and culture.
Colombians often undertake projects and have ideas that are impossible to achieve. They are utopian dreams that cannot be done but in the end; we complete them and we achieve them.
Latina Republic: What advice would you give someone who wants to visit Colombia for the first time and go into the soul of the country?
Colombia, for the people who do not know it, is dangerous. Because if you come to visit, you won’t want to leave. Colombia is a country that grabs you. Each part of Colombia has so many things that are so interesting, so beautiful, that it changes that idea that perhaps the international community has of Colombia.
Many times you hear about Colombia in connection to violence, but when you arrive in Colombia and meet the people, visit the natural destinations, the heritages, the towns, visit Colombia’s two oceans, volcanoes, snow-capped peaks, beaches, deserts, the jungle, you won’t want to leave.
Colombia is the number one country in birds; number one in orchids; we have hummingbirds of all types of colors. We have the greatest number of páramos. We have numerous indigenous and ethnic groups that exist throughout and across our territory. You learn all these things and you say, my God, I will have to come to Colombia for several years to see everything.
I have been traveling the country for 25 years and I still have many things to discover.
In Colombia, you can choose among various routes. For example, there is the Caribbean route. There are the big cities, like Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena. Higher up is the Guajira which is a wonderful route. The Andes route, for people who like the páramos and high mountains, or the route of the heritage towns, where you go through the rural Colombia of the peasant towns, the crops and the crafts. And the architecture of these towns is another story.
Or you can go along the archaeological route. In Colombia we have 5 very interesting archaeological parks, if you are interested in historical, archaeological topics. We also have the most beautiful river in the world, which is the Caño Cristales, the river of the 7 colors. There is much to see and visit and it depends a lot on the interests of the people who come to visit Colombia.
To learn more about César David Martínez and his incredible work, visit his website. You can also find him in social media:
He is the administrator of the Facebook group, “Fotografía en Colombia.”
Facebook: César David Martínez
Soledad is the founder of Latina Republic and is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soledad lived the immigrant experience in the US, which shaped her as an advocate for immigrant rights. Her passion for the immigrant experience in the U.S. led her to pursue a PhD in US immigration history. She enjoyed over a decade of her professional career in academia, but was pulled in a new direction when she learned about Friends of OC Detainees through a student. She was immediately inspired to volunteer and visit women held in detention in Orange County. By learning about their struggles and the motives for leaving their home countries in Central and South America, Soledad saw a need to understand and communicate the regional causes that pushed migrants outside their homes. By staying in touch with women who were deported to Central America, Soledad gained insight into local problems and encountered leaders and organizations in Central America that were dedicated to making their communities stronger, safer, and self-reliant. What started as a forum for storytelling in an effort to destroy stereotypes that depict migrants in an inaccurate light, turned into a nonprofit formed to help support courageous leaders and organizations that work hard every day to improve their countries. The study of migrants fleeing to the US, led Soledad to develop an equal passion for advancing the rights of Latinx families in Southern California where the stigma of public charge and a pattern of immigrant single-headed households necessitates action steps, information and local partnership. Soledad is an oral historian with a passion for human rights.