Ana Vallejo is a Colombian photographer based in Bogotá. Her project, Entre Nubes, focuses on San Germán, a makeshift neighbourhood in a National Park on the outskirts of Bogotá, where people internally displaced from various conflicts around Colombia have settled after finding themselves unable to find housing in the capital. BristoLatino’s editor-in-chief, Helen Brown, interviewed Ana about her experiences in San German, and what she thinks the best course of action is for these increasingly common informal neighbourhoods.
Ana Vallejo’s philosophy is that without empathy, you cannot achieve intimacy and honesty in photographs. Her work uses the powerful tool of empathy to explore various aspects of Colombia, such as farmers returning to their land after years of displacement, and the oft-ignored vendors flogging merchandise on Colombia’s beaches. Her latest project, Entre Nubes, represents the people of San German, their homes and the surrounding landscape of Entre Nubes National Park. In 2018, the United Nations found that Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. These internal refugees are the victims of violence and land-grabbing from both sides of the political spectrum. Colombians have been forced to flee their homes due to confrontations with far-right paramilitary forces and conflicts with the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla movement that demobilised in 2017 after over 50 years of warfare. Other causes of displacement include clashes with drug cartels, illegal armed groups and corrupt local authorities. Rehousing displaced Colombians is a formidable task: deserted land has often been subsumed by farmers, landowners or corporations who are unwilling to give it back, and although the government has promised to rehouse its citizens, many who apply for housing are disappointed. San German is one of over 20,000 illegal settlements in Bogotá alone, which range in size from one or two families to hundreds of people.
San German’s residents face daunting problems that have worsened as the community has grown from 14 families to around 300. San German exists outside the realm of government authority, leaving it vulnerable to local drug trafficking gangs and tierreros (urban land pirates.) As San German expands, it attracts people with differing motives, who see the place as a business opportunity rather than a last resort for shelter. Some newcomers have started to sell land without the permission of the community, and live elsewhere whilst maintaining a second residence in San German. The government and the press demonise these communities as petri dishes of violence and drug crime, undermining the fact that these informal communities exist as a result of years of violence and corruption all over the nation. San German also threatens the natural ecosystem of Entre Nubes National Park, and the residents are at risk of landslides. One option to tackle these issues is to fight for the government to safeguard the legal status of the community and to provide sustainable construction materials to convert it into a green neighbourhood to limit its negative environmental effects.
Ana Vallejo was originally introduced to the neighbourhood by Arley Estupiñan, the former social leader of San German. Arley and his wife Esmeralda were displaced from Buenaventura by paramilitary groups after Esmeralda denounced the drug dealer who killed eleven of her cousins in the Punta del Este Massacre in 2005. Arley took charge of fighting for San German’s status as a legal settlement, but he faced opposition from local drug traffickers and the local mayor and government. After receiving death threats and being harassed by hit men outside of his home, he and his family fled from San German with the help of private NGOs. Through developing a personal relationship with Arley and his family, Vallejo learned firsthand about the sense of community San German gives, as well as the dangers it presents. Her photographs illustrate daily life in San German, with informative captions about the struggles of living in an informal neighbourhood, and the stories of how the residents came to live there. Her photographs humanise these informal communities, and illuminate the many traumas the people of San German have lived through, and how they continue to survive despite being mistreated and ignored. Vallejo believes that art can be used as a tool for social transformation and that this power is best unlocked through collaborative work. The next phase of the project involves collaborating with other creatives to put on a play with the people of San German, and various workshops to help them work through trauma, as they continue to fight for the legal status of San German.
Helen: How did you establish yourself as a documentary photographer in Colombia?
Ana: I did a photography internship at a national news outlet called Semana. After the internship, I decided to turn away from local news outlets. They didn’t pay very well and I felt like there was little room for experimentation. Instead, I started my own wedding and event photography company to earn a living and on the side started Entre Nubes as a personal project.
Helen: What inspired you to photograph the residents of San German?
Ana: In 2016, my friend who is a Polish journalist came to Colombia. Her name is also Ana and we started doing stories together. We got referred to San German to talk to Arley, the leader of the community. We were mesmerized by the place and the beauty of the eastern hills. Arley and his friends were energetic and warm, walking around the neighbourhood dressed in camouflage clothes with knives and walkie-talkies. You could feel their young rebellion and hope in the air, the resistance to their life situation.
Helen: How did you get to know the community of San German?
Ana: Ana and I went around three more times. We thought the story was very complicated as we couldn’t find who was “right” and who was “wrong.” It is more of a grey area. These people were taking land that stood next to a beautiful reserve, but at the same time they needed a place to live and they were building themselves a better future.
Helen: How welcomed was your project in San German?
Ana: I became friends with Arley and Esmeralda who were the leaders of the neighborhood and also with the members of the board. I felt safe with them. This was helpful as they would give me tours and introduce me to people, but in the end it was problematic as this neighbourhood is fragmented. Some people support Arley and others don’t.
Helen: Do you think turning San German into a green neighbourhood is the best course of action?
Ana: Yes. This year I started working in San German alongside an architecture program of the University Piloto called Social Projection. For security reasons, we travel there together. I was intrigued by their urbanism ideology and methodology in informal communities. They think each place and community is unique and therefore needs unique urban plans that are created collaboratively with each community. In the case of San Germán, being next to a reserve is definitely an important factor. Responsible waste management is needed in order to minimise the impact on the reserve. Planting orchards could help feed the community as well. Lastly, using bio construction techniques (the use of environmentally friendly materials to build housing) would be cheaper and also more sustainable in the long run.
