Juan Arredondo: Documenting Colombia’s Exploited Child-Soldiers

Born in New Jersey and raised in Colombia, Juan Arredondo is a passionate, socially committed photographer who splits his time between Bogotá and New York City. A member of Reportage, an emerging talent program sponsored by Getty Images, he relocated to the United States to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in Organic Chemistry and became intensely committed to photography while working as a research scientist at a major pharmaceutical company. His contribution has been acknowledged in the PDN Photo Annual and the PX3 Prix de la Photographie. He was honored as a Flash Forward Emerging Photographers winner by the Magenta Foundation, has been selected to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop and nominated for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. Juan Arrendondo is a regular contributor to The New York Times. His photographs have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde Magazine, and Der Spiegel. Here, in his own words, is the remarkable narrative of how and why he became committed to documenting the lives of child-soldiers recruited by ELN (National Liberation Army) rebels in Colombia that appears in the latest issue of LFI, on sale now.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot your Columbian reportage?

A: For this project I used a Leica M and a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens.

Q: What particular features or characteristics of the Leica M do you find especially conducive to your kind of documentary photography?

A: Working with the Leica M was flawless. It was an easy transition for me as I work with the M6 from time to time. One feature I quickly had to adjust to was not having an autofocus function. This perhaps is something I enjoyed about the Leica rangefinders. It forced me to slow down and take my time, to look for that moment, and not just snap away.

Q: Why did you choose the 35 mm f/1.4 Leica Summilux as your primary lens for this project? And did you often make use of its wide f/1.4 aperture when shooting in low light or do you typically shoot at more moderate apertures? Do you believe, as many have asserted, that Leica lenses have a distinctive look in the way they render images, and is that important to you?

A: I always wanted to get my hands on a 35 mm f/1.4 lens, and it was no disappointment. It is a remarkable lens. I was impressed with the sharpness of the images and the quality of the images at wide apertures, which my SLR lenses could not match. Yes, I do think that the images rendered by the Leica lenses have a unique quality.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your LFI reportage? What inspired the idea? Overall, what is it about?

A: This ongoing project is about the lives of child-soldiers recruited by ELN in Colombia. The project began as an assignment to document the work of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) in the state of Chocó, which is in the Pacific coast of Colombia. While there, I came in contact with child-soldiers recruited by the ELN. I have been interested in documenting different aspects of the ongoing conflict in Colombia — internally displaced communities, land restitution, etc. But this part of the conflict, the use of children, remains an under-reported issue. My motivation has been to shed light on this protracted and almost forgotten conflict, to give the victims of this conflict, including the children forced into recruitment, a voice.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I mostly work within the framework of documentary photography and most of my work entails long-term projects.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography?

A: My approach is no different from that of most photographers. I work in projects that interest me, situations that draw my attention and I want to learn more about them. I approach my subjects with respect and allow them to tell me their story. This is important for me. If I don’t make a personal connection with the person I’m photographing, I feel I won’t get an honest moment; it will just be a casual image. This connection I think gets translated into the images. It is the only way I know how to photograph and that’s what photography is all about for me, connecting and sharing with others.

Q: How did you manage to make this connection with members of the ELN, and how did your perceptions of them change, if they did, over the course of your coverage?

A: I can’t say that a truly personal connection was made with the members of this armed front; it takes time to develop rapport with these men, especially in a tense situation such as being in a clandestine guerrilla camp. My hope is to go back and spend more time with them and to get past the military theatrics. What I was able to do was to observe them in their environment, and not only to see them as soldiers but also as adolescents. I got a sense that despite the situation they are still teenagers, joking and teasing each other and to me those were honest moments I was not expecting to witness.

Q: All the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and- white which had the advantages of bringing out the form of your subjects concealed in the green underbrush, and also reflected the somber tone of what you revealed. Are there any other practical or aesthetic reasons you find black-and-white so compelling?

A: Technically, the fighters blended so well with the background that in color you could barely distinguish them. In this case the decision to move into black-and-white was to mute any color distraction from the subject matter and to draw the reader or viewer closer to the issue. There is an inherent quality to black-and-white that in this set of images I think it worked well.

Q: This image shows a young soldier with a bandana over his face, reclining with his gruesome looking automatic rifle on his lap and sporting a “necklace” of large-caliber machine gun bullets. It is a powerful graphic statement that conveys the subliminal message that, for him, this has become more than a conflict; it is now a way of life. It has a serenity and grandeur, but fundamentally it is very sad. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you made this image. Also, since the technical quality of the image is so outstanding, can you give us the basic technical details of how you shot it?

A: This image was taken after the group had practiced military formations. They were taking a break and what drew my attention to this fighter was that I felt he was daydreaming, that for a brief moment he was in another place, away from the war. That is what I was thinking at the moment I took this image.

I was standing next to him taking an image of the group, which was sitting behind him. The image was captured in a brief moment; only three frames were made before he realized I was photographing him and he quickly collected himself. It was taken at 1/15 sec at f/8 and ISO 500.

Q: The beautifully composed picture of the town of Istmina appears calm and beautiful on the surface but because of the darkish clouds in the sky, the restless quality of the water, and the stark contrast of the black-and-white image, the overall feeling is melancholic, perhaps even a bit foreboding. Do you see it in this way, and how does this image, which is unlike any other in this portfolio, enhance the documentary you have produced?

A: It is curious that you mentioned an overall feeling of melancholy and foreboding. Istmina has been one of the towns most affected by the conflict in this region. It has seen its share of violence. It is also the last port and town along the River San Juan before reaching the Pacific Ocean. For me this image was the last sight of civilization before embarking into the ELN territory.

Q: One of the most powerful images in the entire portfolio shows a naked young boy perhaps 3 or 4 years old standing next to a little girl of maybe 5 or 6 that is supporting a younger girl on her hip. All three kids are standing in between a group of large, dark industrial barrels apparently containing some kind of molded plastic building material. Transcending and yet drawing on its very matter-of-factness, this image bespeaks the tragedy of being born into dire circumstances that are totally out of one’s control, and destined to endure into a bleak future. Am I over the top here, and how do you feel about this picture?

A: I don’t think you are over the top and I am glad you perceive that from this image. It is a calamity what has happened to the estimated 7,000 children who have been recruited by the armed groups in Colombia. I wonder what fate awaits the children in that image. Will they end up as child solders? Will they manage to escape this tragic reality? Will they become the next generation to endure this conflict?

Q: Do you intend to do anything additional with these ELN images such as collecting them into a book or exhibiting them in galleries, etc.? And do you plan to shoot additional conflict zone images in Colombia or elsewhere?

A: For now I hope to go back to complete the story. This means answering the questions I mentioned earlier, and getting close to the soldiers and their families. My hope of course is to have this work disseminated in whatever form it takes. This remains an under-reported issue and whatever attention it can bring to pressure the armed groups and the government to stop this from happening and to find a solution.

I don’t see myself as a conflict photographer or just covering conflict zones. It just so happens that I grew up and live in a country that has the longest armed conflict in the Americas, but as I mentioned before I am interested in social issues wherever that might be.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years?

A. Photography for me is a craft that demands constant work and refinement. This means studying, reading, visiting museums, and interacting with other photographers and other professionals. Most of my ideas have come from friends and colleagues outside the photography sphere. I am still learning as I go along. In the long run I hope to work on other projects in Latin America. I think there are many untold stories along the Andes.

The second thing I enjoy the most is reading and I’m currently reading all the works of Roberto Bolaño and Haruki Murakami. Too bad I don’t get paid to read!

Thank you for your time, Juan!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Juan on his website and Twitter.

You can see Juan’s full reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.