Many Colombians not only feel compelled to help others, but do. Especially those who have sank below the poverty line, have been displaced by the conflict and human rights abuse or are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives from some personal tragedy. Photographer Santiago Escobar Jaramillo is trying to make a difference in people’s lives as well, with what he know best: light.
As an established photographer who has traveled the world to showcase his work, Escobar documents his country for book publishers and design projects. When not working commercially, he puts his skills to use to expose injustice and indifference using the light from a candle or glow of a plastic bulb.
Before earning a Masters Degree in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Santiago spent time in the Middle East as part of the peace contingent of the Colombia Battalion in Sinai, Egypt. It was there, that he became socially motivated and a project dawned on him which he named ‘Colombia, Tierra de Luz’ – Colombia, Land of Light. “Instead of shooting a rifle, I wanted to shoot a camera,” recalls Escobar. He thought about the victims of war in his country and realized he could do something different. “I thought of my country from the prospective of violence,” says the photographer. “I wanted to use photography and architecture to provide an “escape” for people to leave their problems behind.”
The project revolves around the central idea of showing support for Colombians displaced by the conflict and who have experienced its brutality first hand. Through the medium of photography and art involving light, it gives a voice to those who have gone unheard. It also aims to generate interest in people around the nation who have been marginalized by the conflict for more than half a century. Breaking up the country into six groups, it’s based upon the mix of multicultural groups and regions, their histories as well as the social problems they face and the various armed groups who terrorize them. The pilot program took place in Santa Rita, Magdalena, an area almost entirely destroyed 11 years ago by right-wing paramilitaries who ravaged the people and livestock, only to leave the town in complete darkness. Based upon that success, the project has spread to places like Necoclí in Antioquia, Puente Sogamoso, Santander and Carmen de Apicalá, Tolima among others.
Most recently, in the town of Ciudad Bolívar on the outskirts of Bogotá, Santiago has continued his journey. Through the sustainable lighting project for disadvantaged communities by the nonprofit organization Un Litro de Luz (A Liter of Light), Santiago helped install zero emission low-cost “bulbs” made of plastic soda bottles in the locals’ homes. He used the opportunity to integrate his own art and photography into the project, even installing the lights in the houses of residents who were originally displaced and sought refuge in Bogotá. To illustrate awareness of displacement and violence, people were instructed to write personal messages to be displayed inside the bottles.
In one home, Hilda Giraldo, a woman from San Felix in Caldas and Manizales, recalled the time years ago when her family was driven out of town by the FARC guerillas. “At that time, there were a lot of guerrillas there,” she said. “They said get out. And even though we were the owners of our own land, they told us to leave or they’d kill us.”
Now separated from her children who live in the town of Manila, Giraldo decided to write the phrase ‘light illuminates this household’ inside the bottle and even included the names of her children. Santiago has heard countless stories like Hilda’s. And though they are heartbreaking and have affected him personally, they serve as an inspiration to continue his work and hope for a better future.
“I’m an artist who thinks that you can make changes through art,” he says. “You can use it to imagine a better world.” This vision is unique to each place that he visits. In Maicao, Guajira where a right-wing paramilitary group viciously attacked residents in 2004, a vast majority of people fled across the border to Venezuela, never to return. Now a safer place, Santiago traveled to the region to construct sculptures made to resemble strongly-lit doorways in an attempt to invite the victims back home.
While ‘Colombia: Tierra de Luz’ is meant to bring attention to the ongoing problems in this country, it’s all about people. “It’s to celebrate to show that we’re with them,” declares Santiago. “It’s like someone is illuminating their lives through the art. But it’s also for policy makers and other artists to call their attention and inspire them to work on similar projects so we can make a difference in this world.” Still, it’s a way for the public to see these people’s wounds of war and the way they live in order for us to heal ourselves from our own indifference to what is going on in our backyard.
If you would like to take a community-level initiative which involves light and conserving greenhouse emissions contact: