Not that long ago, this neighbourhood was a no-go zone in the world’s most dangerous city. Today, it’s a tourist hotspot where Spanish speaking souvenir sellers saturate the sidewalks. Not being one for trinkets, I give them my “Nah, you’re alright” face and have a look around. If the subjective stars align, my memento will be photographic.
Comuna 13 (in the San Javier district of Medellín) is a hillside barrio where creative expression rules the day. Street artists, rappers, and breakdancers do their thing, and pop-up bars give the place a youthful vibe. My camera has lost its usual smell of papaya. And I snap away without constraint. But it’s a daylight delimitation – local knowledge says things still get dicey after dark.
The music is loud and Colombian. Bodies move quickly, synchronising for split seconds and an overly affectionate T-shirt dances in what used to be a murder capital. I’m struck by the juxtaposition and move in for a close-up. Angles are tight, and the background is busy. Empanada flavours waft over from a nearby van, and the mid-afternoon sun increases the tonal range. Isolating subjects is not easy amid the clutter and the chaos. I squat down to fire off a few frames. Heads rise above the horizon. And there it was, my photograph.
Instinctively, I know when I’ve captured something meaningful to me. It’s the photographic equivalent of scoring a goal. You know it’s in – the moment your finger releases the shutter. But no photograph has any meaning other than the meaning we choose to give it. So understanding the impulse that drives my preferences takes some reflection.
On the streets where Pablo Escobar recruited teenage hitmen, the contrasting message on that T-shirt plays on my mind. I draw parallels with modern times. The exploitation of fear as a means of control is a well-worn tactic for governments and their accomplices in the media. But participation is optional. And the younger generation, with less to lose, often lead the way.
The causal chain runs deep for us photographers. Maybe it’s about hope.