Help support Colombian photography

Aura+(12)© Aura Lambertinez

A little over a year ago I asked the question, What Is Happening in Contemporary Colombian Photography. Through the fantastic work of Tom Griggs and his blog fototazo, I’ve since learned a lot. One of the great things Tom does with his blog is help support non-prof microgrants for Colombian photographers. Yesterday he posted a request on the behalf of nine former microgrant recipients to travel from Colombian to the University of Iowa to participate in an intensive workshop in the summer of 2015.

I believe so much in the work Tom is doing to encourage up and coming Latin American photographers and hope you’ll consider supporting this project too. More info on the microgrant HERE

Make a tax-deductible contribution HERE

An interview with Mateo Gómez Garcia

Last week I participated in a panel discussion at the Museum of Modern Art on the topic of American photography. Using Walker Evans as a springboard for the conversation, the panelists were asked to discuss how one defines American photography in an increasingly global context. During this conversation, I thought often of my recent trip to Bogotá, Colombia. While I was there, I visited the home of a young photographer named Mateo Gómez Garcia. Gomez is a student of global photography and his work is clearly inspired by the North American tradition initiated by Walker Evans. Nevertheless, working from his rural home on the outskirts of Bogotá, Mateo is grappling with a distinctly Colombian sense of identity.


As part of the ongoing series of posts fototazo and I have done on contemporary Colombian photography, I thought I would follow up with Mateo to get his perspective as an up-and-coming Colombian photographer. Many thanks to Tom Griggs of fototazo for translating our dialog.

Alec Soth: You are 25. Do you feel like you’ve reached artistic maturity?

Mateo Gómez Garcia: I feel that I am increasingly strengthening a personal language, however in this process I have tried to be as cautious as possible as far as falling into a fixed style or a formula for producing photographs. Instead, I stay attentive when working on a new project, trying to include new approaches without separating completely from a personal style.

Alec Soth: This desire to find a formula or quickly identifiable style is something quite common in every culture, I suspect. But I gather that your path to educating yourself as a photographer is somewhat atypical of young photographers in the US and Europe. Do you have a sense of those differences? What is your feeling about photographic education in Colombia?

Mateo Gómez Garcia: I would not know how to describe an “academic” education in Colombia, if that is indeed the type of education you are asking me about, because I did part of that type of education in Argentina. However almost 80% of my education I have done on my own, taking pictures and looking at a lot of photography. I think Colombia is a very rich center for producing photography. A restless photographer, who knows what’s going on in photography worldwide and who has a clear vision of what they want to do here in Colombia, will have the tools they need to generate an interesting body work.

Alec Soth: I’m wondering how you feel about the issue of national or regional identity. Is being from Colombia, and Bogotá specifically, something you want to be associated with your work, or not? And do you think Colombian photographers generally should embrace this regional identity, or separate from it.

Mateo Gómez Garcia: Very good question! My work is exactly about the subject of identity. I would not say I define the country as it might sound pretentious, but I give my personal opinion of what I see in the country, using each of my projects as an excuse to address this issue of identity. I think the issues of violence, drugs and conflict are important, but have already been done many times. I guess every photographer has their concerns and ambitions like I do, however I also think that there are some roads that are easier than others – talking about the issue of violence etc. I also think to refresh photography here in Colombia it is important to have a more global view of what is being done elsewhere in the world.


Alec Soth: That brings us to talk about your work and your current project, A Place To Live. What brought you to start this project? Was it initiated by an idea or by personal experience?

Mateo Gómez Garcia: The project started with an idea and a personal experience. For 10 years I have lived in one of the towns most affected by urban development in the savannah of Bogotá. La Calera, my home, has seen drastic changes during that time: new developments, residential clubs and shopping centers.

“A Place To Live” began as a very focused documentary project to make a record of the virgin land about to be urbanized in Bogotá and its closest municipalities. However with the passage of time it became a record of both the Colombian household and the change of rural life to urban life.

To make a photographic project that looks at so many issues and still suggests a reading which proposes certain narrative coherence was a job that took me almost 3 years. One of those themes that “A Place To Live” tries to suggest is the theme of memory and with the photograph itself being an ambiguous medium, it is largely a record of the past. You have to imagine it as a family album, with a nostalgia for that which no longer exists.


