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El Chocó, Colombia: Everyday Resistance

Steve Cagan | El Chocó, Colombia

A young woman listens from outside the chapel at the commemoration of the first anniversary of the terrible massacre of Bojayá, May, 2003

El Chocó is a rain forest area, traditionally isolated from and abandoned by the rest of Colombia. Over 80% of the population is Afro-Colombian, descendants of slaves brought by the Spanish to mine gold. 10% are indigenous. The area has long been one of the poorest in Colombia, though the people lived in dignity in their forest.

In 1996, an invasion by right-wing paramilitaries brought the civil war to El Chocó, motivated by a desire to drive the people from the area, exploit its many natural resources, and ultimately destroy the forest and replace it with industrial monocultures, especially oil palm.

In 2003 I began documenting everyday grassroots resistance to the pressures from the armed groups—guerrillas, paramilitaries, and public security forces—to abandon their territory and cultures. My goal is to document the threats, the displacement, the costs of war ad repression, but also the strength and creativity of the people.

Steve Cagan is a documentary photographer and activist, living in the Cleveland, OH, area, with over thirty years’ experience of photographing and exhibiting there and beyond. Major photographic projects have included: “Industrial Hostages,” a documentation of the effects of factory closings in Ohio in the late 70s and early 80s; work in Indochina in 1974; documentation of aspects of daily life in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba, and “Working Ohio,” an extended portrait of working people in our area. His current major project is “El Chocó, Colombia: Struggle for Cultural and Environmental Survival” a documentation of that beautiful but threatened rain forest area and the special cultures that live there, also under great threat.

Another current area of work is nature photography, especially in Forest Hill Park, and a series of black-and-white “bird portraits.”

Steve has exhibited his photographs nationally and internationally on three continents. His reviews and critical writings have been published in a variety of professional journals and books. He has received two Fulbright Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and several Ohio Arts Council Fellowships and New Jersey Arts Council Fellowships. He taught in the Visual Arts Department of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University from 1985 to 1993.  In Fall, 2006, Spring, 2008 and Spring, 2009, he was a SAGES Presidential Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He has taught photography at the Universidad de El Salvador as a Fulbright Fellow. He spent five months in Colombia at the end of 2007, photographing and lecturing under another Fulbright grant.

He is co-author with his wife, Beth of the book, This Promised Land, El Salvador, which in 1991 won the Book of the Year Award of the Association for Humanist Sociology, and was reprinted, with a new final chapter, as El Salvador, La Tierra Prometida, in San Salvador. 1991 was in fact a momentous year for Steve; in addition to publishing that book, in 1991 he was recognized as “Teacher of the Year” at Rutgers University. In the same year he was denied tenure there.

Steve has a long history of activism in the anti-war and social justice movements.





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