How Photography Can Build Peace and Justice in War-Torn Communities

It’s not easy for most people to think about what peace and justice mean to them, or how to express it. But that’s what we ask people in war-torn communities to do, all around the world.

One place we did this is in Colombia, a country now testing out peace after more than 50 years of war between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces.

We asked people in two villages, San José de Urama and Las Cruces in the country’s northwest, to think about what they looked for as signs of justice and coexistence in their communities, what we call “everyday peace indicators.”

Through workshops using a research method called “photovoice,” a group of the villagers chose some of these everyday indicators of justice and coexistence to photograph. They then created and displayed personal and group photo stories as part of an open-air community exhibition.

We found that these communities wanted to use photography not only to document the aftermath of war and violence, but also to actively support peace.

Photo Stories About Justice and Coexistence

In San José de Urama, people looking for signs of justice in their community wanted to see armed groups and the government telling the truth about the war, and former guerrillas building families. They wanted to see the truth bringing peace of mind, rest and reparations for the victims, and an end to the violence.

Ex-guerrillas build families: ‘All there is to say is that they’re there, living among us, they rebuilt their families and they’re helping to transform the community.’ Yesica Alejandra Zapata David, CC BY-ND

For Francy Yulieth Manco Ferraro, an 18-year-old photographer from San José de Urama, a key element of coexistence in her community is the opportunity to be out of her house at any time. About this photo, she wrote, “In a world full of doubt and uncertainty, we can be calm in the knowledge that, when we go out to the streets or to our land, we will not hear the terrifying sound of guns; we will be able to go out freely, to work our land, to harvest our harvest, without fear.”

People can be in the street at any hour. Francy Yulieth Manco Ferraro, CC BY-ND

Some photographers, such as Leidi Johana Agudelo Higuita, used their work to pay homage to older members of the community who had survived through the years of the conflict and kept their communities alive.

The truth brings peace of mind, rest and reparations for the victims: ‘I had to live a war that wasn’t mine … . But the truth will set us free, or at least I believe so. I will never forget how I was a prisoner in my own land. I will never forget who I am now, a survivor and a dignified campesino.’ Leidi Johana Agudelo Higuita, CC BY-ND

In Las Cruces, three generations of the same family, a grandmother, mother and daughter, participated in the photography workshops together. The mother, Yenifer Yuliana Higuita Bedoya, emphasized the importance of family togetherness.

Families have more time to spend with each other: ‘These kinds of moments are the ideal way of forming the kind of lasting bonds that help you overcome adversity, and it is how you learn the principles and values needed to be a proper part of society. Yenifer Yuliana Higuita Bedoya, CC BY-ND

Another photographer, 15-year-old Yuliana Andrea David Hidalgo, drew attention to the importance of children being able to play free from fear. She explains her photograph: “Before, when you heard gunshots, everyone would run to hide under the bed or in some safe place in the house, and now kids hide under the bed or in safe places because they’re playing hide-and-seek.”

You don’t need to hide under the bed to protect yourself from bullets. Yuliana Andrea David Hidalgo, CC BY-ND

Paula Andrea Pino Sarrazola, a photographer from San José de Urama, highlighted the importance of collective work in their mountain farming culture. “‘You need one hand to wash the other, and both to wash the face’ is a saying that grandparents say,” she explained. “That’s what a minga is. When people don’t have the money to pay day laborers, they ask others to help them, and then the favor is repaid. In this way, a lot of farms and businesses have been saved from bankruptcy. A minga – or collective work group – saves lives and land, and protects democracy, justice and peace.”

Members of the community help one another get important work done, such as tending livestock. Paula Andrea Pino Sarrazola, CC BY-ND

Other indicators about coexistence included people treating street animals well and the government maintaining the roads.

The state maintains the access roads to Urama. Tatiana Durango Rincón, CC BY-ND

For one of their collective photo stories, the group in Urama captured the dilapidated state of their cemetery. In the caption, they wrote, “The deterioration of the cemetery is a testament to how much the dead are disregarded. Weeds devour the tombs just as our minds eat away at our memories. Would it not be the right thing for us to come together to maintain it, and honor the memory of the dead by keeping this place of transit to the afterlife beautiful?”

The community, with the support of the church and Juntas de Acción Comunal (community action boards), maintains the cemetery. Urama Photography Collective, CC BY-ND

After documenting the cemetery’s dire state of disrepair, these photographers decided to take action. More than 80 people worked for two days to clear weeds and to repair and repaint buildings, memorials and tombstones.

Volunteer community members work to repair and maintain the local cemetery. Urama Photography Collective, CC BY-ND

We have found that photography can help people and communities heal as they look back at what has been lost as a result of the conflict and use their images to provide a space for discussion about how to build a different future.

Photography lets community members honor what is important to them, take pride in their culture, call for justice and highlight what is needed to build enduring peace.

We also found that combining photography with our everyday peace indicator approach amplifies local voices, illuminating what policymakers and international donors often miss about what matters to the everyday lives of the community members they support.

The authors wish to acknowledge members of the EPI Photovoice team, Edwin Cubillos and Manuela Munoz, the Urama Photography Collective and the Cruces Photography Collective, and EPI research assistant Miranda Pursley.

About the author: This article was written by Pamina Firchow (Associate Professor of Coexistence and Conflict, Brandeis University), Tiffany Fairey (Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, King’s College London), and Yvette Selim (Senior Research Associate, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology Sydney). This article was originally published at The Conversation and is being republished under a Creative Commons license.

Image credits: Header photo: Project citizen-photographers from Las Cruces, Colombia. Edwin Cubillos Rodriguez, CC BY-ND.