Alec Soth: I’m interested in the issue of nostalgia as it pertains to age. When I was in my twenties, I had nostalgia for the culture of the late 1960’s (the time when I was born). I find it fascinating now to work with young people who are nostalgic for the 1990’s. Is there a particular era in Colombia that evokes this quality of nostalgia for you? Is this something unique to you and your generation, or are people in Colombia generally nostalgic for a time in the country’s history?

Mateo Gómez Garcia: Ha ha! Well, for me the 90s were times in which I learned what it means to be from a country in which the main protagonist is terror.

It was an era in which both the Medellín and Cali drug cartels fought the government and even to go out for ice cream was a risk, as there were always bombings, in central areas and elsewhere. And if you wanted to leave the city by car you could be a victim of the so-called pescas milagrosas (“miracle catches”) – guerrilla checkpoints with the potential for mass kidnappings – so it really was to be at a crossroads.

For me nostalgia comes from the era of my parents! As well as from the 60s and 70s! As you know I didn’t live those decades, but my grandmother on my father’s side documented all of the trips of my uncles and my father to my grandfather’s farms as an amateur photographer – the waterfalls, the barbecues on the plains, my great-grandfather drinking his whiskey from 6 pm, and my father with his various girlfriends – ha ha! They are times which now are impossible to recreate because my grandfather died and my grandmother is very old and therefore my family is very fragmented.

See more of Mateo Gómez Garcia’s work HERE



Popsicle #40: Guadalupe Ruiz

Last week, Tom Griggs and I asked the question, What is happening in contemporary Colombian photography? But how does one define ‘Colombian photography.’ Does it include foreigners living in Colombia (and if so, how long do they need to have been living there)? What about Colombians living abroad? In an increasingly global art world, do these kinds of geographical delineations carry meaning?

I thought about all of these slippery questions while looking at the work of Guadalupe Ruiz. Ruiz was born in Bogotá in 1978, but moved to Switzerland to attend college at seventeen and has lived there ever since. “As a result,” Léa Fluck notes in her introduction to Guadalupe Ruiz (La silueta), “her work has become inevitably internationalized.” Nevertheless, Ruiz still strongly identifies with her heritage. In an interview with Fluck, Ruiz says the following:

I think there are more interesting things to see in Colombia. My gaze is somehow full of memories and images I have stored in my mind for a long time. Physical distance has allowed me to realize that. It is a matter of the experiences you have lived in the place where you grew up. This allows me to more easily translate the codes of the society to which I belong.

Despite this attraction and affection to her native country, Ruiz is ambivalent about the way her Colombian identity is attached to her work:

I don’t want to give people the image they want to see. They have never been in Colombia, but believe we Latins are all the same. That we like salsa and are always partying and don’t work. Most of all, that it is dangerous “over there,” that drugs are everywhere, the FARC, Ingrid and all those people forgotten in the middle of the jungle…It’s like in US films, when they show the bad guys, the bandits in Bogotá, and then go and shoot the film in a lost little village in Mexica. It is a cliché. On the contrary, I don’t identify with Latin culture at all, since it is not enough for me. Living here in Switzerland has somehow impregnated my made in Colombia roots. It is that mix, which is not something commonplace, that what I am emerges from: someone who is half lost, who doesn’t feel neither truly Swiss nor fully Colombian.

It is the lost quality, this feeling of displacement, which makes Ruiz’s work so memorable. In the same way that she’s ungrounded culturally, her pictures are untethered to strict categorical definitions like ‘staged’ or ‘documentary.’





In the end, a question like What is happening in Colombian photography? is just a conversation starter. It is an excuse to look at an extraordinary artist like Guadalupe Ruiz and remind oneself that the best artists aren’t afraid to work outside of the lines.

What is happening in contempory Colombian photography?


