El Testigo – A Harrowing Photographic Exhibition of Colombia’s Conflict

El Testigo (The Witness) is an exhibit of the photographs of Jesús Abad Colorado on display at Bogotá’s Universidad Nacional.  The exhibit displays more than 500 photos of Colombia’s internal conflict.  It is a harrowing portrayal of the human cost of Colombia’s long conflict.  While not exactly enjoyable, it really should be on everyone’s itinerary during a visit to Bogotá, and will be on display until October 20, 2019, when it will begin to travel around the country.  If you’d like to see it before then, read on for a visitors guide to the El Testigo Photo Exhibit.

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Photo of the introductory text of the El Testigo Photography Exhibit
The introductory text to the El Testigo Photography Exhibit in Bogotá.

Why You Should Visit the El Testigo Photo Exhibit

The exhibit portrays photographs taken by Jesús Abad Colorado between 1992 and 2018 in various parts of Colombia.  The photographs are focused on telling the human story of the conflict and are almost exclusively of victims.

Colombia’s armed conflict has left over 200,000 dead and as many as 6 million displaced.  Only in the last several years has Syria replaced Colombia as the country with more internally displaced persons.

With the recent announcement of the rearmament of a small contingent of former FARC guerillas, Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement is as precarious and controversial as ever.

The El Testigo exhibit is largely apolitical and besides an unmistakable message that Colombia’s war has most certainly been hell, especially for its vulnerable rural population, there’s not a partisan political agenda.  Unless, you consider a condemnation of violence and call for peace a partisan political agenda (Full disclosure, I am personally a strong supporter of the peace agreement).

Rather, it’s a call to reflection on a conflict that has long been one of low intensity, removed from Colombia’s major population centers and the day to day experience of most of its citizens, much less for expats like myself.  The photos put a literal human face on the war’s victims, one that is too often left out of media coverage or the political debate around the conflict.

Photo of chart on display at the El Testigo exhibit showing the number of crimes committed.
Chart on display showing the number of human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s conflict.
Photo of a chart showing the number of crimes committed by different groups.
And the groups responsible for committing them.

Charts showing statistics about the conflict like the ones pictured here, and Colorado’s memories of many of the photos help to establish the context, but the photos themselves do the talking.

Many of those photos are heartbreaking.  I found myself nearly brought to tears several times.  One photograph shows a man carrying a freezer after being given 24 hours to abandon his home with only what he could carry.  Another shows a Red Cross nurses’s look of desperation after the fighting during Operation Orion in Medellín’s Comuna 13.  Another shows a tree next to the remains of incinerators where civilians were killed.

I think the picture that made me most emotional was one of a little girl holding a chicken.  Colorado’s narration on the wall describes how she asked for special permission to take the chicken, a gift, with her aboard an evacuation airplane.  Her community had just suffered a massacre, and each family was only allowed one bag.  Colorado describes a Red Cross worker telling her through tears she can take the chicken.

All of these stories are eye opening reminders of the lottery that so many of us won simply by virtue of where we were born, and that behind the statistics of the conflict and political debates around the agreement, are stores of human suffering in situations most us us likely can’t imagine experiencing.

There are lots of things to do and see in Bogotá, and lots of things to celebrate about Colombia, especially as it grows as an international destination.  However, in that optimism, it is important to remember the many who have suffered and continue to suffer from its conflict.  That makes, for me at least, the Testigo Exhibit something that really should be seen by all who visit Bogotá.

Photograph of the photos of the little girl with her chicken.
The photos of the little girl with her chicken.

How to See the El Testigo Exhibit

The exhibit is located in Unviersidad Nacional’s Claustro de San Agustín located diagonal from the Casa Nariño Presidential Palace.

It is open from 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday.

Entrance is free.

It will remain on display until October 20, 2019.  After that it will travel to be exhibited around the country.

Check out the official website of the exhibit here.

El Testigo Documentary

Abad Colorado and his photography and stories are also featured in the documentary El Testigo.  It can presently be found on Netflix.

Would you like to learn more about Colombia’s Internal Conflict?

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You may also be interested in the following posts about Bogotá:
Visitors Guide to the Bogotá Gold Museum
Visitors Guide to the Botero Museum in Bogotá
Explore Bogota’s Chapel in the Sky – Visitor’s Guide to Monserrate

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