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Photographer captures pain of decades-long Colombian conflict through survivors' portraits

Portraits hang at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art as workers finish setting up Erika Diettes' exhibit.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Portraits hang at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art as workers finish setting up Erika Diettes' exhibit.

Updated 3:20 p.m., Sept. 28 with Erika Diettes and Terry Dempsey's interview on St. Louis on the Air.

As the daughter of a Colombian general, Erika Diettes grew up fearing FARC rebels would one day kill her father. The rebels routinely made death threats and killed several government officials over decades. Though her father survived the conflict, and Diettes' fear dwindled, those thoughts stayed with her.

When she became a photographer, Diettes dedicated herself to examining how that violence affects individuals. Her portraits capture women as they recall watching rebels torture or kill loved ones during the half-century battle between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The photos  will be on display Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University.

“My intention with this project is to capture that exact moment where the women are remembering that horrible moment that divided their lives into two parts,” she said. 
In 2011, Diettes began visiting rural villages and farms to speak with survivors of the conflict, working with a sociologist trained to interview people who had experienced trauma. She listened to women forced to watched the massacre and maiming of family members and photographed them in that most vulnerable moment.  The photographs, printed on sheer silk, have been displayed in multiple venues around the world including galleries, rural churches and urban cathedrals.

Diettes said she focused on how people manage to survive in the face of brutal violence.

“That’s exactly the question that I’m trying to raise with this series — 'How do you survive that?' How do you give an image, how do you put into language, such horror?” she said.

Erika Diettes' work explores the idea of resilience and hope in the face of suffering.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Erika Diettes' work explores the idea of resilience and hope in the face of suffering.

The work draws attention to a part of Colombian history that people in the United States don’t understand, said Carlos Restrepo a native of Medellin, Colombia, who immigrated to St. Louis 15 years ago.

The fear and horror depicted in Diettes’ work isn’t reserved for people with military families. The violence has touched people throughout Colombia.

“It’s kind of like when people talk about cancer, and they’re always saying like, ‘Oh, you always know someone who has cancer,’” Restrepo said. “It was kind of the same way in Colombia, you always know someone who was impacted by this conflict.”

After a car bomb went off outside his family's business when he was a child, Restrepo moved from Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city, to a farm in the nearby mountains.  The bomb was part of the decades-long guerrilla warfare FARC rebels waged with the Colombian government.  

Restrepo said there is value in artwork that aims to portray the suffering the conflict caused. Diettes' images, he said, capture the real-life trauma fictionalized and made digestible in the popular Netflix show “Narcos.”  

“Not a lot of people try to think about the people that all these conflicts have affected,” he said. “The other day I was at the mall and I saw there was a little sweatshirt with the image of Pablo Escobar in it, and it made me wonder how many people really understand the hardships that Colombians have gone through with this conflict.”

Restrepo hopes the show helps people find empathy toward those that have experienced similar violence. On Oct. 2, Colombians will vote to ratify a treaty between FARC and the Colombian government.  The treaty would legitimize the FARC as an opposition political party and institutionalize a cease fire between the rebels and government.

Diettes will discuss her portraits at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at Saint Louis University's Morrissey Hall, Room 3400. The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

Follow Willis Ryder Arnold on Twitter @WillisRArnold

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