Time and again dead bodies appear in the waters of the Rio Magdalena in Colombia: the communities along the river have chosen to provide the deceased with a last resting place. Felipe Romero Beltrán’s gentle yet haunting images capture moments of mourning, prayer, and a desire to come to terms with the past. He spoke with us about the background to this project, about photographic role models, and about his very unique approach to documentary photography.
At which point in your life did you start with photography?
I started with photography at school, when I was 16. At the time, I was sure I wanted to study philosophy at university, but the first time I picked up a camera I realized my passion was not for things to say, but for things to see.
How has your passion developed over time?
Once I started taking pictures I couldn’t stop. I really wanted to study photography, but in Colombia there are no universities with photography as a degree, so I decided to apply for a scholarship in Buenos Aires. I got it and spent six years between Argentina, Israel and Palestine. I am currently based in Madrid, Spain. I’m working as a documentary photographer for magazines and, at the same time, I’m writing a PhD thesis on photography, which allows me to develop long-term projects in Latin America.
Could you describe in a few sentences the phenomenon of the bodies in the river and the conflict that most likely caused it?
The civil war in Colombia cost thousands of lives. The official numbers are 220,000. When a country has this number of deaths, it comes up with many ways to hide the evidence (the corpses). The most effective way to make a body disappear in Colombia, is to throw it in the river. The Magdalena River is huge (1600kms) and therefore a perfect place for hiding the evidence. However, due to the way it drops in certain areas, whirlpools appear that bring everything in the river up to the surface – including bodies.
What happens with the bodies after they are found?
Local communities pick up the bodies, bury them and pray for them. They perform a ritual/ceremony to “adopt” the body and re-baptize them. To explain it briefly, many people in the area are indirect victims too; so they choose a body found in the river and use it as a replacement for a missing relative.
How would you describe the mindset of the people who take care of the bodies? What impression did these people leave on you?
I didn’t really understand Garcia Marquez’s well-known magic realism until I started this project. The local communities experience this situation as a part of their reality. Sometimes you only need to look at your own city to realize that there are certain beliefs that have been accepted for centuries; but when someone from outside looks at them, they would be surprised.
How has this phenomenon changed the social life of the local communities along the river?
It has changed it completely. It is the core of a huge social network that helps hundreds of families to carry on despite the war. It is a cultural manifestation, but also a social healing.
Your pictures look very dreamy, calm and soft, although they are dealing with death. What do you want to see evolve within the viewer with your imagery?
I wanted to make a project distinct from all the imagery covered by the media and classic photojournalism. I tried to place everything in the centre, make a flat and clean image. All the images looks like they are suspended in time – there’s no action, nothing really happens. I think I tried to develop a project with different layers of complexity, without a direct impact but with a strong statement about the Colombian case.
What was working with the Q2 like?
It was great – such a small camera with amazing image quality. I’m used to working with medium format, so working with the Q2 gave me comfort and security. I loved the optics.
Is there any reason why you chose the rather unusual 5:4 aspect ratio?
It brings stability to the image composition. The 35mm aspect ratio forces you to compose in a certain way, and it carries all the imagery from classic photojournalism. I wanted calm, quiet and stable images.
Who has had the biggest influence on your photography?
There is a huge list in my mind; but I would pick one photographer from each of four different generations: August Sander, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Alec Soth, Max Pinckers.
Born in Bogotá in 1992, Felipe Romero Beltrán now lives in Madrid and works as a documentary photographer. He has lived in Colombia, Argentina, Israel and Palestine and specialises in social, political and interpersonal themes, for which he hopes to offer new narrative perspectives. He is currently working on a PhD program on documentary photography at the University of Madrid. Find out more about his photography on his Website and Instagram. Find out more about the project Nomen Nescio in LFI magazine 4/2020.