Juan Orrantia is a Colombian photographer born in Bogota in 1975. He has been working and living in South Africa since 2009. His work as a photographer is related with a poetic vision, evocative of the image through which people tell their own stories. Most of his photographs are describing delicately complex situations, events and historical moments in the life of a country. His pictures deal with a very strong emotional component, as they tell the story of the everyday of people living in fear. They are ways of representing and communicating the social condition of people and places we ignore, observing them while they live another day. The photographic series: Bittersweet Forest, Why Would, There was heat that smelled of bread and dead fish and Normalcy evoke the consequences of colonialism and the devastating effects of war by suggesting a disturbing banality in the way people experience it in the everyday. The images are not mere documents or testimonies of the different places he has visited in Colombia, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau; they express a very authentic vision of what the author calls the "dream of liberation" in the mind of the inhabitants of remote places we merely know.
Juan Orrantia has recently received the Smithsonian Artist Fellowship awarded by the Tierney Foundation Fellowship to develop his research of the African history.

PUNTO DE FUGA (P.D.F.): Bittersweet Forest is a photographic series you did in Colombia, at a place that was at the time being controlled by paramilitary forces; a place of sorrow and not a very promising land. Before ever knowing what you would bring back from that territory, what photographs you would take, I want to know more about the place itself. How did you end up in that Colombian territory, how was exactly that place and who where the people living there? Did you write a journal with notes resuming your journeys during your first visit?

JUAN ORRANTIA (J.O.): The place is a very small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern Colombia. A peasant settled town, where the first crops of marihuana and later coca were grown in the country. A small place where growing these crops as well as producing cocaine paste were the main source of sustenance for the peasants. So I knew of it, and had passed by it many times while I was an undergraduate working in an indigenous reserve further up in the mountains. It was a place that always gave me the creeps. Not in vane its local nickname is “Machete” (the knife).

When the conflict with the paramilitaries really escalated, back in 2000, the area became a site of territorial dispute, and a faction known for its extreme forms of violence took over. The place was home of a well-known paramilitary lord, and this was his turf. You were not allowed to take a camera out when he was around. That was the last time I was there, having met with these people while they were in control of the area. But it was also home of the peasants, who established there many years earlier when they actually were running away from violence in other areas of the country.Some of the people I worked with in the indigenous reserve lived here, or their relatives did. So it was a place I feared but also one where I did know people who were really nice to me and with whom I worked.

P.D.F.: In our collective memory, there are certain gaps that we all seem to have concerning the history of violence in Colombia, as if the war was taking place somewhere in between the cities and the vast plains... We have not been able or we are not willing to see the whole frame. You told me that project you did in Colombia had to do with memory. What kind of remembrance can a photographer bring back out of a place where people are facing uncertainty, violence and war? Is memory something that breaks through reality or is it a distorted version of what is left from your experience of the armed conflict there?

J.O.: It’s true, and that gap you mention was actually what led me to the project. Many years later, I decided I wanted to confront my own fears, my own imaginaries of those complicated times we lived through, in different ways. For me it was like confronting a reality I hated and feared, and it sort of all came together in this place.

Memory was the starting point. I wanted to go back to this place of fear and see it, photograph it, not just pass through it as I did back then. In the process I saw that there was also a local history of memory, a place filled with traces and marks, and that as a guy from the city I did not really know how life was for people there, under the will of that paramilitary war lord.

I didn’t like paramilitaries at all, and this was putting a face to them and their families, relatives or simple people who lived where they ruled. People there lived with their own fears but they processed them differently. They were the ones we did not see from far away. So the project started to deal with all these fears, theirs and mine, as a form of imagination, suggesting what it must have been like and what was left over.

P.D.F.: The photographs of Bittersweet Forest came up very late in the story. I remember you told me you went back to that place to take photographs when you knew that the war lord who controlled the territory was caught. Had anything changed when you came back to stay for a while? And did you know exactly what you where looking for in terms of images?

J.O.: Some things changed and some not so much. The war lord had been extradited to the US, and the paramilitaries as an organization had been dismantled. Many of the young men working in the coca fields had left, as these had been mostly caught or killed. Also many families had left. I thought I knew what I wanted to photograph, but what I encountered was stories and left overs, names that I once feared that were now a person I could chat with.

So I really just roamed around and photographed what for me had previously been almost a forbidden place, focusing on my own ideas of stories I heard and things I remembered having seen. I did however start to focus on young girls, as by then it was a pretty well known fact that the war lord had raped many young girls during his time. But it was a very controversial point, as by some people there it was not considered rape but rather “sexual gifts” to create bonds and alliances. This case actually became very important during the Colombian equivalent of a truth commission, to demonstrate how this type of power generated by the conflict had merged with local social practices of patronage to generate such situations of sexual violence.

