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BOGOTÁ — With her Sony camera at her side, 22-year-old photographer Nathalia Angarita walked through central Bogotá on the relatively calm third day of Colombia’s National Strike. Suddenly, national anti-riot forces, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD), descended onto the streets, and shots were fired. Angarita pulled out her camera, capturing photographs of the ESMAD officers and 18-year-old Dilan Cruz sprawled on the ground.
“It was a very emotional scene, but there were few journalists around,” she later told Hyperallergic. The image Angarita published on Instagram that evening hides Cruz’s face and the impact on his skull. His body lies sideways on the ground, his shirt lifted as first aid responders attend to him. Dark red blood pours down the crosswalk.
“I wanted to protect his identity, his dignity, but I also needed to show the reality of the violence,” noted Angarita on the image’s framing.
Dilan Cruz died two days later, on the day of his high school graduation, from wounds caused by a “bean bag” munition shot at the back of his head by an ESMAD officer. He soon emerged as the most prominent symbol of state violence during the Paro Nacional, or the National Strike, a series of protests that lasted for four weeks in late 2019 and continued into 2020.
The Paro began on November 21 when labor unions, students, indigenous groups, feminist organizations, and other sectors of Colombian society united in opposition to the current right-wing government. The main grievances include labor and pension reforms, widespread corruption, and lack of government compliance with both the 2016 FARC Peace Deal and public education funding agreements. With Cruz’s death, the right to protest itself became a central issue.
National media outlets offered extensive coverage of Cruz, but few published the image of his body. Television station RCN and newspaper Caracol ran segments in which contributors referred to him as a vandal. Still, many young Colombians had already circulated images of the incident on social media, indicting police forces with his death.
Given competing narratives, artists have taken on a preeminent role in documenting the Paro, in particular violent confrontations between police, ESMAD, and demonstrators. At each rally, independent photographers follow protesters and police officers, and their images challenge mainstream media reporting.
“The large media outlets do not show the truth,” Bogotá-based photographer Luis Carlos Ayala told Hyperallergic. “They give the story of the violent ‘encapuchado’ [hooded protester], destroying the [bus] stations, but not the abuse of the state.”
Ayala’s images focus on the body, the face, the interaction between the police and the protester. He has captured screams of individuals detained by the police, hooded protesters confronting tear gas launched by ESMAD tanks, and the grin of an ESMAD officer grabbing a protester by the neck (“They enjoy it,” commented Ayala). The photographer refers to the images as the battle of David and Goliath. David throws the rock, Goliath fires the tear gas; David screams, as Goliath forces him to the ground.
Other artists have used different media to document el pueblo, the people. Liliana Merizalde took inspiration from the cacerolazo, the nightly banging of pots and pans as protest. Carrying vinyl paint and blank newsprint to the marches, Merizalde asks protesters to create prints of their cacerola. She then notes the individual’s name, the date, and the number of hours on the street.
“It’s like a fingerprint, a token of someone’s identity. You understand that each person in the protest has a reason to be there,” she said. With over one hundred prints, Merizalde’s project showcases the quantity of protesters while diverging from the conventional media image of a protest: a large, nameless crowd.
Rejecting mainstream outlets, these artists have turned to social media to distribute their work. “I post it, and it’s shared, and shared, and shared. And if an alternative media source wants to buy my work, that’s fine, but that’s not the purpose,” said Ayala. Through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, these visuals have become alternative sources of information. And in December 2019, left-wing Colombian politicians presented independent images, including Ayala’s work, to the National Congress to demonstrate the violence enacted by ESMAD and argue for reform.
Many artists and photographers thus articulate an obligation to share the truth. On January 21, the reignition of the Paro Nacional in the new year, several carried signs labeling this duty. On a piece of cardboard hanging off the back of one photographer, black marker scribbled out, “My camera is an eye that ESMAD will never blind.”
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