Juan José Gomez is a Colombian photographer born in 1983. In 1999, his sister is kidnapped by an armed group and kept in captivity for 18 month in the jungles of Colombia. After her liberation, the family sends Juan José Gomez to Canada to avoid danger. This event determines his relationship with the Colombian war. In 2004, he decides to come back to the country to start design studies at the university. These are the first years of Juan José as a street photographer. He starts working as reporter for El Tiempo, the most important journal in the country. He studies during the day and works at night. In 2011, he moves to Paris to study photography at the Icart-Photo Institute. There he meets the French photographer Claude Iverné, who becomes his mentor. Most of his technique and practice around photography derives from his full-time job as an assistant. In 2014, he comes back to Colombia to photograph remote landscapes: forests, paramos and plains. His photography records houses, landscapes, objects, and people living in territories that even the war has forgotten.
empty the mind by thinking. Only by observation.”
Robert Adams, Silence of the Heart, Acropolis Books, 1997
In his book titled "What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the
Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974", Robert Adams takes photographs
of the frontier of urban areas in Denver. What we see there is a
permeable region separating the city from the fields. As if the new
world was being built up over the ruins of The American West, a
landscape of a promised land, a wild region of a great natural
When we look at your photographs, the South American landscapes that go beyond the city seem to be showing a completely different background. What you record are remote regions of Colombia, rural places that changed in a context of war. Why did you decide to go to those places in first place? What were you looking for out there?
J.J.G.: The absence of information and curiosity were the main reasons that drove me there. That strange relationship between the city and the fields at the end of the '90s in Colombia is what I wanted to know and to photograph. My sister was kidnapped at that time, and the stories she told me allowed me to understand that there are remote places in Colombia that turn you into a stranger when you visit them.
In photography I see the perfect tool to enter those regions. It is the good excuse for me to be able to get lost and be accepted in the lands I visit. The excuse to get closer to that strange old world and to understand it, seeing how it is inhabited and lived beyond the fact that it has been forgotten by the city and those who live in it.
P.D.F.: How would you define your journeys there? Was it a transit, if we can call it that way?
J.J.G.: In Colombia, the countryside is very isolated from the cities. All the people living in the city have experienced taking the road to get to another city, without even noticing that those transits are just extensions of the cities, roads connecting them. Those extensions are keeping the fields isolated from us. Part of my job is to look for a place where I can leave the road and enter into a remote landscape. My work, as much as the territory, is wild and unlimited. I feel this is a project with no end and that is exactly what is important to me: not knowing where I go and what I would find on the way. It is like a trip with a start but no end. The only reference left is the photograph I take.
P.D.F: When we look at your work more deeply, it seems that your experience as photographer opens many other fields of vision for us. There is another road, one as clear as the one Robert Adams photographed, very much associated with an indefinite present captured in black and white, very well composed and framed. Your own freedom is there, in the way you make those photos. It is something that makes these photographs rare and special: they express the importance of that specific moment where the image is to be recorded. How spontaneous those images are and how do they come to be?
J.J.G.: As I said before, the work is not following a specific line. It's not serial, it doesn't tell a specific story. My photographs are not about the truth. But they all should contain a certain amount of information to raise questions and give answers. These two elements of the image are not always working together. The photographs you see must reveal more and more as you go back and look at them again. The observer is free to take a specific direction and drawn his own personal conclusions. I guess every image has a different meaning for each of us, that’s why saying that they hold a certain truth makes no sense to me. Colombia is a very rich territory, so rich in its essence and so full of information in itself that images can appear to be descriptive enough. You just need to look at them in slow-motion, as if you were walking through that landscape.
P.D.F: There is a definitive distance between your photography and the one that many photojournalists did in the mid of the XX century. I think about the black and white images by photographers like Tito Celis, Nereo López, Carlos Caicedo and Sady González. By looking at those images, we can see that you don’t have a specific necessity to tell a story or record important events in history. There is a very large detachment towards history. Your language is not specifically documentary, I believe. What do you record, then? Is there any enigmatic essence in the images of the everyday, that you carefully compose in those remote places of Colombia, which detaches your work from that of the journalists?
J.J.G.: If I had to talk about influences, I would have to mention Henry Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment. A concept that is extremely valuable when we consider both documentary and war photography. I wonder: has that kind of imagery ever changed the course of war? If I said yes, I would be defending a very egocentric position, thinking that I could ever influence anything with the images I do. Photography, as many other art expressions, changes with time. What would I really be adding in a world that is saturated with that kind of photography, regardless if it is based on real facts or fiction?
On the one hand, the obsessive research of truth is not really interesting for me. The idea of the specific instant is what troubles me. Looking for something definitive doesn’t allow me to observe in a proper sense. I think you are pointing out two very different ways of doing photography. The first way gives the photograph an incomprehensible value, just because it is showing the capacity of a photographer to capture a decisive moment, no matter what the situation is. The second way explains why an image can become a-temporary, and this is what I try to achieve. The images that are not illustrating or recording reality to inform about facts give more space to contemplation. They contain the technique, the format and the result of a long observation.
