After publishing a novel and a collection of short stories, Colombian writer Juan Manuel Echavarría found himself in aesthetic limbo. Colombian society was overrun by violence and the steadily increasing power of the drug cartels. Frustrated by both the disintegration of Colombian life and the social isolation necessary to create literature, he stopped writing and turned to photography with an eye to exploiting the metaphorical possiblities of the photographic image.
Since 1995 he has worked to distill some sense of wisdom from the country’s grotesquely violent civil conflict. The conflicts between the army, left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries can be traced back to the 1950s, and the drug cartels to the 1980s. Each successively brutal cycle has devolved the country toward a national psychosis of violence, a state of mind wherein carnage and pervasive fear are natural states of existence. Yet Echavarría’s disturbingly beautiful pictures evoke the dread and human waste of this endless war without presenting a succession of bloody corpses. These haunting photographs are of battered mannequins; abandoned villages, their melancholy artifacts; grotesque yet not horrible reinterpretations of botanical drawings—a dramatization of the rituals surrounding death that are particular to a Colombian heritage.
Echavarría’s photographs embrace a nightmarish plight and offer a heartbreaking elegy to absence. His work seems an effort to absorb the atomized mortal fear of Colombia’s victims in hopes of transforming their diffused social agony. In a recent installation the pictures were arranged around the space in eccentric clusters, like syntactic bursts of visual insight, suggesting the ebb and flow of an impassioned conversation—an insistent, subliminal narrative that is both a plea to his fellow Colombians and an emotional portrait of a society in profound distress.
Calvin Reid Could you give me some background on the history of conflict and violence in Colombia?
Juan Manuel Echavarría I was born in 1947. We haven’t had one year of peace since. There has been a continuous civil war in Colombia. In the 1950s there was political strife between the conservatives and the liberals in rural Colombia. The church was very much in the conflict as well. The priests were on the side of the conservative party, and they would preach from their pulpits, saying that the liberals were the sons of the devil, thereby justifying the massacres. Many of the guerrilla and paramilitary forces come from families who were victims of that violence. The point is that this recurring cycle, this vicious circle of violence, has become normalized. People grow up with it—children see, read, hear about violence. They have lived through violence, political violence in their homes.
CR It’s part of the fabric of life.
JE Our society has arrived at a very dangerous point. The difference between the political strife of the 1950s and now is that after the 70s cocaine became the issue. And now cocaine is an international problem. So, Colombia becomes . . .
CR A focus. Is the fact that cocaine is a money-making crop complicating the issue as well?
JE It’s totally ignored. There is no question that you make more money if you plant cocaine rather than bananas. But the strange phenomenon that grows with cocaine, a very nightmarish phenomenon, is the big Mafia kings who created the sicarios: teenagers who live in the urban ghettos and are paid a fee to kill political or intellectual targets. Whomever speaks against them is targeted.
CR It is an amazing political landscape. Where did the government and the church fit into this in the 80s? Was there a rise in the activities of the right-wing paramilitaries?
JE Yes. In the 80s you had the rise of the right. The heads of the right-wing paramilitaries are just as criminal as the guerrillas. They are the other side of the same coin. The head of the paramilitaries saw his father kidnapped and murdered by the guerrillas when he was a young boy. He comes out of revenge. We live by a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. Gandhi said, “If we keep taking an eye for an eye we will all be blind.” The church today has transformed, and it plays an important role in the peace process. But I myself am skeptical, because of previous situations—what the hell was the Pope doing during the Nazi occupations? What role did the Pope play in the Colombian church during the 1950s?
CR Tell me about your education. I am very interested in how you went from writing to photography. Was there some transition? Did you have a background in art as well?
JE My background was in history. I actually did university here in the U.S. and I have spent a lot of time in Europe, in Greece, which gave me a sense of mythology and poetry. When I discovered there was something like the Odyssey, and when I started reading about Greek myths, I felt they were loaded with poetry and I became very dreamy. My first book, La Gran Catarata, comes out of this. I have written three books and all of them look at history. I was studying a little-known literature, the chronicle of the Indies, literature that was left behind by the conquest of the New World. Priests, soldiers, conquistadors, many people were recording history as they saw it at the time. What’s fascinating about this literature—and there’s plenty of it—is that you see where magic realism comes from. When you see works by García Márquez or Rulfo in Mexico, you see that magic realism is based on this history; it’s not something that García Márquez invented.
