Juan Arredondo – Following the children born into conflict
In 2014, Juan Arredondo came to Perpignan as one of that year’s winners of a Getty Editorial Grant. Now he’s back, to exhibit the work that the grant enabled him to pursue, and to pick up the prestigious ICRC Humanitarian Visa d’or award.
‘Born into Conflict’ looks at the child soldiers who have been recruited or kidnapped by insurgent groups in Colombia. “The story came from an assignment I was doing for the International Red Cross”, Juan explains. “They were celebrating the 150th anniversary of their creation and we were doing profiles of delegates, and while doing that we had the opportunity to visit one of the ELN (National Liberation Army) camps. So that’s where the project started. But mainly I wanted to focus on what happens to the children after they leave. I feel like we get caught up with pictures of kids with weapons, because that’s most shocking. After that we don’t know much about it… or I didn’t know much about it.”
In many cases, getting the children away from the rebels is the start of new difficulties for them “Some of the kids regret leaving the groups because they had respect or some position within the group. And they grew up in these camps, so that’s all they know, and now they have to face the challenges of life as a civilian. But they’re seen as traitors and people who’ve deserted the group. There’s no way they can go back. In other cases, they also can’t go back to their families, because FARC or ELN still operate in their communities and there might be retaliations against them. Others were stolen or recruited from their communities when they were very young, so whatever memories they have, no-one can trace back where they’re from. So many of them are in limbo.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Juan found it easier to gain access to the rebel camps than to the centres where the rescued children are rehabilitated.
“I was very lucky that I was with the IRC”, he admits, “because they’re very well respected and well known. They have a close relationship with the armed groups. The commanders were OK with me shooting in their camps, so long as the kids had their faces covered and they even allowed me to talk with a couple of them. Most of these groups see this as a way of getting some propaganda or visibility. But for the other components, visiting the children in the detention centres, I had to go through the government and that was more difficult. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved and everyone’s afraid that you might exploit the children.”
For both aspects of the story the big challenge, as so often with photojournalism, was establishing a connection with his subjects.
“It’s very important to build trust and let people know what you’re doing”, Juan says. “Then it becomes word of mouth and gets passed on. People will tell me where a former fighter lives, or I’ll go to a centre where they’ll point me to new kids who’ve come in. You have to build trust, because they’re very suspicious of the media. The rebels have claimed that we manipulate the truth, so people come with a definite opinion about what the role of the media and what it does. You have to spend time with them until they become your friends. I still keep in touch with some of them, after they leave the centres, and know what’s happening with their lives.”
Juan feels his exhibition at Visa is perfectly timed, as it comes at what may be a turning point in the story, following the recent signing of an agreement between the rebels and the Colombian government.
“Now, if we go into peace, they have to demobilise and it should be an opportunity for the kids to be reunited with their families. The numbers are really hard to identify, though. Human Rights Watch did a report in 2007 – that’s the most recent one – and they placed the number at around 11,000. The government claims the figure is around 4000. The problem is that there’s nothing in place for them to come to. The government and society in Colombia has to have some sort of reconciliation and also some sort of programme to receive all these children.”
Whatever happens next, Juan will be able to document it, thanks to the prize money that comes with his Visa award.
“It means I’ll have a little bit more freedom in taking time to pursue this project. Some of the areas I have to go to are quite remote, so I have to take buses or boats and stay there for quite a while, because it’s so far that you really have to make good use of the time. I usually spend about a couple of weeks. So it’ll give me a little more cushion to do that kind of stuff. No 5 star hotels, though… you have to live a frugal life when you’re a photographer. You have to pinch money and make it expand to last longer.”