‘You set the limits’: Juan Arboleda, the photographer of Colombian conflict who brought human stories to the AIPS Sport Media Awards

  • February 27, 2020
Juan Raul Arboleda (42), won the 1st place in Sport Action at the AIPS Sport Media Awards in Budpaest, on February 3rd, 2020 (Photo by AIPS Media)

AIPS Media

LAUSANNE, February 27, 2020 - From the atrocities of the 50-year civil conflict in Colombia to the story of a 25-year-old Venezuelan migrant who skates without legs – through the “cocaine hippos” in Pablo Escobar’s personal zoo or the colourful graffiti of Bogotà – photojournalist Juan Raul Arboleda has laid his eyes on every possible story deserving light. According to him, his photography orbits around the unicity of messages, human stories.

“Porque el reportero es una ventana” – the reporter is a window, he says.
Arboleda took hold his first camera in the 90s, while serving in the army for Colombia during one of the fiercest wars in the 20th century. The conflict flared up in the 60s as a low-intensity war including the government and some armed groups named “Guerrilas”, FARC and ELN.

Since then, he used photography to witness the events taking place in his country, training professionally on completion of the military service. 20 years of practice in a national agency made him an all-out reporter before joining the French agency AFP, where he currently works.

“I remember myself working with roll cameras. It was a chase to the essence of the photography, with each shot being unique and only revealed in the laboratory”.
A STORY OF ALCA Arboleda won the first prize in the AIPS Sport Media Awards presenting “You set the limits” a sport action picture of Alfonso Mendoza “Alca”, a 25-year old Venezuelan skateoboarder born without legs. The picture surprised the jury of the awards. Photographer and juror Vincent Amalvy, who spent a life in AFP, commented: “This picture generated a positive impact on us all”.

The first contact between Juan and Alca was accidental:

“I saw Alca's story in a local media. First I was shocked, and thought of some photoshop effect,” says Juan.

But as he went through the investigation and finally managed to contact him, he learned all of his life: “Alca’s condition cut him off from normality. All his childhood, he suffered discrimination, which led him to thoughts of suicide.”

Until a rap song called “Tomorrow will be another day” helped him recover, bringing the passion for music, surfing and skateboearding into his life.

Alca fled poverty and caos strangling Venezuela to settle with his family in Barranquilla, Colombia. Once gotten green light from his boss, Juan went to the city for a first visit: “When I saw him, I hugged Alca as if we were old friends. I felt a special connection, a magical moment,” Arboleda admitts.

- Take us through the creation process of the photo. How did you plan the picture and what have been the main technical adjustments?
- I asked Alca to let me enter his life in order to have a clearer picture of him. We spent a week together, he took me to the beach where he surfes and to the skateboarding track. I was incredulous to see how he keeps the balance either on the waves or while skating. I wanted to achieve a picture as clean as possible, so I mounted a fisheye and laid down to the ground, waiting for the jump. I thought some backlight would give emphasis to Alca’s body and moves and when he came towards me, I tried to capture the instant in which the skateboard looked like his legs.

- Can you describe your feelings when you discovered that you had won the first prize in the AIPS Sport Media Awards? When did you inform Alca?
-When I learned I was within the first three, I could not believe. I immediately thought that the jury had valued the human history, beacuse that is what really matters to me, I am always in search for messages. When I went on stage, I thought of Alca and called him as soon as I went down. He was happy and surprised I could reach such an important achievement thanks to his story.

Have you got a human reward apart from the first prize in the Awards?
-First of all, I want to thank the AIPS for thinking about us and giving us a place, it is a privilege and an honor to have participated. The Awards enable us to spread stories and messages across the world. Meeting Alca has been extremely gratifying, a priceless stage in my life and profession. I will continue reporting on his fascinating life and I have plans to meet him personally and share some of the financial benefit of the awards. Because he is the true winner of life, who taught me that all the barriers in life are product of our mind, it’s up to us to set the limits.

An ELN militant trains in the jungle (Photo by Juan Raul Arboleda)

You also work amid hostile evironaments, reporting on armed conflicts and social turmoils. What keeps your mind on track when coming to such themes?
-Covering conflicts in Colombia has been one of the greatest experiences for me as a professional. Of course, nothing is easy in certain contexts, but when I think that thanks to my pictures people have an outlook on complex realities, I feel motivations that never abandon me.

And It even ended up a passion over the years. When I am on the field, it is adrenaline moving me. Even if you are not sure you will save you skin, it is the mission to open a window over truth that keeps you watchful.

-What are the images etched in your memory?
-I am particularly proud of having covered the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC Guerrilas – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing armed group involved in the Colombian conflict since the 60s. It has been a remarkable moment in our national history, that put an end to a tremendous conflict which costed lives for over 50 year.

Last year I contacted the ELN Guerrilla - The National Liberation Army, another left-wing armed group based in the jungle – to eneter their territory and document the lives of the affiliates. Before commencing, we had to gain their trust. It was a long process, several months spent exchanging encrypted messages until we finally got the permission.

Once you embark in such a risky mission, there is no way back. We pooled some selected journalists and then went to Cali (Colombia) to take a boat to the jungle. They left us coordinates so we could meet them after many hours along the river San Juan.

We spent a week with them. A time filled with the anxiety of bombings, in the most remote place you could ever think of, surrounded by nothing but trees and obscurity as the sun sets. Our team was juggling among written reports, photos and videos, trying to be calm in the masked sight of our hosts, aware that even the intervention of the governement could have threaten our lives.

To view all winners of the AIPS Sport Media Awards’ second edition, please click here.


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