P.D.F.: When we look at the photographs, it seems that none of them show directly that context of violence that our collective memory remembers and the journalistic chronicles mentioned. We know very little from those lands once occupied by what you call landlords. Entire towns and territories in Colombia where being caught by the drug traffic in the '90s, armed forces where disputing the lands and accelerating the accumulation of property in the hands of a few powerful figures and it was hard to know exactly the proportions of that conflict. What is curious is that your photographs show a very different reality. They do not satisfy that tragic vision of things we have. What are the images expressing, then?

J.O.: For me it's all about ambiguity and suggestion. I wanted to make pictures to confront this complex territory. A place of fear, of armed men and very violent forms of masculinity, but also a place of men and women who simply lived there because their homeland had become too violent to live in.

I wanted to make pictures that, based on what I encountered, the everyday of a small town in the middle of a forest, could in some way suggest or evoke feelings associated to those forms of fear and violence. Because in the end this is what people were left with: the remnants and memories of those times. The war was over so to speak, so now it was time to confront its aftermaths.

P.D.F.: The violence that you show in your pictures is there, but it’s only suggested by a set of very random situations. When we approach those series, we even see a wild nature in it, images full of colors, portraits of people sitting, living their lives roughly and simply. People seem to accept the presence of the camera and some are even posing for you. Did you want those photos to be half fiction, half reality, half presence and half dream?

J.O.: Absolutely. My intention was precisely to engage that ambiguity that war left. But I did it in a very small setting. The town has one street. So you can imagine that they guy with the camera walking up and down all day very quickly became known. I just photographed this banality, together with all the ideas and memories I brought in my head.

It was not necessarily trying to “document” this everyday, but rather to work through this present time to evoke or imagine those violent times. This made me realize I was sort of photographing what had been, as if, in a way, this was the life back then. People in certain parts of Colombia lived their whole lives under similar violence. They worked the land, they laughed, they bathed in the river, they made love, they drank and played billiards, all this with a presence of fear that at times was very strong and direct and violent. For some, the war was simply a sort of norm, a presence that was part of that everyday banality. It’s a “weird” reality, which for me could only be expressed in that same way.

P.D.F.: Where is memory in this process?

J.O.: It’s everywhere. It’s in empty landscapes, in real ruins, but also in people’s faces and bodies. That’s why in the book at times I decided to manipulate some images; to manipulate time, if you want. For me there was a constant mixing of past and present in what or how I was photographing.

P.D.F.: When you where telling me the story of Bittersweet Forest, you said that even musicians where composing songs for certain war lords telling their stories. What could you take out from that cultural experience of violence that has permeated the imaginary of the people you visited?

J.O.: This music is known as "narco-corridos", popular music that highlights a person, a patron usually, or a famous drug dealer. It was also very strong in these areas, as it was a way of recording and sometimes venerating those who controlled life in these places. I look at it as an experience of the everyday turned into musical stories, and as a record of the "minor history" that was not necessarily considered as such by mainstream urban, governmental history. Music is -like photography- a form of memory, an unofficial and popular form of remembrance, a local way of speaking and putting yourself into history, you being the peasant, the illegal, the paramilitary or guerrillero who otherwise will not have a name in history and will probably only be a number if remembered at all.

P.D.F.: The series of photographs is now becoming a book. As if that was the last step missing in the entire process…. I always wonder why photographers choose the book format in a specific moment of their lives. Was there something in particular that a book could say, express or show that the single images couldn’t do?

J.O.: I think I eventually came to terms with the project, meaning that I felt it was finished. I had been thinking of the book for a while, as it was for me the right form to conclude it. Whenever I had shown the images on walls, I always felt it lacked a sense of intimacy and privacy that the book allowed. The place I photographed is remote, small, almost hidden. It was considered a forbidden place. It was imagined in many ways. I wanted this feeling or idea to remain, and wanted the encounter with this wonderfully ambiguous place to be an intimate thing you access quietly.

P.D.F.: Do you consider that getting to know that Colombian territory and its history was relevant in forging you a certain photographic vision of things?

J.O.: I guess that in way it has made me think of different ways of narrating and expressing the remnants of violence and memory of a reality I grew up with. But I have learned that this is not unique to us. Having worked in places like Mozambique, where civil war lasted so many years and devastated so much of the country, or living in South Africa, where the violent past is so present, these different contexts or war and conflict have shaped my photographic vision quite a lot.