The sun has barely broken over the eastern ridges of the Colombian Andes. A group of men and women emerge from the morning fog, forming two straight lines and then standing at attention, assault rifles slung across their backs. They listen intently as their commander reads out their names and assignments for the day from a small, flimsy notebook.
A whistle blows, signaling it’s time for breakfast, which consists of typical guerrilla fare: rice, fried meat and sugary coffee. Inside the oldest guerrilla army in the world, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), this is how every day starts – but not for long.
Just a few years ago, while at war with the Colombian government, these leftist rebel fighters would have had their utility vests on and weapons at an arm’s reach at all times. But once breakfast is over today – aside from guard duty – their weapons are an afterthought. Many leave their guns hanging on fence posts or leaning up against the walls of the crumbling farmhouse that the rebels of the FARC’s 18th Front, a unit composed of roughly 250 members, have been calling home since the finalization of peace accords with the federal government of Colombia last December.
After more than five decades of fighting, the guerrillas of the FARC will soon make the transition to civilian life. Some will adopt ordinary lives as farmers, while others will become politicians with the FARC’s future political movement. But one of the most important jobs will be that of creating their own media force to document the peace process from the perspectives of the FARC, which is why in recent months several rebels have come together in rural northwestern Colombia to participate in a photography and photojournalism workshop. The classes are taught by Nicolas Bedoya of Vela Colectivo – a collective of journalists, photographers and storytellers who look to produce stories about Colombia that stray from the country’s typical narrative of drugs and violence – and Portland-based photographer Zach Krahmer, with the help of Cristina Taborda, a former guerrilla fighter-turned photographer. The team also received donated cameras from Pro Photo Supply.
“I decided to do this because there are so many important stories in this territory,” Bedoya says, “but the people don’t know how or don’t have the tools to tell them.”
The workshops aim to give participants a working knowledge of camera functions and the tools to consciously develop a photographic story.
Bedoya, a Colombian-American who has lived in the isolated town of Ituango for several years, believes that the polarized state of Colombian media and politics is a hurdle to citizens’ ability to come to terms with each other. Together with Krahmer, the pair developed the idea of teaching a series of workshops to the rebels who would shortly be moving into demobilization camps and, later, on to civilian life.
Krahmer reached out to his local camera store, which agreed to pitch in by donating cameras to leave behind with the community after the completion of the sessions.
The FARC camp itself is reached by a scramble up a steep cliff on the back of a mule, which seems to be the only creature capable of maintaining footing in this hostile environment. Looking out over the horizon, Conejo, who, like all FARC members, goes by a nom de guerre, points in the direction of the nearest town. Though only about 17 miles away, treacherous dirt roads mean that it takes more than four hours negotiating steep drop-offs and blind curves in order to arrive at Santa Lucía, a tiny rural settlement below the camp that will receive guerrillas from the 18th Front when they hand over their weapons about seven months after the peace agreement. The intensive classes also involve civilian community members of Santa Lucía.
During the four-to-five-day workshops, each participant is given a camera, and, armed with their new knowledge, is set loose to produce a photo essay or series of their own, focusing on daily life inside the rebel camp.
The camp is alive with activity, from studying to farming to computer science classes that have either been ratcheted up or began shortly after the peace accord signing. While some immerse themselves in preparations for their roles in civilian life, others just try to pass the time by playing dominoes or chess.
The FARC is one of several left wing guerrilla groups in Colombia that sprung up in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. After the country reached a tipping point following an era of political and social turmoil known as La Violencia, the FARC was founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. Overwhelmingly made up of small farmers and land workers, they fought the Colombian government for more than 50 years, vying to balance the extremely high levels of inequality in the country. The absence of schools, infrastructure and opportunities is what drove many of the FARC’s members to join the guerrilla army, some as young as 12 or 13 years old.
In the cordilleras, or mountain ranges, of the northwestern department – similar to a U.S. state – of Antioquia, the air is chilly at this altitude. The view from the camp is incredible. Mountain vistas extend as far as the eye can see. More than 12 excruciating hours of travel separate us from the nearest big city, Medellín. This is FARC territory, which they took hold of around 30 years ago from another leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
In this region, as in most FARC-controlled zones, the presence of the Colombian state has never been palpable. Even today, the state’s influence seems to appear only as a figment of the imagination in these vast, rural areas.
After four years of negotiations in Havana, a failed referendum in which the peace deal was rejected by a tiny margin of voters, and a string of last-second compromises, the agreement was finally ratified by congress and signed into effect late last year. The deal paves the way for the FARC’s disarmament and transition to a leftist political party which, if all goes as planned, will be a huge player in rural parts of the country such as this one where they have long exerted influence.
Bedoya and Krahmer want the rest of the country to be exposed to the struggles of those who live in forgotten corners of Colombia like this one, which many refer to simply as “the other Colombia.” Training local photographers – both civilians and FARC members who will reenter society – in community-based journalism and photography could help make this happen.
The workshops begin with an open question to the participants: Why do you want to learn photography?
“My interest is to be able to show problems that are happening around us,” says Danilo, a member of the 18th Front.
Maritza, also from the 18th, agrees. “We can’t always get all of our information from others. We have to show people our reality.”
The FARC are all too familiar with seeing what they consider to be a distorted reflection of their reality in Colombia’s media. Though they live among mountains and jungles in the most isolated regions of the country, they are actually quite well connected to the outside world by means of satellite internet and television access.
Each night at seven p.m., the rebels of the 18th Front come together to watch the news. Frequently, the programs touch on current events related to the FARC and the peace process – and from the perspectives of the rebels, the reports are often highly misconstrued, if not entirely false.
The work of the participants in the photography workshops, on the other hand, shows life of the FARC from the perspectives of the rebels themselves. Much of their work seems to reveal a feeling of nostalgia for the way of life inside this rebel army that will soon be history, in spite of the variety of subjects in the photos.
Though the vast majority of the FARC’s guerrillas look to this transition as a positive one, they are aware of the challenges that face them. They will finally have the opportunity to try to reconnect with family members, but they also must learn how to operate in a polarized society that, in many cases, may be hesitant to receive them.
In the center of the camp’s common area is a poster decorated with images of lions, a potent FARC symbol, and photos of the 18th Front’s fighters. In the center, the poster reads, “Until the lions have their own historians, the tales of hunting will continue to glorify the hunter.”
The workshop’s participants intend to go on to be the historians of their people and community. After all, a healthy history is built on dialogue, not a one-sided story.
On June 27, 2017, the FARC officially relinquished the last of their weapons to the United Nations, effectively becoming an unarmed organization. Soon, these ex-combatants will return to the communities they left years ago. After 52 years of armed conflict, the members of the FARC will finally share their experiences with the world.