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November 3, 2021

Photography as a tool for peace: What comes from picturing everyday peace for communities in Colombia?

In Colombia, community members had the opportunity to transform indicators for peace into photo exhibits that adorn the streets of their villages.

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There are many versions of peace. Peace, while often discussed in an idealized and universal language, is a contested and subjective concept. What peace means for one person is not what it means for another. In peacebuilding contexts, how peace is understood and defined by communities whose lives have been directly shaped by conflict is too often neglected.

Imagery plays a key role in determining how people are seen and the stories that get told about them. In conflicts, communities are often portrayed as victims rather than as agents of peace. In this context, photography and cameras in the hands of community members takes on new significance, enabling them to define the stories that are important. With Colombia’s peace process at a critical juncture, recent violent protests have highlighted the urgent need for dialogue. What role might photography have to play in supporting these dialogues and peace processes?

Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) works with communities emerging from conflict to identify and generate their own indicators of hard to measure concepts such as peace and co-existence. These indicators are then used to design, monitor, and evaluate peacebuilding interventions. In Colombia, EPI’s Everyday Justice project is working with communities in three of the regions most affected by the country’s 50 year conflict. In these regions, using a tool called photovoice, community members have had the opportunity to transform their lists of indicators into photo exhibitions that adorn the streets and buildings in their villages.

Taking charge of the camera, the community photographers have created images that reveal what they see as the key ingredients for peace and co-existence. Their photos highlight the everyday things many take for granted: being able to go out after dark, decent rubbish collection, children playing, people celebrating special occasions and spending time together with family.

Significantly, the photographers call attention to the importance of truth and justice for victims of conflict and their families, ensuring their stories are told and their loved ones are honored. Their photographs speak to resilience, survival, and pride. They look to the future outlining what communities need to move forward and thrive. On display throughout the villages, their photo exhibitions encourage dialogue with community members and visitors about what peace and co-existence consists of.

Long used as a medium to draw attention to the horrors of war, the potential of photography as a tool for peace has been underexplored. What is exciting is that the possibilities are multiple and work at different levels. Working through photovoice workshops, the participants have learned not only photographic technique but have also explored how to identify and communicate the stories that are important to them. Their images work as their emissaries, taking their voices to audiences far and wide via media and engaging policy and decision makers as well as ordinary publics. However, what has been most striking is the impact of photography on the community and the participants themselves.

In the two communities where photovoice workshops have happened to date, San José de Urama and Las Cruces, photography catalysed direct actions: the revival of the dilapidated cemetery, the re-introduction of a community recycling scheme, and a cultural exchange with an ex-combatant community.

Indicator: The community with the support of the church and JAC maintain the cemetery. A woman in the late stages of a serious illness was resisting dying to avoid being taken to that neglected place: the cemetery. The deterioration of the cemetery is a testament to how much the dead are disregarded. Weeds devour the tombs just as our minds eat away at our memories. Would it not be the right thing for us to come together to maintain it, and honour the memory of the dead by keeping this place of transit to the afterlife beautiful? / Photo by The Urama Photography Collective

In San José de Urama the poor state of the cemetery had been a cause of concern for some time. The San José de Urama Photography Collective decided to focus on the cemetery as their group project. They documented its overgrown state of disrepair and the damaged tombs, highlighting the disrespect the cemetary showed for the dead, many of whom had died as a result of conflict. Reflecting on their images, the community photographers decided something needed to be done. They called a community work party over two days in which 80 people came out to help clear weeds, repaint monuments, and restore the cemetery. This work was valuable for the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which is carrying out exhumations to search for missing persons, enabling it to be able to do its work better.

In Las Cruces a preoccupation for many was the lack of parity between the opportunities offered to ex-combatants and those available to ordinary villagers, many of whom had suffered as victims during the conflict. Las Cruces is a roadside village where there has been no government service initiatives or NGO-led projects, and community members felt this neglect was a major obstacle to peace. For this reason the Las Cruces Photography Collective chose to focus on the indicator: ‘Campesinos and ex-combatants have equal opportunities.’ Discussing their project, they recognized that they were distrustful of ex-combatants and held certain prejudices against them, so in order to properly photograph and tell the story of this indicator they needed to visit an ex-combatant community.

Indicator: Campesinos and ex-combatants have equal opportunities. If we think about it properly, it’s not a bad thing that they have opportunities, because in reality all human beings make mistakes and this life gives us the privilege of being able to redeem ourselves. What is truly complex and degrading is that they have more privileges than the victims. Look at how our roads are, the lack of university opportunities for our teenagers, the lack of jobs. They get the benefits of productive projects. We are the victims and we don’t see any state support, but with the ex-combatants it’s like photos here, photos there, help here, jobs there, good prospects all around. We deserve the same! / Photo by The Las Cruces Photography Collective

They organized an exchange with a group of young communicators involved in a project called ‘Young People with a Future’ from the ETCR, Llano Grande. ETCRs are government-built camps designed to demobilize and facilitate former combatant’s transition back to civilian life. The photographers toured the community taking pictures, visiting projects, presenting their photos to each other, discussing issues, and sharing food with one another. Photography became a shared focus for the groups to get to know each other and exchange experiences.

Upon their return, the Las Cruces photographers recognized that the trip allowed them to unpick the stereotypes that they had about the ex-combatant community and to build a perspective that moved beyond their shared prejudices. They were able to see them as humans who did indeed have more access to state-provided projects and services, but who are also working hard to reform and support peaceful processes. Instead of blaming the ex-combatants, the Las Cruces Photography Collective saw the responsibility as lying with the state whose duty it was to provide them with basic services.

Emerging from these photography projects came direct community peacebuilding outcomes. Participants and community members noted the healing and dialogical power of photography. They recognized that the photovoice project carved a rare space in which they could talk together across the generations about the past, share stories, remember what has been lost and at the same time celebrate the survival, customs, values, and beauty of the places that they come from.

Looking at their communities anew through the camera reinforced participants’ sense of belonging and self. Inhabitants have adopted images that hang on their walls as part of the public exhibitions displayed throughout the villages. The exhibitions have brought visitors to the communities and have become local points of tourism, recasting these overlooked villages as epicentres of peacebuilding.

In becoming drivers of their own images, the community photographers have themselves become drivers of peace and dialogue.

‘… This town has lived a lot of violence, we all know that, and … it is so different and beautiful to go out and to see the photos, to the see the walls full of art and poetry.  A few years ago you would go out and on the walls it would say “Death to snitches, son of a bitches, guerrillas, paramilitaries”.  You would go out and see the walls full of death threats.  What there is now on these walls is a tribute to life.” Oscar Botero, resident of San José de Urama

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