Moravia and machetes: How to document a scared face

Wesley Tomaselli 2013

MEDELLÍN, January 2013 – “Intestines, right?” I said, trying to get Olle’s confirmation on the identity of what was floating around in our soup. “There’s no way to be sure,” he said. “You’re right,” I said. “There’s no way to be sure, is there…”

I love it how you can never be sure in Colombia.

Olle, a journalist and friend, and I were in Moravia, a neighborhood that over less than a decade went from city dump to a thriving little labyrinth of streets filled to the brim with mercantile street peddlers, shop-keepers, and mechanics. When I think about how Latin America’s middle class is getting more urban, rising and transforming, the first place I think about is this place. Moravia.

“I want to photograph this barrio,” I told Olle. “Do it,” he said. “Pitch it to Adriaan. See what he says.”

So I did. Adriaan told me I needed to get an expert source: someone to talk about the history of Moravia’s transformation from the toxic inferno that it used to be into the near paradise that it is today. The change. That’s where the story is, Adriaan told me.

After a string of phone calls, I got in touch with Yeison, a sociologist and spokesperson for Moravia’s cultural center. We set up a meeting. Early. Saturday. He promised to give me a brief history, show me around the barrio, and introduce me to some families that have lived through the transformation.

But when I went to meet him, Yeison didn’t show.

What I’ve learned about asking for a meeting as a journalist is that you’re always gambling. If someone wants to do something that feels better than meet up with you and get asked tough questions, they’re probably going to go off and do it without telling you. It hurts sometimes. But what I’ve learned is that you can’t let being stood up crush you. You’ve got to pivot.

So I said to hell with it, grabbed my camera, and took off on my own.

The life that swirls around you in Moravia is just as intoxicating as Comuna 8, but it’s a different sort of life: sand bags loaded with red dust snooze on a sidewalk, a teetering, blue and yellow six-story tower of brick apartments hangs over the street. Every hue gets representation, it seems. And every color claws at your attention. Green avocados sit in front of a toothless man. He’s selling them. A grumpy fishmonger lifts a bucket and splashes water over a pile of sad, red guts that used to be fish. Old men with gray faces wear bright yellow hats. Girls, young and with black-as-night skin strut past me in blue, skin-tight pants.

Wesley Tomaselli 2013

Then I see a man on the curb. He is sitting with a young woman. The woman leaves. The man stays. I notice that he’s dressed like a campesino – a farmer – and at his side, strapped to his belt it an enormous sheath. The sheath protects a long blade – his machete. I take out my camera and go up to him. His face trembles with nervousness. His legs move back and forth. I look at his machete. We’re both scared as hell of each other, I realize. I put my lens up, wave, introduce myself, and ask if I can take his photograph.

There’s something in me that still feels hugely responsible for how I capture a person and expose them to the world through an image. It’s an immensely psychological game, and sometimes, even though the other guy has the blade, you’re the leader. You’ve got to kill the fear, crush the anxiety, and show calm. That earns trust. It’s not easy. I’m still growing.

Finally, the old man breaks a smile. And I click.

See the photo-documentary I did on Moravia’s transformation at this LINK

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