CR I’m curious: these conquistadors were confronted with cultures they didn’t understand; how did this evolve into the writing we think of as magic realism?
JE Most who came to the New World in the years of the conquest were medieval minds, not Renaissance men. They were carrying medieval ideas of the devil, of magical spells, of evil as a force. And they encountered in the New World a nature which they could not believe, the exuberance of this nature, the size of its rivers and trees. When they started writing stories of the encounter between the medieval mind and the nature of the New World something exploded, which I think was the seeds of magic realism.
CR How would you describe your own work?
JE My second book, Moros en la costa, is a collection of three short stories based on these narrations, these chronicles of the Indies, called Cronicas de Indias.
CR Why and when did you decide to become a photographer?
JE Four years ago. Literature is so rich in images, and images for me have much to do with the plastic arts. I was in New York, drowning in my literature—I was exhausted. I have very good friends in New York who are artists and I told them I was drowning in the world of writing; I was becoming too neurotic. In writing you need two disciplines: one, to sit down and write by yourself; and two, to read a lot, and reading is also an exercise you do alone.
CR To be alone is truly one of the most incredible challenges you can face. The discipline is enormous.
JE I knew I was getting to the precipice. I had seen an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Kienholz and I was amazed. I said, okay, I’ve had enough of literature: SOS.
CR A call for help, but why photography?
JE Isn’t photography image and metaphor?
JE I did that in my writing. So those 20 years of writing gave me a talent, I hope, for image and metaphor. That is what my photography is all about.
CR Your presentation, the visual syntax you arrange on the wall, seems to have an underlying narrative. I want to ask you about Colombia and the violence there. Particularly, I want to talk about your Flower Vase Cuts, and the other related ritual mutilations that a certain part of your work replicates.
JE In the fields of Colombia during this struggle between the liberals and the conservatives, los campesinos, as we say in Spanish, which translates as “the peasants,” left behind a representation of the language of violence: different forms of mutilation and rearranging of the victim’s corpse. What is disturbing is that they gave names to these cuts. The Flower Vase Cut in itself has an aesthetic to it. And yet, is there a more domestic aesthetic act than doing a flower arrangement?
CR Were the peasants doing these arrangements, or were they the victims of the various warring factions?
JE You have one conservative village here, and a liberal village five miles away. They would do these rituals. It’s civil strife among these peasants.
CR This began in the 50s?
JE Throughout the 50s there was this violent language of cuts, or rituals having to do with death. One is called the Colombian Necktie, which is being studied right now by anthropologists. A hole was made in the throat of the victim and the tongue pulled out through the hole. They perform this ritual on the corpse. In the Flower Vase Cut, the head is removed and the legs and arms are cut and the dismembered body parts are put inside the torso as if it were a flower vase.
CR A ghoulish aesthetic process.
JE I have a friend who is a very fine anthropologist and she has written about the aesthetics of horror and violence. My point in doing that series, Corte de Florero, which consists of 32 photographs, was to rearticulate the body through these flowers. My purpose was to create something so beautiful that people would be attracted to it. The spectator would come near it, look at it, and then when he or she realizes that it is not a flower as it seemed, but actually a flower made of human bones—something must click in the head, or in the heart, I hope.
CR I want to jump from that to the importance of flowers in Colombian colonial history—and their economic value in Colombia’s current economy.
JE Amazing. You see, the geographical situation of Colombia makes it very rich in flowers and biodiversity. Independence from Spain was in 1820, and at the end of the 18th century Spain sent a commission to study the flowers of Colombia. It was a very important moment because it was the first time that the religious point of view shifted to a rational point of view.
CR This was the effect of the Enlightenment.
JE Exactly. So you have the effect of the Enlightenment, which brought the rights of man—women’s rights still haven’t happened in Colombia—and the ideas of the French Revolution.
That botanical expedition ushered in the independence of Colombia. It was a moment of reflection, and I wanted to make that connection with the botanical expedition, because my dream, my idealism, is that art can have a purpose; art can create order and thought.
CR Flowers and botanical arrangements are still very important to the Colombian economy as I understand it.
