”You read and see on the news a certain portrait of Colombia which unfortunately highlights the violence, the paramilitary and other armed groups, and corruption ― if you hear news about Colombia at all,” photographer Maureen Drennan wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “These aspects of Colombia are a reality, but not the only story.”
Just last weekend, on Oct. 2, Colombian citizens voted to reject a peace deal between the government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrillas, also known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. This decision leaves the future of the country, which has endured over 50 years of internal armed conflict, frightfully uncertain.
While the conflict persisting in Colombia threatens the military, government and civilians alike, it’s often women and children who suffer the brunt of the violence.
In 2015, Drennan traveled to Colombia, her camera in tow, along with an international women’s human rights organization called MADRE, supporting the rights of women and children and protecting survivors of war. MADRE partners with another organization called Taller de Vida, or “Workshop of Life,” which used art and activism to, as Drennan expressed, “promote healing for war survivors and build more peaceful communities.”
Taller de Vida and MADRE also prioritize providing care and counseling for children exploited as soldiers as well as survivors of sexual violence, both of whose voices are often silenced in larger conversations on the state of Colombia. “It is a complicated situation,” Drennan said.
“Taller de Vida is helping people who were war survivors, which could include a former child soldier traumatized by the violence they were forced to commit as well as person who was exploited by a soldier. So, in the same community center you have perpetrators and survivors, and everyone is working to heal and move forward. It is a delicate situation that is also emotionally powerful.”
On her journey, Drennan hoped to capture a truthful portrait of the state of Colombia, and, potentially, a different vision than that of the one-dimensional, war-torn country that often circulates television screens and newspaper pages. “This trip was a chance for us to speak directly with local activists, who know firsthand what war does to people and communities and who are working every day to heal those wounds,” Drennan continued.
While Drennan encountered injustice and pain among the civilians devastated by decades of violence, she also found strength. “What surprised me was how strong and resilient many of these young war survivors were,” the photographer said. “If I had experienced what they have, I don’t know if I would have the inner strength to be as optimistic and open.”
Drennan’s photographs dwell in this space of hope and resilience, without resorting to sugarcoating or visual cliches. One image depicts a dance class, in which survivors of violence and sexual assault learn to reclaim their bodies through movement. Another captures the heart-wrenching drawings made by children who, in Drennan’s words, “have never known a life without war.”
Although she wanted to share the stories of the people she met, documenting and celebrating all that they’d overcome, Drennan was careful not to endanger them in the process. In many of her photographs, the faces of her subjects are purposefully obscured to protect their safety.
“In some cases, they or their families might have been targeted by an armed group or they might have formerly been in an armed group and have escaped,” she said. “Now, they are restoring their lives and trying to help others who might have been war survivors.” When visiting a sexual violence shelter, Drennan photographed the space itself but none of the inhabitants because they faced security risks.
Drennan’s series captures, with a powerful mix of honesty and optimism, the courage and spirit of people whose stories are often kept out of view. The images hint at human experiences we can never truly understand, hopefully inspiring viewers to start a conversation, take action, or at the very least, learn more of the stories that don’t make front page news.
“I hope that seeing these images and hearing the individual stories will foster some empathy,” Drennan said. “And people can help by supporting the work of grassroots women’s groups and peace organizers. They are the ones who will help people get back on their feet and create peaceful futures.”