Stephen Ferry is an American photographer who has lived in Colombia for 20 years. He arrived to give workshops and became intrigued by the armed conflict. Due to his historical background, Ferry documented other conflicts and had a strong interest in understanding U.S. foreign policy interference in Latin America. Two of his long-term projects stand out from this long reflection: Violentology and La Época. Research that seeks to understand the complexity of the origins and expressions of war beyond the narco-narratives.
By Marcela Vallejo
In fifth grade, Stephen Ferry brought a copy of Life magazine to his school. In it was a picture of a Vietnamese baby girl sitting on the rubble of her house, her skin burned after an aerial bombardment. The image had shocked him. A colleague whose parents supported the war saw the photo and scoffed. Ferry could not contain himself, and the two boys ended up fighting. In the introduction to his book Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict (2012), he recounts that “those images in the pages of Life and the newspapers made the war impossible to ignore.”
Stephen Ferry was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 1960s, the era of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights and racial equity. Cambridge was one of the epicenters of the anti-war movement. Although Ferry had no older brothers or other family members on the front lines, the war was an everyday issue. The photographers publishing at the time became his first significant references.
Growing up, Ferry decided to study history and specialized in Latin America. He made the decision thinking that he needed a place like a college to learn to read and write, and photography he would learn on his own. Ferry now calls himself a “non-fiction photographer.” Doing so saves him from disputes because he doesn’t have to identify with photojournalism or documentary photography. He has practiced both trades, and his authorial work blends the two.
Ferry does visual research on processes that can take several years. As a result of his study, he has published the photobooks I Am Rich Potosí: The Mountain that Eats Men (1999), Violentology (2012), La Batea (2017), and La Época: Reportajes de una Historia Vetada (2022). The photo books he has published revolve around some forms of violence, especially in Colombia. In this interview, we talk about two of them: ViolentologY, published at the height of the war in Colombia, but also at the beginning of the peace talks, and La Época, “a single edition newspaper that circulates with sixty-five years of delay,” a project that was born thanks to the signing of the Accords and in direct relation to the work of the Comisión de la Verdad (Truth Commission).
Soldiers of Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). La Gabarra, Norte de Santander. December 10, 2004
You came to Colombia through the Gabo Foundation (formerly known as the Foundation for New Latin American Journalism) to teach photography and photojournalism workshops. What struck you most about the country at that time?
In those early years, I was fascinated by history and intrigued by the situation. The colleagues who participated in the workshops talked to me a lot; they showed me their images because many were covering what was happening and investigating the war. One of the series I saw was made by Jesús Abad Colorado and published in El Colombiano, showing the town of Machuca, Antioquia, after it had been set on fire. The guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) attacked a nearby oil pipeline, a stream reached the town, and the flames accidentally burned the town and incinerated 84 people. Many people who died there were ELN sympathizers, and some were even family members.
Thus, I began to understand that the armed conflict in Colombia is much more tragic, complex, and significant. It was not just a matter of drug trafficking, as it is often understood. Between 1999 and 2000, I decided to move to Colombia to concentrate on working on the armed conflict. I wanted to see if I could contribute to understanding it more broadly. I was also very attracted by the camaraderie in the Colombian press, especially among photographers. I think it is something that is created by the dangers themselves.
I understand that because of your life history, violence was not strange, but as a research topic, have you worked on it before or found it here in Colombia?
I have been in other conflict scenarios, such as El Salvador, Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Baltic countries. However, I don’t consider myself a conflict photographer, not at all. I am interested in the impact of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. In the case of Colombia, for me, the idea that the armed conflict is due to drug trafficking is an imposition of U.S. policies on what is history. Drug trafficking added a lot of fuel to the fire, but the historical reasons are different; that goes back precisely to the Cold War, and I am a child of the Cold War.
unaWoman and child run away from a confrontation between the FARC and the Colombian Army. Comuna 13, Medellín, Antioquia. October 18, 2002.
Car bomb aftermath. Villavicencio, Meta. April 7, 2002.
Why do you think there is so much emphasis on drug trafficking when talking about this conflict if, as you say, its historical origins are different?
The so-called “War on Drugs” began in the 1970s, but the Colombian armed conflict began earlier. What we found with La Época, Villarrica’s work contrasts with the accepted historiography. Many think the war with the FARC began with the attacks on Marquetalia in 1964. We defend the thesis that the armed conflict in Colombia between what a decade later would be called the FARC and the Colombian State dates back to 1954. Villarrica was the scene of a war between the State and communist guerrillas, whose ranks included some combatants who would later become part of the FARC. That war is one of the expressions of the Cold War in Colombia.
We see it as a hinge because it was a moment when political violence ceased to be only national to enter an internationalization process of a conflict between communists and anti-communists. The level of censorship meant that this story, which lasted three years (1954-1957), remained hidden.
