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Violentology: Studying Colombia At Columbia With Stephen Ferry

White on white? smh

Maybe font color choice is not his strong suit

Yesterday, SIPA hosted a talk by Stephen Ferry on photography and human rights in Colombia, and Ross Chapman was there to bring you the details.

Few countries have a part of their history explicitly called “The Violence.” One rare exception is the nation of Colombia, whose civil wars have spanned on and off for over a century. The specific war period of La Violencia lasted most of the 1950s and claimed about 200,000 civilian lives, and its scholars were called Violentologists. In his photojournalistic reporting of violence in Colombia since then, Stephen Ferry borrowed the name and bestowed it upon his book, Violentology.  Ferry gave an hour-long lecture in which he described the photos of his book page by page for a small, substantially Colombian crowd in the IAB yesterday, followed by another good hour’s conversation about the current political climate. The result was a history lesson with quality journalism and impassioned conversation at its finest.

“I had this chip in my head that this was a drug war,” Ferry explained. He first visited the country in 1995 when giving a talk to Colombian photojournalists. But he soon discovered that the conflict was mainly political. Unlike many civil wars, it had nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or religion. But this didn’t make a huge difference for journalists. The government didn’t want photos of their atrocities publicized, and the insurgents didn’t want some of their tactics to come to light. As a result, most prominent journalists were bombarded with threats, and dozens have given their lives for their coverage of the events.

Since the formal end of La Violencia, three main parties have maintained the conflict – government forces (funded by nations such as the United States), guerilla forces (primarily the FARC and ELN), and paramilitary forces. Officially, the government and paramilitary were unconnected, but signs of collusion are abound, and both fear and despise the guerilla groups. Much of that animosity stems from kidnapping – the FARC especially was notorious for taking hostages from the civilian base. But the other parties are hardly saints; the national government would often kill civilians and dress them up as guerilla insurgents to show progress to the world, to the tune of an additional 4,000 civilian deaths. To give an idea of just how widespread this chaos is, over 10% of the nation of 45 million is internally displaced.

Photographs hold special evidentiary power in these situations. Some of the images presented in Violentology include mothers learning of their children’s deaths and decapitated heads left on tables. Civilians and reporters who took and carried these pictures put themselves at severe risk. And before the advent of digital film, photographers would have to get the pictures developed at a store and hope that nobody caused a commotion. Especially when political forces began to take interest in their public image, journalists of all sorts found themselves in danger again. But not all acts of artistic protest were met negatively. Sculptor Rafael Gomezbarros somehow convinced the Colombian congress to allow him to tack 1300 giant plexiglass ants onto the congressional building, ostensibly as a memorial to displaced civilians. But as Ferry’s photographs show, the ants make the congress look plagued and corrupted more than anything else.

Ferry used a powerpoint presentation that contained the entire contents of his book, which didn’t really leave the audience with any reason to spend an extra $35 to get the hard copy. After the presentation formally ended, the questions were basic for a little while until the student next to me explained his personal experiences with the violence as a Colombian. A few more audience members, of all ages, spoke about their hopes and views on the event, and it became evident quickly that the conversation was out of Ferry’s control. One participant pointed out that Colombia is hardly a historical exception in the category of politically ravaged nations with huge amounts of violence. Part of what makes it seem so drastic is that history is often recorded in terms of war. More often will a period earn the name “The War of XXXX” than “The XX Years Peace.” The highlight reel version of history, then, stresses conflict.

Ferry closed with remarks about the media coverage of all of these events. One student brought up that, internationally, images of the war in news broadcasts often appear between fluff pieces, which doesn’t give them time to sink in. Ferry praised Colombian journalists but was not happy with television conglomerates which are unwilling to tell the whole story. But he remains optimistic that the Colombian citizenry knows what’s going on. “If you don’t know, it’s because you have no motivation to know.” Ferry and many Colombians in the room are cautiously optimistic for peace plans in the nation. Here’s hoping we can continue to read and see an uncensored, true version of the outcome.

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