P.D.F: Can you tell us more about the territories you have visited? How images come to be and how would they allow us to understand more deeply what your encounter with those distant landscapes really means to you?
would like to talk about Uribe Uribe, a small town located 90
km away from Barrancabermeja. After crossing 400 km from the main city, I get to Barranca and spend the night there. The
next morning I take the road to enter the fields 70 km away
from that place. The road becomes more and more precarious until I
finally reach Uribe Uribe, a small town, not very inhabited after
having been abandoned as a consequence of many years of conflict. I cross the town to get into a remote place, a private land
that seems to be an abandoned cattle ranch. The peasants let me in,
talk, walk and I take photographs.
The landscape I see seems to be a lost paradise. But when you listen to the stories people tell, those places are all related to a violent past. You hear the peasants saying: “In this house the entire family was killed. A man slept with her elder daughter, got her pregnant and then left. One day he came back. The father of the family didn’t really like to see him back in the ranch. Short after, some men came into the ranch and killed the whole family without touching the elder daughter and her son”. I was very impressed to hear them saying: “Everyone in this region had to overcome the death of a son, a daughter, a brother or a father. We are the ones that have to bear that conflict. We didn’t do anything and we ended up crying for the death of our families”.
P.D.F: Facing the reality of the deep lands in Colombia is hard. But I think that most of that violence is just suggested in the images, as if the territory was keeping the secrets of war. What is Colombia for you? How would you define its territory?
J.J.G: Colombia is a very particular country, a place in which everything is possible. It is a place full of contrasts: as delicate, soft, gentile and beautiful as it is chaotic, turbulent and threatening. Everything can be a surprise as you don’t know what may happen in the moment after you get there. And though it is a country that has all the elements that could make it look like a paradise, it is far from being one.
P.D.F: We can imagine that your photographic work arises and takes shape after a very long erratic wander, a solitary walk through the forgotten lands of Colombia with no specific spot where to stop at, as you said before.
J.J.G.: I feel that my work will never end… It could be a vague description of a wild territory. This is what my photography is about: a permanent search into distant lands we ignore.
More recent photographic works I have seen go back to a
certain kind of origin, as if the photographer was trying to
establish a special connection with the past, following a very
symbolic journey to the limits of memory, creating photographs that
would be singular. As if the image was at the same time keeping and revealing a sort of mystery. Do you feel that this is what you are looking
J.J.G.: I think yes.
There is a very personal quest that is hiding behind every image. I
guess that is what makes the photographs look singular. I believe
that the more we wander, the more we search for a deep connection
with a place we don’t know well, the more that experience becomes
real. It differs from the image that is made by demand or the one
that you validate with the excuse that it is telling some kind of
There are photographers or artists that are vey good at answering to a specific need, no matter if it’s a technical, an esthetic or a rhetorical reply to that need. When you look at photography with a deeper and a free eye, the intention becomes too obvious. That is why a project becomes irrelevant and gets lost in the sea of images we see today. The only exception I could find is the work of Walker Evans. Even when it’s made on assignment, his search is still authentic, personal and philosophical. That’s why his work is always more than just a series or a document.
Concerning the technical part, I make images look the most similar to what the human eye sees. Optics, formats and perspectives follow that line. What I look for with that language is not to distort images from reality in order to make the experience easier for those who see. I want people to relate properly with the information they are receiving. This explains the distance I take when it gets to portrait people. I try to make the image have the same distance I have when I approach that reality. I even try to give the image some context for people to be able to have a reference of the territory and the people they are looking at. I use black and white because I think that color is a distractor, it misinforms the viewer and give him banal information. The black and white allows me to focus on relevant information.
P.D.F: What is
photography for you?
J.J.G.: For me, what is
interesting in photography is to be able to transmit a sensation, a
feeling. I don’t want to communicate something about what I see,
but about what I feel. When I see the images again, I can
recreate that exact sensation.
P.D.F: Talking about the way we could read your images, that long process may allow us to think about a book format, a specific portfolio or an exhibition. We discussed the possibility of making it become a journal and you even gave me specific information about the places you went to. I had the impression that if you invited us to read those images differently, we could learn how to observe that territory. Your photos could be like frescos of a sad tropic, a world in which we can get lost in search for a more human connection with what is there. Do you think it’s possible to show us a world that we no longer know, as we come from urban places?
J.J.G.: Sometimes, when I see my work, I have the impression that those places I see are not real, that the world I see doesn’t exist. It would be very difficult for me to say if that world ever existed or would ever exist again as I first saw it. You could not tell if that image has been taken now or many years back.
The reason of that sensation is that those places, which could give us all that we need to live, are being excluded from the world we actually live in. Today there is no place for the lifestyle that still exists in the deep lands of Colombia: we refuse to live simply. It seems that we have forgotten and cancelled that possibility. In spite of the fact that those remote places hardly have a place in our reality, I could come back to each one of those landscapes, but I would not know what to expect. Or, let me think… Maybe I could expect something: to have the exact same image of a landscape erased by violence, forgotten and distorted in the name of progress. I feel every landscape could either rest in my memory for another life or just disappear one day.