Then, the figure of Pablo Escobar was so attractive in the media that it occupied all the attention, and after that story, well, there was no more backlash. An endless number of movies, novels, and TV series have been made based on Pablo Escobar, and that’s where it stayed.
We must also take two things into account: the legacy of the Vietnam War, plus the hangover of the wars in Central America, made the Liberal Democrat side of the political equation in the United States accept Plan Colombia only in terms of a fight against drug trafficking. We are talking about 98-99 years, under the Clinton administration, of a large-scale military aid plan.
Counterinsurgency was no longer fashionable; the idea of dedicating significant resources to fight a leftist insurgency had no force. It was neither attractive, marketable, nor comprehensible. After September 11, the notion of terrorism appeared with power, and the two things were united. We spoke of narcoterrorism in the case of Colombia.
Banners with portraits of FARC founders Jacobo Arenas and Manuel Marulanda. Los Pozos, Caquetá. September 5, 2000.
“When I came to Colombia, I came with another photographic purpose. I soon realized that many people had done precious work. Researchers, foreign and Colombian journalists risked their lives to understand what was going on and the big crimes committed by the State, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. I understood that it would be irresponsible to stay in an art project about how complex and ambivalent everything is.”
National Liberation Army (ELN) soldiers doing excercise. Near to Tame, Arauca. November 4, 2005.
You published Violentology. A Manual of the Colombian Conflict in 2012 after several years of study and press work. How was the research that gave life to that photo book?
When I arrived in Colombia, I came with another photographic purpose. At the beginning of the book, five or six photographs reflect my preliminary notion, which was to explore the ambiguities of the conflict and the difficulty of understanding it photographically.
At a certain point, around 2006, I realized something: many people, both now and in the past, had done valuable work. At that time, foreign and Colombian researchers and journalists risked their lives to investigate what was happening and the enormous crimes committed by the State, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. I understood that I would be irresponsible to stay in an art project about how complex and ambivalent everything is.
So I turned toward what is factual, verifiable, and what has been investigated. For that reason, the title design refers to the work of the violentologists who had that spirit of rigorously investigating and verifying facts, to journalism and forensic practices—all this to place it in a tradition of rigorous investigation of the conflict.
For this reason, the book is constructed as an archive. It is not understood as a photographic book of my authorship, although it is. It is an archive, a compendium of evidence, information, and documentation with the purpose of being useful to understand. Hence the subtitle: Violentology is a manual of the Colombian conflict. This means that it is not a definitive version of the conflict. There are many things that I have had to leave out. I limited myself to what was legally proven, with cautious language to avoid making inferences that I could not support. Max Shoening, who later became the principal researcher for Human Rights Watch, worked with me on the research and Constanza Vieira as a proofreader.
A freed Colombian soldier shouts with joy as he leaves FARC-controlled territory. La Macarena, Meta. June 28, 2001.
Parents of a released soldier embrace their son. Tolemaida air base, Melgar, Tolima.
June 28, 2001.
Death threat made by paramilitaries against a demobilized paramilitary: “paraco… jueputa espero que aprenda el mensaje… su familia este en barranca les damo un dia para que desaparesca sinno los asemo desaparecer atados atados matones dile a su suegra que deja de ser infiltrada [sic]”. Barrancabermeja, Santander. August 1, 2009.
I have long thought Violentology was an uncomfortable book. Because of the subject matter, partly because of the size and shape of the object, it’s a bit of a bulky book. It doesn’t fit on the shelves. Recently, Nicolas Pousthomis made me realize that it is a book that demands a posture and a disposition. I understand that a lot of that was intentional.
What I look for in all my work is that the physical, corporal, tactile, visual and reading experience be in accordance with the message. In Violentology there is a whole series of decisions: the size is a reaction to the speed with which people receive images and information. The purpose here is to impose a different and much slower pace.
I had a conversation with Antanas Mockus, and he told me that in the news, when they talk about violence, they go very fast from one story to the next, and people don’t even have time to look each other in the eye. The design of Violentology lends itself so that several people can see it simultaneously.
I wanted it to be a (somewhat bulky) insert that wouldn’t fit on any bookshelf. That way, I would make it stay present so that it would be difficult to discard it so that people would have to think about what to do with it. And so impose the theme: violence in Colombia.
Was Violentología a precedent for La época: reportajes de una historia vetada, the book you published this year?
Yes and no. Violentology was a tribute to the violentologists, but not even they understood the meaning of Villarrica; they have it as one more episode of the Violence (1946-1958). But it has a very different character; the Violencia was bipartisan and endogamous, while Villarrica was communism versus anti-communism and part of the Cold War when the conflict was already internationalized.
That is why the Villarrica war was the precursor of the Colombian armed conflict, and it is different. Everything is obviously overlapped, but that is the error in historiography. The guerrillas that fought against the State in Villarrica were: the guerrillas of southern Tolima who migrated to the area; Marulanda’s group, although he was not Villarrica, all his people, including Jacobo Arenas, were purely communist; and the guerrillas of Sumapaz were communist oriented but had Gaitanist liberals in their ranks. All of them were considered communists by the State.
