Colombia - Between the Lines

by Jason P. Howe. Review by Rose

‘Conflict is very often ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances.’ J.P.Howe

Jason Howe did not train to become a photojournalist and conflict photograher, he could of taken studied in this profession but instead, he made the decision, to get a camera, travel to the remote areas and danger zones and just begin taking photographs. In other words, he learned his trade from practical experience. This reveals some aspects of his personality and his ability to take risks, after all, he had no experience and would be entering situations that would put his life in danger. I think it's amazing that he bypassed the training and just went out to carve out his place in the world.

In his quest to document the story of Colombia’s civil war, Jason P. Howe’s black and white photographs present a charged odyssey of a country ravaged by conflict. The pictures are razor-sharp, evocative and ferocious, depicting the everyday manifestation of violence, sparring groups and sobering visions of poverty. They give a compelling insight into the unrest of this South American nation. In the opening of the book (published in 2008) it is stated that 200,000 people died over forty years of political war. A soundscape to the images builds inside the mind as you stare at them, despite the silence emitted from the static pictures. The anti-narcotics policeman clutches a rifle as he protects a flying helicopter, his grip on the weapon is tight, his eyes fierce as he concentrates ahead, anticipating danger. The young female recruits of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), their girlish faces and fragility seem at odds with the powerful assault rifle they hold close to their bodies. It’s hard to grasp the fact that they would willingly lift that rifle, aim and kill. Yet young women are taught to be ruthless in this environment, some are recruited by the FARC and others by the right-wing death squads. Each group has a belief system that drives its supporters. Sometimes a person may join a group out of pressure or desperation to survive.

Rows of cocaine lie on a book Howe photographed, ready to be devoured, a method of coping that will ultimately affect the judgement of those battling, as the war rages on. The bloodied government soldier collapsed on his dead comrade, their hands clutching, the aftermath of a bomb blasting through a bus, leaving a long trail of blood. In this terrain, the dead are always a familiar presence. The sorrowful faced little girl with eyes that convey an immeasurable sorrow, her head gently resting against her mother’s gravestone, her white-laced dress, illuminating the greyness of a cemetery with two many assembled bodies, bodies that never had a chance to age. Howe also depicts moments of innocence and laughter, of children playing, their spellbound eyes listening to innocent bed-time stories, read by caring parents and relatives. People attempting to live ordinary lives and go about normal tasks during the unearthly hell that encircles them.

Just witnessing a single violent incident may shake the foundations of a person’s perceptions of the world around them, it may invade their minds at later times. Some people may lock the memory into a box, in the deep recesses of their mind and never talk about it. Over time, that box may begin to burn with flickering flames and come to life. The eyes of a conflict photographer documenting untold war stories, standing in the epi-centre of gunfire, may witness countless traumatic scenes over weeks. His fellow human beings may do things that are inconceivable to most people. He, as the cameraman, holds the camera into the focal point of violence and clicks, he draws as close as he possibly can to get the right image, the one that he has chased, the one that he believes is revealing something that requires noting. He is not a bystander in events, his perception of the war, the groups involved will ultimately affect the photographs he chooses, his personality will impact this decision making. The object he looks through may create the illusion of distance, while he puts himself at risk of being shot at any moment. His adrenaline will be surging, he would have to resist his innate fight-and-flight response. Hundreds of these violent images may become a burning building, inside his mind. PTSD symptoms may commence, the inability of the brain to cope with being a witness to the daily carnage. Nightmares, reoccurring visions of trauma and anxiety may start to build. Howe’s perception of his fellow man and the world around him would shift. If you see human beings commit daily acts of savagery, how do you perceive your fellow man? How does he manage the flames of that building in his mind? Jason Howe, at the time, snorted cocaine and drank heavily. Howe is candidly honest about these acts while he worked. He doesn’t provide the viewer with a sanitised version of his life, trying to alter the judgement of the spectator. He says at this time, this is who I was, this was how I handled the stress at that time.

