Medellin, Colombia – For photojournalist Jesus Abad Colorado, Colombia’s half a century-long civil conflict has been like the biblical story of Abel and Cain, in which one brother killed the other.
Yet, he says, he was never able to understand who was Cain and who was Abel.
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For a quarter of a century he has tried to answer that question through his pictures showing the consequences of the criminal acts of rebel fighters, the paramilitaries and the Colombian army that left 220,000 people dead.
His portraits perhaps best captured the pain of a war that despite its duration has very few defining images.
“It’s sad to say but there are many episodes of our long war where I was the only witness,” Colorado told Al Jazeera. “Not only because I worked independently or because I’m particularly courageous, but because unlike most I worked walking side by side with the communities reaching some of the most isolated places on foot, taking my time. The communities protected me and allowed me to tell these stories.”
His life-long achievement is being awarded Latin America’s most important journalism prize, the Gabo award for journalistic excellence, at this year’s Gabo festival in his home town Medellin.
The festival is organised by the Gabo Foundation created by the late Colombian Nobel Prize winner, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to promote the best journalism practices in Spain and Latin America.
The foundation’s director Jaime Abello says Jesus Abad Colorado’s pictures have forced Colombians to face a conflict mostly fought in faraway rural areas that few wanted to confront.
“Over several decades Jesus more than anyone has depicted this country from his peripheries. From the peripheries of the cities’ slums to the most isolated regions that have suffered the most violence,” explained Abello.
“He brought into focus the humanity and the dignity of the people living there. And he’s done so showing great respect for them. Always making the effort of returning to the areas affected and the people he covered.”
Colorado said it was important to experience the hardships of others.
“We need to see ourselves in other people’s faces and never forget them,” he said.
That is why he always recorded the victims, low-ranking fighters and civilians – never the generals and politicians who held power.
“I understand journalism as memory, not the record of a single day. I see it as building the larger narrative of a country,” Colorado said.
“I’m not looking for a scoop. I tried to build a body of work that has a memory, history and context. We have the responsibility to understand what happened to us and never forget. Journalism in Colombia concealed or trivialised crimes committed by the paramilitaries in alliance with political powers and amplified those of the guerrilla. I have tried to show a more balanced picture and give equal dignity to all victims.”
That is why he invited, paying out of his own pocket, four of the subjects of his portraits to receive the award with him, or why people stop him at the festival to hug him and thank him for his work. Some cried sharing the memory of a dead relative.
He also has been a victim of the conflict. A cousin died after being kidnapped by FARC rebels, another was disappeared by the army. Colorado himself was kidnapped twice by guerrillas. Yet he insists there is always hope amid the sorrow.
For more than a year his work has been showcased in an exhibition in the capital, Bogota, called The Witness, which is now the most visited exhibition in Colombia’s history.
These days what worries him the most is the fact his work is far from over.
Despite the government signing a peace deal with FARC rebels, violence continues in many regions of the country. Implementation of the deal has stalled, especially under the government of President Ivan Duque, who openly campaigned against the accord.
“I blame our political class, businessmen and some religious leaders for putting at risk this opportunity, for being unable to forgive,” Colorado said.
“They triumph in hatred. A divisive tweet in Bogota can kill a person in remote areas of the country. And I blame the mafias and the drug traffickers who fuel this conflict for their profits. But I still hope Colombia is not condemned to repeat its history and fall back into a war that those who are responsible for don’t actually fight.”