A soldier disguised as a guerrilla injured in a Human Rights training. Tolemaida Air Base, Melgar, Tolima. February 7, 2003
“What I look for in my work is that the physical, corporal, tactile, visual, and reading experience is by the message. In Violentology, size reacts to the speed with which people receive images and information. I wanted it to be bulky, which wouldn’t fit on any bookshelf. So that it stays present so that it is difficult to discard so that people have to think about what to do with it. And so to impose the theme: violence in Colombia.”
So how did you come to the subject?
It was all thanks to Constanza Vieira, who inherited the archive from her father, Gerardo Vieira. He was secretary general of the Communist Party. Constanza told me about Villarrica, and I told her that she had to do the book.
If you look at Violentology, Villarrica is neither in the timeline nor in Gonzalo Sanchez’s introduction. With the signing of the Peace Accord, Commissioner Lucía Sánchez approached Ojo Rojo, the foundation we created with other researchers, journalists, and photographers, to propose something, and we proposed this project.
Something important to mention is that precisely because it was a conflict against communists, censorship was very high. So much so that there needs to be more information on the subject. We contributed much of what we found to the Truth Commission to be included in the first volume of the Final Report.
How was the investigation process?
Gilberto Vieira’s archive helped a lot. In large part because it also had the self-criticisms of the Communist Party. With that information, we could understand how the guerrillas had done terrible things to the civilian population in Villarrica. It is a story of a war of repression from the State against a peasant population, but the role of the guerrillas was not entirely clean.
But the rest of the research was strict, that is, we were in the middle of the pandemic, most of the newspapers and archives were closed, and there was no way to get to Villarrica for almost two years. So the territory itself was only in our imagination.
It was a puzzle in which clues emerging not only about the war itself since ’54 but also about the war’s reasons. This helps us to understand two key things: There is a lot of talk about the armed conflict in Colombia being over land. With this and other more specialized history books, it is understood what those lands are; everything stems from the agrarian struggles in the coffee plantations of Tolima since the end of the 19th century.
The other important point is that the armed conflict began south of Tolima in Chaparral and Ortega. And it is there where the struggles of the Pijaos have been immersed since colonial times. The truth is that the importance of these indigenous struggles has not been learned to understand Colombia’s history in this way until now.
Exhumation. Tierradentro, Córdoba. March 3, 2007.
A young man killed in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. Authorities present at the crime scene attributed it to demobilized members of the Catatumbo Bloc of the paramilitary militia Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. March 9, 2005.
Mamatoco, Santa Marta, Magdalena. May 7, 2003.
La Época has two versions, one that the Truth Commission printed in an easy-to-reproduce format and a book. I understand that, in this case, there was also a lengthy design process. What was the result?
The idea was to make a newspaper as if it were from the period. That is if there was no censorship as it would have come out. So, the book is stamped with the censorship decree that says, “whoever discloses this material will commit the crime of sabotage and will incur 12 to 15 years in prison”. The reader has to break the decree and commit the crime to see what is inside.
La Época is a fictitious name, but we chose it thinking about the type of newspaper names at the time. We studied several newspapers; perhaps the most direct inspiration was one called El Bogotano. We took up the aesthetics, the typographies, and the four-column texts. We wanted it to be the same as reading one of those time publications.
We also chose the size thinking about dissemination. So there is an exhibition, we call it a wall newspaper. The size is an eighth sheet, making it very economical, easy, and agile because one can plan all the printing on paper. I always dreamed of publishing a tabloid like this. I think it is a beautiful format.
La Época is the result of teamwork that involved several people from Ojo Rojo Fábrica Visual. Who were those people?
Yes, I worked with Andrés Caicedo on the research and photo editing. With Tomás Mantilla, historian and photographer, who at the same time was doing his master’s thesis on the clandestine communist press of the time. Constanza Vieira, who was, as I said, the one who first talked to me about the subject, wrote some texts and reviewed the whole book. Fabio Cuttica and Mauricio Palos participated in the reportage and editing.
You visited Villarrica to make the book, how was the people’s reception?
Our work’s success depended upon the Villarrica people’s availability and collaboration. The fact that they felt free to talk to me about the armed conflict’s past is due to the Peace Process. It is undeniable that there are many deficiencies. At the economic level, the Peace Process has not contributed absolutely anything to the eastern part of Tolima. I believe that in part because of the invisibility of the Villarrica war, the zone was not considered as one of the areas focused on for resources.
But the peace process has worked to reduce political violence in that area. So people felt safe to talk and share with peace of mind. At no time did we feel a threat.
It is very positive in that sense, and that speaks very well of the people in this area because the FARC also carried out a very violent takeover in 1999. That marked the people; nevertheless, many people were willing to collaborate with me because they were aware of the importance of understanding why Villarrica is at the origin of the conflict.