JE Absolutely. Colombia is the second exporter in the world of flowers after Holland; that’s how important it is.
CR It’s a fascinating connection that you’ve set up between the contemporary and the historical.
JE Let me add something else. If you and I were to go on a botanical expedition to Colombia right now, what we would find is dead bodies.
CR And we’d be traveling to the interior of the country?
JE We would find massacre upon massacre and miles and miles of graves.
CR Is there an estimate of the dead over the years?
JE No one has a precise figure or number. What I do know is that we have about a million and a half refugees.
CR Your work deals with the aesthetisizing of death; are you ever worried that it might be misperceived? Is there a thin line between drawing some rational insight out of this through the use of beauty, and almost exploiting the fact of the carnage? Did you worry about this part of the risk you take as an artist?
JE It is a risk I take. It depends on the mind-set of every individual. But there is a conscious purpose behind my aesthetizing of violence. In a country like Colombia, where the media has been giving us sensationalism as a routine through photographs, journalism, television news . . . we have become totally anesthetized by this sensationalism.
CR So a pile of bodies is . . .
JE It’s nothing, it’s like a glass of water. In Colombia there is an overdose of massacres, kidnappings, internal refugees who are treated, as I said before, in an irresponsible and sensationalist manner. Sensationalism doesn’t make us feel anything anymore. In Colombia we are used to it and we have to approach the horrors of violence in a different way.
CR Your pictures are so striking because the sense of mutilation is present but there are no bleeding corpses. Yet the emotion, the enormous sense of history, and the very quiet sense of distress, almost desperation, is really pervasive in your show. The pictures you took of Escuela Nueva, where, as you’ve said, the countryside is a death harvest, must have been very dangerous to get. How did you arrive at this measured representation? How do Colombians deal with the interior?
JE We are full of fear now, Colombian people are paralyzed by fear. A great majority of Colombians are victims of violence in one way or another. We have an individual consciousness, but we haven’t been able to create a collective consciousness of violence. In that moment we will turn our history, we will turn our path. The moment we say, We Colombians are suffering the irrationality, the madness of violence—when we’re thinking in plural, not the “I” of the individual—then I think Colombia will have a collective voice and we will change. It is the one thing I believe. But people are terrified to travel in Colombia because there are paramilitaries with roadblocks, guerrillas with roadblocks.
CR How were you able to go to Escuela Nueva to take photographs, since that kind of travel isn’t done easily in Colombia? I read somewhere that you had a bulletproof car.
JE I had a bulletproof car.
CR Is that typical in Colombia?
JE More and more bulletproof cars and bodyguards; they won’t save your life but they work as a deterrent. If the kidnappers want to get you and they see that you have bodyguards, they will look for someone else, wealthy or poor. Now kidnapping is not only of the wealthy. Say I’m going from New York to Boston, there is a guerrilla or a paramilitary roadblock—in this case it’s guerrilla—and they stop you and if your car is a model they like, or if you have a cell phone, then it’s “You come with me.” I have hundreds of stories, we can’t go into detail, hundreds of stories.
CR Where did you go in Colombia to photograph the Escuela Nueva?
JE I went to the Pacific coast; I have a cousin who has a small house there and he invited me. I asked him what was happening there . . .
CR When was this?
JE 1997, 1998. We went there by boat with a pilot. The pilot told me, “I don’t like to be here.” And I said, “But this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.” An exuberant jungle, huge blue butterflies, Calvin, that sing.
CR That sing?
JE That sing.
CR It sounds like paradise.
JE Yes. So I asked, “What do you mean you don’t like to be here?” And the pilot, who is a native of the area, said a man was kidnapped here two years ago, and there is a fishing village 20 minutes away that has been abandoned out of fear of the paramilitaries. I said, “I want to see this village, I want to see what has happened.”
CR Again it is beauty concealing, or in parallel to, horror and terror and violence.
JE Yup, it’s right there, and another thing, Calvin: we Colombians who live in Colombia live under the volcano! There is no escape. Wherever we go there is a story of paramilitaries or guerrillas or the army collaborating with the paramilitaries. I once went to another incredible place, very high up in the mountains because I was taking photographs of mannequins—
CR I was going to ask you about the mannequins as well, but go on.
JE Mannequins lost in the landscape, beaten-up mannequins in the landscape—and I had to go with security.