Helen: How much did you see San German threatening the nature of the national park?
Ana: Right now they don’t have a sewage system so waste goes straight into the water spring. People’s settlements have changed the territory, there is little vegetation where the houses are.
Helen: Did you see the influence of tierreros (land pirates) in San German?
Ana: Some people have settled in San German for years, but there is also a constant flux of people moving in and out. Most people living in San German can’t afford to live anywhere else. However, there are other people who see San German as an economic opportunity. Some people have houses in San German but live outside the neighbourhood. Others come in saying they really need a house, then sell it to someone else. A man was recently selling pieces of land in the upper part of the neighborhood without the permission of the members of the board.
Helen: Do you agree with the claim that the district authority is making back-door deals to use the land San German occupies for property development?
Ana: I don’t have evidence for that. San German is supposedly in an area with a high risk of landslides. However, there are very big construction projects around that area that also affect the natural reserve and the water supplies. It seems as though these projects don’t face any resistance from the government, despite their ecological impact. There are also reports of corruption within these mega constructions. Many are built as housing that is partially subsidised by the state. The apartments are not well-built, they have leakages and unfinished parts, and they are also very small. This overcrowding results in the risk of social problems, such as violence in the buildings. “Rincón de Bolonia” for instance has 990 apartments with an area of only 60m2 per apartment. The families that move in are usually big. Furthermore, micro traffic (small-scale drug trafficking at a local level) has already entered the buildings making these areas unsafe and overcrowded.
Helen: What is the relationship between the police and the San German residents?
Ana: From what I have seen, the police don’t take the area seriously, they always take too long to arrive and usually categorise any conflict as gangs settling the score between each other. This usually means they don’t investigate further and impunity reigns.
Helen: Do you think the Colombian government will ever resettle all the citizens displaced by conflict?
Ana: After 50 years of war it is extremely hard to resettle every single person. For instance, in the case of land restitution, some lands have been resold multiple times, making it almost impossible to define who the “real” owner is. Colombia is a centralized country which makes it very hard to keep clear records of displacement in certain rural areas that have historically lived outside the radar of the government. What we see today is that big cities receive most of this internal migration. Bogotá does not have the infrastructure to support everyone who arrives. Therefore, informal communities keep growing on the periphery of the city, especially in the south of Bogotá. Residents of informal communities live outside of the parameters of the state. They can be denied access to state services, and their fundamental human rights are no longer guaranteed.
Helen: What was your goal with photographing and interviewing the residents of San German?
Ana: I wanted to understand what was behind the stigma of an informal neighbourhood. I wanted to show this informal neighborhood from a different perspective, focusing on the people and their life stories.
Helen: The next phase of the project tries to involve the point of view of San German’s inhabitants through photography, theatre and psychomagic. What led you to want to incorporate theatre and psychomagic into the project?
Ana: I found out about cultural initiatives led by photographers, like Mauricio Palos, the director of the Cultural Center of Tenexcalco in Mexico. I thought doing something collectively with the community would give closure to my project as I don’t want to show San Germán only from my limited perspective. I also think art has the capacity to heal wounds and bring people together. I think art is very important in territories with high rates of violence like San Germán.
Helen: Were you inspired by any other collective artworks with victims of war?
Ana: David Ardila, my friend who will hopefully direct the play we want to create collectively in San German, has previously worked with victims of war in Colombia. This phase of the project would provide a space for people in the neighbourhood to bond and get to know each other better. Psychomagic attempts to heal past wounds by reenacting trauma in a poetic way that reconfigures the way the individual processes this trauma.
Helen: How are you going to make sure the residents of San German get to express their own stories in the next phase of the project?
Ana: The play’s script would be created collectively. A play allows for improvisation, and the installation would also be made from what we make collectively in the workshops.
Helen: What did you find most memorable about your experiences in San German?
Ana: I will always remember the first time I went there. Arley and the other members of the board showed us around wearing camouflage clothes and using walkie-talkies. They were all young. The police watched over us from a hill. We were also with Esmeralda, Arley’s partner, and a friend of hers. They would laugh and sing songs from the Pacific while walking through the surrounding fields and showing us the gorgeous lookout points over the city. They invited us to have lunch at their house. Esmeralda and her friend sang traditional “arrullos”, which are native songs from the Pacific, and Arley played the guitar. The meal was a traditional dish called Sancocho, it was amazing.
Helen: Which one of the photographs was the most emotional or thought-provoking for you?
Ana: I have the most intense experiences when interviewing and photographing women. Some of them have told me very difficult stories about their lives that have really gotten to me. The whole process of getting Arley and Esmeralda out of the neighborhood was also very emotional. Esmeralda was eight months pregnant at the time. It’s hard to not always have means to help the people you care for but it has also been beautiful to see all that has happened in the last two years. Esmeralda and Arley had their first son: David. Ashley who is Esmeralda’s daughter had two girls: Sara and Ana Sofia. I am very close with Sara.
Helen: How do you hope the viewer will respond to these photographs?
Ana: I hope informal neighbourhoods are seen from a more empathic perspective. I consider the project unfinished in that sense.
Helen: Do you have any exciting projects coming up soon?
Ana: As I continue to work on the San German project, I also want to work on a more abstract project on the side, about deconstructing photography and experimenting with the medium itself, with colour and emotions.
To see more of Ana Vallejo’s photography, go to her website https://www.anacvallejo.com
Photo credits: Ana Vallejo