ARTICLE

Peace and pregnancy: Catalina Martin-Chico documents the baby boom among Colombia's former insurgents

Catalina Martin-Chico won the 2017 Canon Female Photojournalist Award for documenting the way that former FARC guerrillas are making a new life for themselves in peacetime Colombia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Catalina Martin-Chico

Nine months after first photographing a baby boom among female former rebels in Colombia, Catalina Martin-Chico found herself back in a jungle camp.

The French-Spanish photographer's return to Colombia was made possible thanks to her winning the 2017 Canon Female Photojournalist Award at Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan, France. The annual award, supported by Elle magazine, is given to "an outstanding female photographer in recognition of her contribution to photojournalism" and provided Catalina with an €8,000 grant to support the development of a new series to go on show at the 2018 Visa pour l'Image festival of photojournalism.

Her winning project focused on the lives of female former members of left-wing Colombian militant group FARC, which officially disarmed in June 2017 following a historic ceasefire agreement with the government. Her imagery explores the peace process, and the rebirth of the nation, through the corresponding rise in pregnancies among former rebel fighters – banned from having children during FARC's 53-year insurgency, 300 ex-members have fallen pregnant. In this interview, Catalina tells us all about her project.

A young woman applies makeup in a mirror in front of an open window, through which can be seen a parched landscape, with a satellite dish in the mid-ground and dense forest in the distance.
Catalina originally spent two weeks in three FARC camps and returned nine months later, thanks to her award, to record how life is changing. Around half of the former fighters have now left the camps. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Catalina Martin-Chico
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"Just months after the peace agreement was signed, many female fighters began falling pregnant," Catalina says. "There was a baby boom in the communities and it was so quick that the babies just arrived to replace the weapons." Hearing of the unique story, Catalina knew she wanted to meet the women herself, so she self-funded her first trip to Colombia in May 2017, where she spent two weeks in three FARC camps across the country.

"It was important for me to go before they gave back the weapons, which was planned at the end of May, so I could sense where they came from. They were living a life in the jungle, living in tents, wearing uniforms – the life of a guerrilla. Many women were pregnant, so I found my characters and started following them."

Winning the grant enabled Catalina to further develop her narratives. "I really believed in the story, and I thought that bringing back my first pictures would convince a magazine to follow it up," she says. "The good news was, it was even better than this! Thanks to the grant, I was able to go back this year. I've been applying for the same grant for nine years, so I really thought that this year it was made for me!"

A young woman cradles her child to her breast; she stands on a muddy track in a dense jungle with tents on both sides.
Throughout its 53-year war, FARC banned women fighters from having children, but since the peace deal there has been a baby boom, with some 300 former guerrillas falling pregnant. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Catalina Martin-Chico

Returning to the highland camps with her Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Catalina was able to see how the women were carving out new lives for themselves. "It was amazing to go back. I could barely recognise it was the same place – the first time, I had to go on three buses and then walk through the mountains, and now I could reach it by road. There were no more tents or uniforms, but houses and a restaurant. The organisation of life was very different."

Around half of the fighters have now left the camps, so she was also able to photograph them in their new homes. Some are living with their parents, some are combing the country searching for lost relatives, while others are working in agriculture or living anonymously in villages where people don't know about their past.

"I was able to follow all the characters in their new lives, which for me gives a sense of the story," says Catalina. "When I arrived, I thought how it was perfect for me to make this work in two parts."

A young man lovingly lifts an infant with both hands to kiss it; he is standing in a clearing in a dense jungle with a crowd of tents in the background.
Peace brings a new life for the male former fighters, as well as the mothers whose stories Catalina is following. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Catalina Martin-Chico

In what has become an incredibly personal project, Catalina has forged close bonds with her subjects, keeping in touch via text messages and hearing about their growing families. During the lengthy civil war and the corresponding ban on female FARC fighters having children, many of the women suffered forced abortions or had to abandon their babies at birth. One woman, Yorladis, told Catalina of the traumas she had suffered on her journey to motherhood.

"She was eight months pregnant, and she told me, 'I really deserve this baby,'" Catalina says, "because this was her first baby but her sixth pregnancy." Out of her five pregnancies during the guerrilla war in the jungle, all had been aborted. She had tried to hide her last pregnancy from senior commanders, and with the help of the commanders of her division, she wore extra-large uniforms whenever senior staff were around. However, one day a commander arrived unexpectedly and, seeing she was pregnant, sent her to the nurse for what was then a late-term abortion at six months.

"They don't tell stories like this as if it is a drama or as though they are victims – that's what is so incredible," says Catalina. "I asked if they were angry with the institution or the commanders, but they say they are still proud to be FARC and knew that falling pregnant was going against the rules, because it was very clear in the beginning – 'If you come here, it's an army and an army has no children.'

A young woman sits with both legs drawn up beside her at the end of a camp bed, next to another young woman lying casually on her back with one leg resting on the wooden wall behind.
Liliana came to visit her brother Jairo and sister-in-law Dayana, two FARC veterans who settled in the jungle to try to survive on the land. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Catalina Martin-Chico

"The best thing that could happen if you fell pregnant was to have the chance to deliver. [Then you might] leave your baby with your mum, if you were still in touch with her – which was pretty rare, because they didn't have cell phones and it was really dangerous for these women to keep a bond with [their] families, who could be in danger if the paramilitary knew that one of the members was in the FARC. The other ones had to leave the baby in villages – and they're now searching for these children."

In addition to this project, this year Catalina's work has taken her to Pennsylvania, USA, to make a documentary about Amish people; to Brittany, France, for a winter residency covering teenagers' lives in rural areas; and to the Caribbean islands of the Dominican Republic and Saint Martin to photograph the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

But Colombia remains in her heart – "the stories keep on moving in my head" – and the election of a new president, who campaigned against the peace deal and the FARC, threatens the still-fragile situation. "I wanted to follow the peace process until the end," she says. "It will be very interesting to see what their future holds."

Autor Lucy Fulford


Catalina Martin-Chico's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Catalina Martin-Chico stands inside a tent with her arm around a female Iranian nomad and holding a camera. Both smile.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Lenses

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM

This standard zoom lens goes just that little bit further, whether you're shooting photography or video. This lens is ideal for capturing exceptional image quality across an extended zoom range, while travelling light.

Lens

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

Offering a wide-angle view with a natural perspective, this classic focal length is loved by documentary photographers. A large f/1.4 maximum aperture makes this an ideal lens for handheld photography in low-light conditions.

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