CR So you had bodyguards?
JE I had bodyguards. And there was a moment, it was very high up in the mountains, and I saw a man appear from nowhere—??un campesino??, a peasant. He said hello and he looked at what I was doing, and then I noticed that one of my bodyguards started talking to him. Then another bodyguard came around and said to me in a very silent way, “We have to move,” and I understood immediately that something was fishy. What I found out, what the bodyguards found out in two seconds because they are very well trained, was that the guerrillas have post men in those territories, in the borders. I was along the borders of guerrilla territory.
CR Did you shoot the mannequin photos before you shot the village photos?
CR Tell me about the mannequins.
JE The mannequins were found in the streets of Bogotá. Beaten-up old mannequins that street vendors would use to sell clothes. They caught my attention because they were a very literal metaphor for the violence. It’s out there in the street, it lives with us and we don’t realize it’s there.
CR A perfect metaphor for battered psychic lives.
JE Our denial of that violence is a mechanism of defense; it is the only way we can survive.
CR Let me ask you this, there’s a division between your documentary, almost journalistic black-and-white photographs—although they have great poetic power—and your studio work, the color, that extraordinary shot of the chainsaw blade coming out of the pot—what’s the difference between the two? How do you decide what goes into what you photograph in the studio and what you photograph in Colombia?
JE In the studio I look for the metaphors, like the flower bone.
CR Where you actually construct problems?
JE Right, where I construct the metaphor. Remember the squashes that you saw in the exhibition?
CR Yes. Those would be done in the studio?
JE Yes. Those are an evocation of the cuts done in Colombia now: cutting the stomach open and removing the insides. We have a 50-year tradition of these cuts—this transgression of death, this ritual with death. My question is, What makes us perform such rituals with death? Is it that when there is so much death around you, and you are mutilating your victim, that you feel yourself to be a godlike personality—a puppeteer? I think that the moment one person can do this to another, then you’ve dislocated your mind from knowing it’s another human being.
CR Tell me more about photographing a village by photographing its remains, the residue of its abandonment. You create a presence through absence.
JE Yes, but the most painful thing, or what made me feel the most, was to see that which was left by the children of Chicocora. That was the most horrendous part.
Adults are one thing, but children are very delicate, fragile creatures. To see the horror of the school, the sense of abandonment, the composition books left in the classroom. To know it was called Escuela Nueva, the new school, and there was nothing there.
CR I noticed in the pictures you took of the children’s writing, that one of the notebooks pointed out the transposition of the word coco to coca.
CR Those were some of the most moving pieces in the show.
JE There was something else extraordinary in the village of Chicocora. Do you remember the pictures of the tree trunk and the small photograph of the shore?
CR The picture of an abandoned beach, the sand sculpted, gashed really, like the mutilated corpses.
JE Yes, nature itself started talking about death. When I looked at the tree trunk I saw a human corpse. When I looked at the shore, I saw a mutilated stomach.
CR Your rearrangement of graffiti into yet another message, was once again an effort to pluck some sense of the rational future out of the insanity of violence. You transformed the language of terror into a plea against violence. This graffiti is usually used to warn or strike terror, I would imagine, into the population.
JE Right, the paramilitaries write graffiti so people will start fleeing, which creates the problem of internal refugees.
CR I remember an image of an animal, hanging, that had been hacked to death. Why did you use that?
JE If you remember the animal had a cut in its forehead, a very vicious and deep cut. It’s hard to look at. That was maybe the one photograph I have taken that borders on sensationalism. When I saw that cut in that animal—how can I explain it? Whoever killed that animal, wounded it in such a way—for me that was the unnecessary side of violence. The victim was being hatcheted.
CR There seems to be a point at which the boundaries of what we consider humanity obviously don’t hold. There’s something even more terrible, perhaps, in seeing it perpetrated on an animal who clearly had no role in this at all.
JE Yes, but what I ask myself is, Has the person who did that to the animal seen cuts, the dismemberment of bodies? Is butchery natural to him? We go back to that, the naturalization of violence.
CR You have a photo of a long, thin horse under an extraordinary sky in a vast landscape.
JE It’s the fourth horse of the apocalypse. It’s Death. “I behold a white pale horse.”
CR Of course.
