Sexy guys, sly security guards and curious cows. Photographer West Phillips discovers the colour and character of old and new Colombia.
In January I went to Medellín, Colombia with my best friend of 15 years who is from there. We stayed with his family, who had graciously opened their doors to us for our two-week stay. Each morning his mother would prepare our breakfast – usually fruit, eggs, arepas and coffee. Afterwards, one of his brothers would show up with his little compact car and drive us to the day’s destination.
Medellín sits in a long, narrow valley with the neighborhoods, barrios, on the foothills and slopes around it. One day we made our way up to one of the most infamous barrios, the one that used to be considered the most dangerous in the world under the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar. My friend was hesitant about taking me there, but his older brother assured him that the area is much safer now.
After hearing horror stories of the murders, car bombs and clashes between drug cartels and government forces, I was amazed at what I saw. Kids were playing fútbol in the square and old men played cards outside shops. The government has invested a lot of money in repairing not only the neighborhood itself, but also the image of it and the city as a whole. While there are still turf wars amongst the cartels and gangs, it seems the darkest days have passed and the smiling, laughing children were a testament to that.
I was curious to see what the gay scene was like here, so we went to Poblado, the more commercial, trendy and tourist hotspot. There were a handful of gay bars in this area and we ended up at one with a mixed crowd of men, women, locals and a few tourists. The televisions were playing music videos from Shakira, JLo, Pitbull and even Kylie Minogue. We found a good table for people-watching, sat back and enjoyed our cheap beers in the warm night air.
While my main goal of coming here was to explore the culture and take some nice travel shots, I wanted to do some photo shoots with local men as well. I didn’t have any model connections in Medellín, so after arriving I found a couple guys through a social media app who were more than happy to model for me. I was hoping to find a gritty, urban decay setting to use for the shoot and one of the brothers had the perfect suggestion – an old train station that now sits empty and unused.
The next day he drove us there to scout the area and told us to wait in the car as he spoke to the guards at the gate. Before too long he returned to the car and said they agreed to let us in as long as I can pay them a reasonable “fee”. Having shot in locations such as this around the world, it usually comes down to paying the guard off. That is, unless there is no guard, in which case you really have to watch your back and be ready to take off (which has happened to me at least once!)
The property was big and consisted of a few old brick buildings with smashed windows and collapsed roofs. Nature was reclaiming it with trees, vines and waist-high weeds and grass growing all over. Inside, some of the buildings were old locomotives – rusted and seemingly forgotten about. As I began shooting one of the models atop an old engine, we were spooked by the sound of something big moving around in the trees and bushes off to the side. Suddenly a cow appeared and before we knew it there were five of them wandering through. I was thrilled to have this unexpected surprise so I kept taking shots of our new props!
After the cattle moved on we went back and met the rest of the crew inside where there was an old bathroom with a collapsed roof I wanted to use. With the sunlight shining down on the dirty, old, broken white tile, it seemed great for some grungy underwear shots!
With the shoot finished, I could now focus more on exploring the area and getting the travel shots I had really been craving. We drove a few hours out of the city to see beautiful, old villages like Santa Fe de Antioquia, Sucre and Barbosa. These little towns had beautiful architecture and landscapes that made me feel we had stepped back in time. The sun was scorching and we would take shelter under the eaves or in cafes, where the locals would welcome us in and ask us friendly questions about where we’re from and if we were enjoying their town. As we made our way through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with cars and brightly painted doorways, my friend’s brother told us of the history of the places we were seeing – how they started, what they’ve been through and what they’ve become. Whenever I thought the day was over, he would eagerly drive us to a new spot to show us something else.
My experience in Colombia was fascinating and inspiring not just because of the history and visual elements, but also because I was blown away by how friendly and welcoming the people were. Colombians have such a deep pride in their culture and history and I feel fortunate to have had a glimpse of it through the locals themselves. Travel always opens my eyes and Colombia didn’t disappoint. This trip merely scratched the surface and I look forward to experiencing even more next time!
© DNA 185