One of the thrills of my recent trip to Bogotá was having the opportunity to meet with several excellent photographers living and working in Colombia. I was particularly thrilled to meet the Medellín resident (and fellow Minnesota native) Tom Griggs. Along with doing outstanding photographic work in Colombia, Tom publishes the excellent blog fototazo. Though our mutual blogs, Tom and I are looking to gather information about what is happening in contemporary Colombian photography. In order to do this we’re looking for help from our readers. What are the trends and traditions coming out of Colombian photography? Who’s making interesting work worthy of broader international exposure?

Please leave us your feedback (in Spanish or English). Tom and I look forward to compiling this information and sharing what we’ve learned in the weeks to come.

– Alec Soth

Popsicle #39: In This Dark Wood & Everything Passes


A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

In the forty years since Michael Lesy published his classic book Wisconsin Death Trip, there has been increasing interest in publishing collections of vernacular photographs. The challenge these publications face is sweeping away the funereal haze so that viewers can actually engage with the photographs.

What made Wisconsin Death Trip groundbreaking was the multiple ways Lesy tackled this issue. Along with the unconventional title, Lesy employed an unusual design approach that, while dated now, still successfully keeps readers on their toes. And through the incorporation of hundreds of local news stories, Lesy helped readers imagine the life and times of the people in the pictures. Lastly there was Lesy’s own text. “The pictures you’re about to see are of people who were once actually alive,” he writes in the first sentence of the book.

One of my favorite recent books of vernacular photographs is Elisabeth Tonnard’s In this Dark Wood (the book was originally self-published in 2008 but is now being reissued by J&L). At the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, Tonnard worked with the Fox Movie Flash collection; approximately one million photographs on 35mm half frames of pedestrians in San Francisco. Drawn to the nocturnal images of people walking alone, Tonnard was reminded of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Tonnard ended up pairing ninety of these photographs with different English translations of those first lines. Compared to Lesy, Tonnard’s approach is minimalistic. But the effect lyrically brings the nightwalkers to life.


One of the joys of viewing vernacular photography is finding images connected to one’s own passions. As a big fan of table tennis, for example, I had a blast collecting the pictures for our recent book Ping Pong. After a recent trip to Bogotá, another emerging interest of mine is Colombian photography. So I was thrilled to discover Everything Passes. As with In A Dark Wood, the images are of pedestrians made by street photographers (fotocineros) on half-frame film. But in this case, all of the images were made along a legendary thoroughfare in Medellín called Calle Junín.


Everything Passes is a modest book. Nevertheless, it doesn’t settle for simply reproducing nostalgic images. As with Wisconsin Death Trip, the publishers employ a cinematic approach to sequencing the images. And while the text by Alfonso Morales isn’t as conceptual as Lesy’s or Tonnard’s, it did help me enter the world of the photographs:

Strangers to the street, to the city and the time, we have no choice but to trace back the steps of the passerby portrayed to the very limits of our gaze. In order to understand the experiences they have accumulated, we need to follow them back to before the day and exact moment when they were chosen by the fotocinero to figure as the subject of an instant portrait…To go back as far as 1675, when the history of the Nueva Villa de la Candelaria de Medellín began…To return to a time when Calle de Junín was known as “slippery street” because of the number of people who slipped in the mud there during the rainy season…when it was still thought to be haunted by a night-walking ghost that threw pebbles at passerby…To return to the days when the places were built that would make the street a required destination: The Astor tea and pastry room (1930), founded by Swiss immigrants, the Versalles restaurant (1961) the first place to sell soft drinks in Medellín, the Teatro Junín (1924) since demolished to make room for the Coltejer skyscraper (1968), the Club Union, the favorite spot of the local paisa high society…

Perhaps then we would understand why the name of the street has been turned into a verb: juninear ‘to Junín,’ which means to go to the street to run an errand, to do some shopping, or just to stroll; to be seen by other people, known and unknown; to show off your clothes before the lens of a camera, which is really the threshold of another landscape, the gateway into a territory in which people are transformed into images and the images, freed of their weight, set out for unknown destinations…

Reading this text as it scrolls along the bottom of the page like subtitles in a foreign film, the photographs begin to change. While the clothes and hairdos will always evoke a quality of nostalgia – and thus of death – I’m reminded of the actual people that walked these streets – “the people who were once actually alive.”