JE And Death rode him, and behind Death followed Hell—something like that.
CR So images of literature, as you said before, are central to what you do.
JE I think so.
CR It is an extraordinary image, that horse and the dramatic landscape. I am curious about the installation of your exhibition here in New York, why you did it the way you did. This form of presentation was very different; the photographs were hung at different heights, in different sizes, clustered in different areas. The exhibition seemed to have a syntax that you often don’t get when you see a row of same size pictures running along the wall. This was a very different and much more emotional form of communication.
JE We were trying to make a narration, not a linear narration, but for the purpose of telling a story, while also leaving certain gaps for each viewer to fill in.
CR The way language works, the way a voice works, perhaps. If we cluster the words and then stop and pause it creates the effect of language. There seemed to be an ebb and flow, not a story but the sense of a story. We don’t speak in a monotone and the images weren’t presented in a monotone. They were presented in bursts.
JE That’s very good. It was the way that I took the pictures—in bursts.
CR Are you in any personal danger? I assume the pictures have been shown in Colombia. I’m curious what position this puts you in Colombian society.
JE There is an exhibition—my first individual show in Bogotá—right now.
CR Have you received any responses yet?
JE I think people are very moved, people have learned about things they never thought existed. We have very little sense of our own history, which I think brings about a crisis of identity. Young people don’t know of the existence of these mutilations.
CR You mean there isn’t a general recognition of this ritualized violence?
JE Only on a very intellectual level, at universities or with people who are older. The younger generation seems to have no idea that it exists as a continuum.
CR So it is perhaps having some of the effect you hoped.
JE Can good art create an awareness?
CR That’s part of the experiment you’re engaged in. I think it can. We talk about political art often in this country, but it’s not under the social pressure that you’re talking about, and that you’re trying to address. It doesn’t exist quite to that extent in this country. Maybe in pockets; I’ve been involved with people trying to do art that deals with gang-related violence in the inner city, where to a lesser extent there is almost this daily acceptance of violence. But for it to be almost nationwide and so pervasive—there’s no corollary, really. I uncovered this term in one of your pieces, “violentology.” Is that an invented word, is there such a thing in Columbia, the study of violence?
JE Totally specialized, and many of its exponents, not many, but some of the people involved are being threatened by either the guerrillas or the paramilitary. One of the big problems in Colombia is that all the intellectual people are being eliminated.
When the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá did an exhibition that I was in called Arte y Violencia, they were threatened with bombs. Mayor Giuliani threatened to cut funding here in New York, but a bomb is a different thing altogether.
CR Is there a thinking political cadre in the leadership of the leftist guerrillas?
JE There is no more ideology. They claim to have an ideology, but let’s be clear: they have big business, in their heads; they kidnap people, which is a huge business, and they profit from cocaine.
CR So is this a self-perpetuating criminal enterprise?
JE It is a cartel. I think that it is a narco-cartel.
CR On the Left or on the Right?
JE The guerrillas kidnap the landlords, the paramilitary defends the landlords. The landlords have to give them X amounts of money.
CR They pay them?
JE They pay them, but also they have huge interests in the cocaine.
CR So it’s this sort of horrific market economy in death.
JE That’s exactly what it is. If there is demand in the world for cocaine and the Colombians don’t supply it because those fields have been fumigated, then someone else will produce it.
CR The demand’s there; the money’s there.
JE And there are many thinkers in the U.S. who wonder why it hasn’t been legalized. There is a history here with prohibition and what was the result?
CR Enormous crime and violence.
JE But next to Pablo Escobar, Al Capone is a weak little bird.
CR These are international economic machines. It’s amazing. Do you think legalization is an option?
JE It has to be. I don’t know how to make it function. But legalization will take away the glamour of cocaine, it will take away its power. A long time ago in London, I was with fashion people and people with money and I had just arrived from Colombia; the dealer came in and he was like the sun. There is a power element that would be broken if it were legalized.
CR How do you see the arts in Colombia?
JE I’m starting to see that a lot of new artists are dealing with the problem of violence. There seems to be an awareness among the artists of the necessity to speak about this reality. How can Colombian artists who are very well-established only paint exotic Colombian fruits when the country is being dismembered? How can they go on painting? Please! Highly educated, young artists are very aware of what’s happening in our country.