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I was born in Colombia, home to forty-five million people. In the 1990s, when I already lived in the U.S., I followed stories of the quasi-civil-drug-war terrorizing every Colombian. Stories of armed men - because war is always about men and by men - who would saunter into a village with a list of names hand-written on a piece of paper, names of men who would be pulled from their homes and executed in front of their children, wives, and families. Or tortured, disemboweled, decapitated, or dismembered alive in front of them.
For decades, armed men in Colombia have carried out such atrocities in the name of guerrilla, military, paramilitary, and drug cartel banners. I remember reading somewhere these armed men numbered about forty-four thousand. The nightmare of forty-five million people terrorized by forty-four thousand men seared me indelibly. In 2002, in Bojayá, Choco, 119 women, men, and mostly children were immolated by a pipe bomb launched at the church where they had taken refuge. Misery-porn, ad-sale images of Colombia’s decades-old quasi-civil-war have widely documented the murderers’ atrocities against civilians.
Why I was inspired to make this series, titled Covenant, about a sliver of the 45-million who never make the news. Here are the parishioners of San Mateo Catholic Church participating in the processions and rituals of Holy Week (Easter) in Envigado (Medellin), Colombia, from 2009 to 2011.
Before moving to the U.S., I grew up in Colombia, and as a child and adolescent, I participated in these rituals, as a good portion of Colombians still do. There is no fanaticism to the way we practice our Catholicism. It is done matter of fact, almost second nature. I remember going to church on Sundays as one goes to school or work. If you were a child, you sat in the pews next to mom and dad, and if you were an adolescent, you stayed in the back of the church, and if you were an adolescent boy of a certain stripe, you would come to gawk at a girl you liked while doing your prayers.
What I remember is the second-nature devotion during prayer in these rituals. Each one of these portraits of individuals -- because I am drawn to portray individuals -- was a re-enactment from one of my childhood or adolescent memories. The older woman holding the candle I have seen a thousand times, with the same deep, honest, reverent expression of devotion. The older woman taking communion from the priest is such a simple minimal act, and yet it is so alive with the deep devotion forged over a lifetime. Even the young woman behind her expresses a devotion that reminded me of the ecstasy of Santa Teresa. In Descend from the Cross, notice how the men ever so gently pull the ceramic-based body-rendition of Christ from the cross and you could hear a pin drop when I took that and a couple of more frames because they were doing so in the complete silence of mourning. You can tell in the gentle body movement and expression of the men how they are deeply reverend even though they are only lowering a lifeless statue. These are the human expressions of the majority of Colombians, devoted to their spiritual pursuits, gathered in families and communities, respectful of God and law. A complete antithesis to the forty-four thousand men enacting war for the last three decades.
Making this series and experiencing the people expressing their devotion and going through these rituals as an adult told me a very simple story that the majority of Colombians, and in most societies, are truly law-abiding people imbued with the kind of values and fear that abhors violence or war. It is why perhaps it is so easy for forty-four thousand men to wreak such havoc on the lives of civilians innocent of war and violence.
You will find no blood here. But it is my hope I have somehow managed to portray our devotion to law and God and our longing for a Colombia at peace.