An Interview with Photographer Carlos Saavedra
Frequently do government atrocities stir a veritable swell of social consciousness amongst Colombianos. In 2005, for example, social consciousness swelled in response to the false positives scandal, which saw the death of innocent Colombianos at the hands of military agents.
Death at the hands of state agents is a sadly common experience for many in Colombia. This fact weaves together the story of the paro nacional as well as the story of the false positives (and countless other stories in the history of Colombia). According to Human Rights Watch, the false positives scandal consisted of soldiers executing civilians, in which they lured them away from home under false pretenses, “killed them, placed weapons on their lifeless bodies, and then reported them as enemy combatants killed in action.”
Across time and space, artists have been keen to capture the deadly realities in which they are immersed. In Colombia, for example, Gabriel García Márquez captured the 1928 Banana Massacre in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. Who are the current day artists that help us remember these deadly realities? Carlos Saavedra is a photographer based in Bogotá who works on various visual projects. Recently, he took photos for the Madres Terra project, which focuses on the mothers whose sons were victims in the false positives scandal.
Latina Republic: Can you please tell us about your story and what you do?
Carlos: My name is Carlos and I am thirty-three years old. I am from Colombia. I was born in Cartagena, a coastal city on the Caribbean coast. I lived a pretty comfortable childhood in comparison to the rest of Colombia. I never lacked anything. When I was growing up, I was really lucky in that way. And I was always interested in rural areas… With stories that I would not call “real stories,” but rather those stories that the majority of people in Colombia live. Also, the rural environment was something that has always affected me in my life.
When I was 12 years old, I went to live in Bogotá because of my father’s job. We came here to Bogotá and it was completely different from the Caribbean coast. It was a huge city! Chaotic—in the city aspect. Even though Bogotá was a little bit more organized than the coast, it was definitely more chaotic, more information, more people. It was pretty strong.
In Bogotá at the same time, I started to take photos. My grandfather had always done photos, and I was really interested in that. But I started to do photography in Bogotá. I met the darkroom and it was magical.
In the Caribbean coast, there has always been this idea of magical realism as well. The idea of García Márquez, which was very ingrained in who I am and where I come from. That was a huge influence in the things that I do, because it was always there. Also, I’ve always been very interested in other people’s lives.
I remember being really young—seven, eight years old—and we lived next to a military battalion; I would always ask the soldiers what their lives were like. They told me stories about the war. But the interesting thing is that the stories were magical. Stories that had to do with witches and prayers. People would get shot and the bullet didn’t do anything to them. People turned into jaguars or dogs. For an eight year old, it was like Harry Potter, but in my country.
So, when I came to Bogota, it was different. But it was still very, very interesting. And again I started to do photo projects. But the funny thing is that when I was 21 I started studying three semesters of economics. I was actually okay with it, but I liked photography and telling stories in my life. So, I started to study photography. And that’s where everything started to build up. My first project was called The Daughters of Huitaca.
In the project we talk about the goddess Huitaca in Muisca, an indigenous culture. Visually, it was very Richard Avedon. Overall, I was interested in the faces of women in rural areas.
At first, I was hesitant to tell stories about the war or violence. But as Colombians that’s one of our main characteristics. If you see us from the outside, then that’s what everybody talks about. Violence, war, drugs: it’s something that is such a part of our identity. I didn’t want to go into that, but when I started to do the stories, it was impossible to avoid. This violence, especially in rural areas and especially against women.
These topics were always there, even if I tried to avoid them. It was their stories. After The Daughters of Huitaca, then I went into the project Madres Terra. This project was the complete opposite of my approach. We addressed the topic of violence head on.
LR: Can you please tell me more about Soacha?
Carlos: Soacha is a small town outside Bogotá. In the 70s it had 20,000 people. Today, it has almost 1,500,000 people living there. Internal refugees fleeing violence would migrate to Soacha because it’s a small town right outside Bogotá. All the people with all their trauma, and everything that had to do with the war, poverty, and violence, coalesced in this single place.
To us, it is people from all over Colombia in one single sector. It became so big that it became a part of Bogota. Because for some people it was very overwhelming to go into the city, they would stay in Soacha. Especially people coming from rural areas.
Soacha became a dangerous place, characterized by violence. A presidential candidate was killed there.
Soacha is characterized for that, for gangs and drugs, and also for the false positives, which was the project that I started to do with the mothers.
LR: Can you please tell us more about the false positives and the mothers of Soacha?
Carlos: The false positives is something that I think has happened in most wars. In Colombian military slang, a positive is when a soldier kills a guerilla fighter. What started to happen is that soldiers were killing false positives: non-guerilla members who were made to pass as guerilla fighters.
Álvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002. He created incentives—awards and money—in which soldiers were rewarded for killing positives, guerilla soldiers. At that point, Álvaro Uribe was a hardline war-leaning president. His rhetoric was like, “We are going to beat them, we are going to kill them, we are going to destroy the guerillas!” At that point, the war was really bad, and in a short amount of time there were results: the economy started to activate, the paramilitaries surrendered their arms. Apparently, it was good. On the news it was like, “We are winning, we killed 50 guerillas today, we killed 23 today…” It was all about numbers, about winning, about destroying the guerillas. Because Uribe’s incentives were so good, soldiers started to grab innocent people. This was the case in Soacha.
Soldiers would hire army recruiters, and they would go into communities to lure young men with jobs.:“We have a job for you on the other side of the country, picking coffee. We go there for a couple of days, come back and you have money for your family.” The soldiers would take them, dress the young men as guerilla fighters, tell them to run, and they would kill them. The last count of the false positives was around 6,402. This story is horrendous, but what I find truly fascinating about it is the mothers.
