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Miguel Winograd and Colombia's "False Positives" of War

By David Schonauer   Monday August 28, 2017


The long civil war in Colombia has come to an end.

A peace agreement between the government and FARC rebels has wound down the bitter conflict that gripped the country for a half century.  But memories linger. In 2015, Colombian documentary photographer Miguel Winograd  traveled with journalist Steven Cohen to the country’s southwestern Putumayo region, near the border with Ecuador where the Andes plunge into the Amazon jungle. They were there to investigate the killing of four peasants by Colombian army soldiers in a remote coca-growing rural area. The soldiers claimed that the peasants were FARC combatants. Winograd says otherwise.

“The case was an example of a practice deeply entrenched in the Colombian military labeled with a sinister medical euphemism: ‘false positives,’”  says the photographer. “One of the bitter fruits borne by decades of counterinsurgency war making, the practice encompasses different types of extrajudicial executions of innocent civilians that are then presented as combat deaths—‘false positives’ —which until 2008 entitled soldiers to bonuses and paid vacations and drove commanders who presented inflated death counts up the ranks.”

Winograd’s trek to the Putumayo region launched him on what he calls a “many-layered and ongoing exploration” of the area. “It’s a place mostly abandoned by the state, where the Colombian armed conflict has unfolded. The communities that live there have borne the brunt of the war,” he says. His title for the project: “False Positives.

“I have returned to the region twice since my first visit in 2015,” he says. “The situation, of course, has changed quite a bit after the peace agreement signed by the FARC and the government late last year and the demobilization of the armed group. Although that would seem like good news, there are a host of new problems — the presence of new armed groups and unsettling uncertainties about the future. Sadly, the peace agreement does not mark an end to the violence.” Below is a selection of images from the “False Positives” series

Among Winograd’s most vivid memories from the 2015 trip was the moment he came across a couple of boys playing at war. His photo of one of the boys (at top) was later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografia 5 competition.

“I took the picture at the end of a long day in which we hiked several hours through stretches of knee-deep mud to a tiny community of coca farmers on top of a hill where the soldiers had killed the civilians,” he says. “On our way back, after crossing the Rumiyaco river, I saw the boys playing war in the sand. They were 10 or 12 years old—just kids playing around—but by the way they held the sticks you could tell they had grown up in a war zone.”

Winograd shot with the picture with a  Mamiya 7 medium-format rangefinder on black-and-white film. “The film grain accounts for the gritty look of the images,” he says. “Since I started delving more seriously into photography, I have always loved the whole process of working with black-and-white film, not only for the style, but also for to its limitations—10 frames per roll—which force me to focus and be more disciplined when I look and when I shoot.”

Winograd was born in Colombia and studied Latin American history. He says he “drifted” into photography after grad school. Later he studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. “My own photographic practice has been marked by a certain fascination with the process and technique of the craft,” he says. “I have worked mostly in documentary photography projects since I finished photo school, although I have also been recently getting more into abstract landscapes.”   

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Dispatches from Latin America