A Photographic Archive Finds Life in Colour

Colombian photographer Andrés Orjuela explores the nature of political and economic powers by manipulating the journalistic image with colour, inviting us to reflect upon reality and history.

© Andrés Orjuela, from the series Archivo Muerto

Andrés Orjuela's project, Archivo Muerto, looks to rescue historical photographs and documentations from one of Colombia's most famous tabloid newspapers, El Espacio. By intervening in the photographic archives, he revives the past but questions the present. The photographs are charged with historical details as well as evidence.

We know you obtained access to the photographic archive due to an exchange with Jaime Rueda, a street recycler. How was the exchange from your side?

Well, it all began when I visited the studio of Mauricio Mendoza in Bogota. He was the first person to mention to me the disappearance of the newspaper, El Espacio. Mauricio also talked about Jaime Rueda, who had bought the archival material from a street recycler. I expressed my interest in viewing the archive and from there we organised a meeting with Mr. Rueda, in which he showed me about 20 images. The stories varied from cyclists, actors, beauty queens, comics and a few about crime… one of the stories caught my eye, the drug dealer titled: 'Juan de Jesús Cifuentes Bautista, with enough amount of marihuana to make 5 thousand cigarrettes.' Immediately I realised I wanted to explore this story further, so I offered to buy the image from Mr. Rueda. He didn’t accept my request, but offered me the image as a gift instead. Later I flew back back to Mexico where I framed the image and placed it in my studio.  

I got back in touch with Mr. Rueda about a year later when he mentioned he had more photographs. Once I arrived back to Bogota I met with him again, when I offered to buy from him the remaining images. Once again he didn’t accept my offer, suggesting instead an exchange with one of my photos from my series EDEN. At that point the project, Archivo Muerto didn’t exist quite yet. I didn’t even know whether it was going to be a project or simply visual inspirational for the future. After a detailed study of the photographs I had obtained, I made a selection and I began to scan the photos to enlarge them (as I had done with EDEN) and later I coloured them as old postcards…Once I did this, Mr Rueda mentioned he had more photographs, which he agreed to exchange for more of my prints of EDEN.

So in answer to your question, the exchange was 2 original prints from my EDEN project for 2 envelopes full of old photos all picked by chance. There was never an economic interest with the archives, however, once the project started to claim an international interest my relationship with Mr. Rueda came to an end since he started to demand more original prints of my project EDEN as a compensation for the archival material. This made it all very difficult to handle and finished any possibilities to find out whether Mr. Rueda has more images… Last October while visiting Bogota I bumped into him, which led to a brief and kind chat to end the chapter of this story.

© Andrés Orjuela, from the series Archivo Muerto

Have you had any contact with the photographers and / or journalists who reported these events in the 60's?

No, sadly I haven’t had this fortune yet. However, thanks to the collector José Dario Gutierrez in Colombia, I was able to find an artwork by Nirma Zárate, an important belated Colombian artist part of the collective Taller Cuatro Rojo, who used the image in a serigraphy of Luis Aldana being kicked by the police in the beginning of the 70’s - you could say this is a coincidence or a 40-year-long art dialogue - two artists worked with the same image. Today, to have the original file of that photograph is very valuable to me.

Have you received any comments from the newspaper, El Espacio, where the images were originally published?

Yes, the second time I exhibited in Bogota, the former editor-in-chief of El Espacio, who saw these images in his office 40 years ago, visited the show. He seemed rather serious at first and as you can imagine he had some comments about the usage of the images. However, I showed him I had always kept the copyright and origin - the stamps of El Espacio and the details of the photographer are a fundamental part of the work. Consequently, I explained that since the newspaper had shut-down, made their staff redundant, and had sold its building, all these documents were thrown in the streets, but later found. My intentions have always been to use the imagery accordingly, followed by a colour intervention as a contemporary painting. The former editor-in-chief then showed himself to be thankful for this project, since it elevates the newspaper's sensationalist news into an art category.

I find that the series has some kind of 'fictitious tone', even though the whole series is based on a historical archive. Do you think this is due to the chromatic palette that you have applied to the photos? What are your thoughts on that?

There has always existed a very conscious colour work here and how this can have an impact on its reading. From the use of pink walls and clothing colours, including the soft red blush I included in the criminal faces. The pastel colours give a different feeling; it gives a nostalgic tone to the images. So, when I enlarge the images new details appear, which might not be visible in the small black and white copy. It is definitely the colour that gives this work its strongest quality, allowing us to read crime-related images from a different perspective, away from the sensationalist tone in which the news of today is presented.

© Andrés Orjuela, from the series Archivo Muerto

Why did you decide to bring back a topic that happened over four decades ago?

To begin with, I have a strong interest for the individual image, but later I realised that it is the stories that I find most relevant. For instance, the start of the drug trafficking business, photographs taken before Nixon’s speech in 1971 when he declares 'the war against drugs', or when the biggest distributor of the capital was carrying 'over 6 kilos of the bad herb' as it states in the article of El Espacio.

Later, I found some police brutality cases, photos of which were never published, but were part of the collection of the newspaper. Also, the images taken over forty years ago in the paper remind us with nostalgia that we still have the same social political problems.

Today you hold a photographic registration that represents a chapter of Colombia’s comtemporary history. Have you thought to publish a book with this series in order to keep this story alive?

Yes, actually in this very moment I am working with Verónica Fieiras (from Chacobooks) on the first book that will reunite a part of the work done in Archivo Muerto, accompanied by a text written by Santiago Rueda. We will be presenting it in June at Les Rencontres de Arles, where I have been invited to exhibit my work.

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To view more of Andrés' projects, visit his PHmuseum profile.

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Andrés Orjuela is a Colombian artist and photographer, currently based in Mexico. Andrés has a degree in Fine Arts from the Colombian National University and completed his Masters in Visual Arts at the National Autonomus University of Mexico where he is presently pursuing his PhD studies in Arts and Design . 

He has participated in a number of international exhibitions held in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, France, Mexico, Panama, Spain, and the United States among others. Last year he was among the photographers selected by FOAM talent in Amsterdam.

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