What does it mean to be a true believer? The Colombian photographer, Juan Cristobal Cobo, examined the concept of Catholicism in his homeland and captured impressive snapshots of religious believers. While questioning the importance of religion for the people of a strongly Catholic country, he did not always find clear answers; the images he produced, however, bear witness to an enormous symbolic power.
When and where did you take the images?
I took these photographs between 2017 and 2018 in the Colombian cities of Bogotá and Cali.
What fascinates you about religious rituals?
As a photographer, I’m drawn to the rites, rituals, and icons of religious institutions. They are very seductive from an aesthetic point of view. I can spend hours observing representations of Christ on the Cross or the pain of Mary Magdalene; but as an agnostic I can’t comprehend the meaning of faith or the experience of an emotional connection to God. I can only imagine what it means to be a true believer. I want to use photography to try and bridge the gap between the emotional and the aesthetic elements of Catholicism. I want my camera to explore the iconic symbols of religion and the people who worship them, in order to better understand the concepts of guilt, forgiveness, suffering and redemption, that occur not only within our cathedrals but on the streets as well. I want to draw similarities between religious imagery, both violent and ethereal, and the parishioners who come to pray, to confess, to atone for their sins. Do these people experience the suffering and redemption of religious martyrs in their own flesh?
What significance does Christianity have in Colombia?
Colombia has one of the most deeply-rooted traditions of the Roman Catholic faith in Latin America: more than eighty percent of Colombia is Catholic; however, it is also one of the most violent countries in the world. According to the World Values Survey the most religious countries are also the most violent ones, and Colombia has a long history of bloody conflict. Both the aggressors and their victims pray to the same God: the first to seek protection before committing their crimes; the latter to seek solace for their pain. So why does a country, where Catholicism is such a dominant force in society, still suffer from the persistent wounds of conflict – wounds that resist healing and portend an uncertain future?
Your images rarely show faces. People are part of the scenery that surrounds them. What is the idea behind this photographic approach? Is there something you want to evoke in the viewer?
I don’t think this was a premeditated choice; but as often happens with my work, after a while some themes and stylistic choices start to emerge, during the shooting and during the editing. In this case, I think that not seeing recognizable faces of people adds to the mystery that religion is to me.
Were you looking for anything in particular as part of this project, or did you just go with the flow?
I usually start from intuition, exploring a subject that draws my attention, and then start to work with as much frequency as I can. That’s when the themes and sub-themes start to appear and I just follow that flow. I worked on this project during Holy Week for two consecutive years; but also went on to document Pope Francis’s visit to Colombia, and to spend some Sundays at a very large and very popular parish in Bogotá.
How did you find the protagonists for your images?
It wasn’t difficult: I just went to the various places during the times when they congregate.
In which way did the Leica cameras help to accomplish your goals?
I used both the Q and the M for this project. Both cameras have the capacity to be very discreet and quiet, which was crucial when I was photographing inside churches. The equipment allowed me to remain respectful of the people I was photographing.
What does this project mean for you, personally? Could you learn anything from it?
I worked on this project using my secular intuition to confront my own fears and questions about religion, looking at the believers, their rituals and relics. In the end it raised more questions than answers, and I’m okay with that.
Generally speaking, what is your approach when looking for new topics?
Curiosity. Curiosity always drives my work, and it doesn’t always need to end up being a project. I get attracted by people, by the light and by places, and sometimes, while pursuing that, I might stumble across and follow a thread that may or may not become a project.
Juan Cristóbal Cobo was born in Colombia and moved to New York as a teenager. His earliest passion centred around film making, but after many years as a cinematographer and commercial director, he found himself strongly drawn to the art of photography. As an autodidact, he brings his years of knowledge to the still image, combining his understanding of light and composition with a passion for the story. Cobo is deeply curious about the people around him, and remains curious about himself and his own emotions: he tries to connect these to his pictures. Cobo’s work has been featured in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, Science Magazine, Art Magazine, Leica Fotografie International, New Yorker Photo, L’œil de la Photographie, The Ground Truth Project, among others. He is a permanent contributor to National Geographic Traveler. In September 2021 he published his first photo book, La luz opaca. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.