These mothers went against everything: They went against the government; they went against the media; they went against the military. The military has huge amounts of power. The mothers said, “My sons were not guerilla members.” Because, I mean, they were their sons. Their sons were in Soacha one day, and then the next day, they were on the other side of the country being a high rank guerilla member. So it just didn’t make sense. The mothers of Soacha were the first ones to say anything about it. And it happened in this community—Soacha. A community which was always seen as poor and violent. The soldiers probably thought that if they killed some kids there, nobody would notice.
Social cleansing has also happened in the community, which is a modality of neo paramilitary gangs. Basically, they kill people who they see as not deemed for society. Usually, this is done by everyday people, but the killings in Soacha were done by the military. The people who we pay to take care of us. This added another layer of complexity to the whole issue.
Carlos Saavedra approaches the topic of social cleansing through his photography, particularly via a project called “LIMPIA,”—Spanish for “clean.” He explores the topic of social cleansing by juxtaposing it with themes of ritual cleansing.
According to Saavedra: “LIMPIA compares these two scenarios, presenting violence, cleansing, and magic as ways to understand a society that is often identified with magical realism and struggles with the distinctions between the real and unreal. The project explores this ambivalence through a group of transgender women who are targeted by paramilitary groups in a social cleansing campaign.” The following photos, taken by Saavedra, are from his project, LIMPIA.
Image by Carlos Saavedra.
LR: Finally, how about your project “Madres Terra”?
Carlos: Actually, I was doing a job for the United Nations in Soacha, when I met the director of the victims unit there. At that point, work with victims was strong because advocates would shelter people from all over the country. The director told me that she worked with a group of mothers and expressed how she would love for me to do a project with them. Then, she eventually told me that they were the mothers of Soacha.
This was in 2013, and the mothers came out around 2008. Of course, I knew who the mothers were; they are a huge symbol here in Colombia and represent so much. I told her I was interested and that my idea was to bury them, which was, of course, crazy in many ways.
I met the mothers, and I told them the idea, that burying had to do with life and death. There are so many layers to the idea. Connecting to the earth, connecting to the soil is universal. Colombia is a very syncretic society—blended with African, European, and indigenous cultures. Although Colombia is seen as only Catholic, the rituals mix.
When I told the mothers my idea, some of them told me that I was crazy. Still, most of them agreed. I would say about half of them agreed. Ultimately, this project signified being in the same place where their sons ended up, which was common graves. It also meant death. We live in a Catholic culture. The idea of being dead is always feared, and it’s not something that we embrace so much.
Still, the mothers doing this also symbolized that they were willing to face their death in order for their sons’ stories to be told. And it’s true: They risked their lives in order for their sons’ stories to be told.
There was also a ritualistic aspect as well. Taking the photos was treated as a ritual. There was persistent silence. The way we did the shoot was very specific, from the way that the burial happened, to the way that the soil was placed on them. These were premeditated. In fact, the art director was always a woman.
Before we did the actual burials with any of the mothers, I did it with a friend who was a woman. I helped the director pile the soil, then I took the pictures. At the end of the practice shoot, my friend who was buried told me to not be a part of the burial process. She told me that it was vulnerable to be touched and given commands, to fix their hair. She told me to try to not be a part of that process. It was a very feminine moment.
For them, it was very hard to be buried. Most of them are internal refugees. Most of them lived elsewhere, then came to Soacha. They lived traumatic lives before, with violence in everyday life. In theory, violence and trauma happen in many places; it’s just not talked about much. The disappearances of their sons has not been the only thing that has happened to them. There has been so much on top of that.
The wild part is that they didn’t all agree to go at first. At the end, when they realized what was happening, all of them agreed. At first, the project seemed only like a crazy kid telling them that we are going to bury you, then take a photo. Then, they would see what was happening with the other mothers. This is what usually happens in these types of projects. One of them realizes what you are doing, then the others would talk about it.
At the end of it, I realized that I had a great relationship with them. More than anything, this project had more to do with the ritualistic moment of it. And the photos are a document of that moment. The photo in itself is not the art project.
LR: Is there an intended audience you had in mind when doing this project?
Carlos: That’s a hard question. Because of course, I could say that it’s for people who work at NGOs, for Colombians, whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s for anybody who cares. If you can reach more people, then better. This project is for the mothers as well. This was a huge thing for them to know that their stories are important. They show their photos, they have organized exhibitions. It’s been a very long project with many ups and downs. And at the end of the day, they are the ones who have kept going. They are the ones who have been interested in the whole process.
Right now, we are also finishing the book. The book has the mothers’ portraits, but it also contains other materials, like the personal archives of their sons. It includes photos from when their sons were young, personal objects. It also includes forensic archives from their sons’ deaths. As well as the mother’s personal artwork. Art has been a really strong tool for them to process everything. Many of them don’t like psychology; there is a taboo here about psychology.
Still, I would consider them artists that do other projects. It’s an interesting part of the story and it’s going in the book as well. For example, they knit, create canvases. They even paint and do collages. So, art has played an important role in helping the mothers tell and process their story.
Carlos Saavedra worked on “Madres Terra” with anthropologist Sebastián Ramírez and the organization Madres Falsos Positivos de Colombia (MAFAPO). He shouts out the concerted effort they all took to realizing this moment. To keep up with “Madres Terra” and their upcoming book, visit their website.
Alfredo Eladio Moreno was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He considers himself a first generation Mexican living in the United States, or a U.S.-Latino. Alfredo will enter his senior year at Pomona College in Fall 2021, where he is majoring in Latin American Studies. He studies the intersection of history, memory, violence, and healing in the Western Hemisphere.