Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Stephen Ferry had the Vietnam War delivered to his doorstep. Like millions of young Americans, LIFE brought home the conflict, bound in newsprint and with award-winning photo essays. Born in 1960, the Vietnam War covered most of Ferry’s teenage years, and made him aware how photojournalism by a brotherhood of correspondents could influence public opinion to such a degree that the media helped shut down the theatre in South East Asia.
The Vietnam War gave rise to a new audience of magazine readers and a generation of young men and women who wanted to embark on careers in photojournalism. True to the reflection of tested photographers that images should denounce violence, Ferry began to take up the craft.
1989 was a landmark year for many aspiring photographers. The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union opened up possibilities of shooting in countries which for decades were closed by communist regimes. The Middle East was also an insatiable story for editors and Stephen, intrigued by the rapid changes taking place, began pushing his portfolio with magazines such as Newsweek, GEO and National Geographic. Assignments came and went, and Ferry was in flash points in the West Bank and West Africa: regions plagued by war and human rights abuses. Panama, and the invasion in 1989 was more the story than Colombia. “The description of this country being a Drug War didn’t come near to explaining the complexity of it,” remarks Ferry over coffee in La Macarena.
In 1991, on the eve of Columbus’ 500-year anniversary of the discovery of America, Ferry headed to Bolivia to shoot the Quechua silver miners of Potosí. The publication of this photo essay and with a book titled ‘I am Rich Potosi: The Mountain that Eats Men’ put Ferry on the conference circuit and while he continued to shoot the destruction of rain forests or the rise of Islamic radicalism, Ferry first stepped foot in Colombia in 1995, with an invitation to talk at the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI) in Cartagena. A foundation whose chair is Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez.
‘Working alongside Colombian photographers, Ferry began understanding that the internal conflict was “much larger and critical” than first imagined. With international representation from Gamma, Ferry took the decision to “stop jumping from country to country and focus.” Focusing however wasn’t going to be a problem, rather convincing editors that covering Colombia meant going beyond the daily wire of cocaine stories. “The story didn’t do justice to the Colombian people,” says Stephen. “It obscured the real nature of the conflict.”
After renting a flat in Teusaquillo, Ferry ventured off to virtually every corner of Colombia that was under ELN or FARC control. In the late 90s this meant flying to the Caguan (a FARC stronghold) and the oil rich town of Barrancabermeja, where violence between the extreme “left and “right” was spiraling out of control.The massacre committed in 1998 by the ELN in Machuca, in which 84 persons died when the Caño Limon – Coveñas pipeline was blown up, put the Colombian conflict at the forefront of the international news agenda. Mass kidnappings and extortion was a currency that fueled the war, and editors were hungry for pictures. By the end of the Andrés Pastrana government, Colombian morale was at an all time low. The streets of Colombian cities saw demonstrations calling for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped persons. Among the thousands held hostage were soldiers, farmers, policemen, politicians and children. Mothers of the disappeared took over squares asking for answers as to the whereabouts of their sons and daughters. Colombia’s media reported a daily litany of grief.
From the banana plantations of the Urabá to the Sierra Nevada, Stephen Ferry was building up a collection of images on Colombian ‘violentologia’: a term used to describe the subject of historians and anthropologists of ‘La Violencia’ – that time in Colombia (after the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán) in which Conservatives and Liberals became engaged in a bloody conflict over hereditary hatreds, political rivalry and land ownership.
In exhumations of mass graves Ferry has also witnessed “field research” at its worst. With plenty of violentologos writing opinion pieces, but few able to capture it on film, Ferry has looked at the causes of violence with an internationally trained eye and the acuteness of a visual anthropologist. His photographs stand alone for their historic merit. But before he could continue on this self imposed assignment, another war was about to break.
On September 10th 2001, Ferry made a routine trip to New York. As the magazine capital of the world, Manhattan is an obligatory stop on the agenda of photojournalists. Between meeting editors at Time and The New York Times, Stephen checked in to his apartment on the West Side. The following day, September 11th, the United States was under attack.
As Ferry watched the black smoke rising from the World Trade Center and which turned a blue autumn morning to ash grey, he grabbed his cameras, Press Card and headed downtown. As 3,000 people were incinerated or plunged to their deaths from the world’s tallest buildings, Ferry tried to help. As he sped down the West Side Highway, the second tower fell. “I couldn’t make sense of anything,” says Stephen. “It was perplexing.. There were no wounded. There were no ambulances.” As most journalists headed through the center of Manhattan to the base of the towers, Ferry found himself alone wandering through the waves of debris and ash. “You could feel that a lot of people had died.”
As the hours passed after the collapse of the WTC, Ferry became frustrated and confused. Orders had been given for ambulances to “pull back” as the destruction zone was too large and the grief too great. “There was nobody left to rescue,” recalls Ferry.
Weeks after the tragedy, Stephen Ferry handed over his 9/11 material to the Library of Congress Photography Archive. This donation and without any financial compensation is what Ferry believes photojournalists should do with their work: make is accessible and a free resource to fight
With the launching of his book ‘Violentology : A Manual of the Colombian Conflict’ Stephen Ferry exhibited a selection of his photographs at the Valenzuela Klenner gallery.Pictures deaingl with very local expressions of cultural violence, such as the Corralejas in Sucre, a wider social context of “violentologia” as seen in the persecution of judges and unionists in Monteria and on the third floor, a personal presentation of images taken during 15 years in this country. Ferry’s ‘Violentology’ was backed by a Tim Hetherington Grant – a joint initiative between World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch.
Ferry wants photography to be a medium that you can touch. For this he chose newsprint and large format for “Violentologia.” The reader has the sensation of thumbing through a newspaper or – for those who remember – LIFE magazine.
While working with local photographers to create a collective on social issues, Ferry, continues to shoot subjects in their daily life. Recent assignments have involved mining communities in the Chocó where gold is another currency in the conflict. As more pictures build his portfolio, Ferry works as a witness to the perseverance and bravery of Colombians.