He was on a train in Colombia when he met her, it was one of those immediate sexual attraction encounters. He was looking for contacts in a country where he had no connections. Within a short time, they were lovers. He didn’t know that this young female, who looked so vivacious when she smiled, so pretty and innocent, was an assassin, Marylin later admitted to killing twenty-three people mostly for cash. At first, he admits that there was a sense of excitement at the life he was living in Colombia, Howe acknowledges to having been attracted to dangerous assignments, the thrill and the buzz of danger can be difficult for some people to understand, but some personality types thrive in these types of work. Some people have the type of personality that can handle these kinds of risks, but it may come at a cost later on as the effect of being being in the epi-centre of violent situations often doesn't manifest mentally as a problem, till much later on.

In the interview in the independent, he describes this period of being ‘like a Tarantino movie,’ the only reference his mind could find, a film, a piece of fiction, as his reality was far removed from anything he’d ever known in real life (Independent, 2008). One must remember when looking at the photographs that one fact that would have affected his emotions was the environment, and what is occurring in an environment affects the individual and concurrently their behaviour and feelings. Howe had been spending much of his time in an area that was completely unlike his normal life. This was a place where killings were a daily event. It will have been challenging to place the woman he’d been intimate with in bed, the woman who played in the river with her daughter, with the killer she was, in another part of her life. When a person has two very conflicting sides to their personality, putting those together can be very difficult. When Howe interviewed her as the killer, her cold words, without feeling, revealed no empathy for the victims, and he realised exactly what she was: a reality that cut deep inside his mind. Eventually, he woke to the icy truth of the murders she had committed.

The more she spoke about the killings, the more he realised, he didn’t know her as well as he'd thought. Before she died, she told him she’d wanted to leave the group, but leaving a death squad is not easy. Marylin had been trained to kill by a group, taught how to cut off her emotions. She had become part of an in-group and once in that in-group leaving would have been difficult. Once she'd moved away from an ethical and moral standpoint and been told that these were necessary in some way. Though the idea of her killing for money, because someone offered her payment, is a chilling one. By that time, it's possible that her morals and ethics had been diminished over time with each killing. She'd most likely have become de-sensitised to violence and death.

This book contains a diary of Howe's travels to Columbia with the photographs, the diary entries document his time in the country and the political situation that he was seeing at the time, as well as giving you a real insight to the conflict and different groups that were fighting. At one point he talks about meeting the paramilitaries in La Hormiga, entering without knowing who he may meet, one can only imagine the feeling as he walked into this place, and in Puerto, he documents his exhaustion and his lack of funds, his money having run out. A major practical problem working as a conflict photographer, as it would mean a return home.

When Howe came across the bus bomb, he describes the rise of his emotions as he stared at the traumatic scene in front of him, his hands shaking continually. His physiology reacting to the stress. He gives us a clear psychological and honest insight to his feelings at witnessing the horror of the carnage, dealing with the horror of the blast and its devastation on the soldiers, with bodies lying torn and ripped apart, to his the conflicting emotions of both sadness, excitement and the guilt at feeling any excitement at this moment, as this was the kind of combat photograph he'd hoped to capture. It's this very personal insight that makes this book so special. He isn't hiding from the reader the thoughts that enter his head at this time. He's allowing you to come up close into his mind, and see how difficult it must be to photograph in a country of civil war, visually documenting a scene of death and brutality, but also understanding that he felt things which immediately attacked his concience. He is questioning his own morals and ethics. At this time he was stood with some very experienced combat photographers, ones that did not hesitate or perhaps have shaking hands. So this will also have affected his reaction, being with a group of men that have done this many times, and knowing how they are take their shots, probably with no hesitation.

Jason P. Howe - This is a link to the website of Jason P. Howe where you can see many of his photographs not just from Colombia, but also from other places he travelled. I have not used many photographs on this review page due to copyright, but you can see photographs from this book on his website.

Independent article I have referenced a line from this interview in the independent