A Touching Portrait of Exile
In his photobook, On the Other Side, Misha Vallejo captures the mundane realities of life in an impoverished Ecuadorian village populated by Colombian refugees and asylum seekers.
The banks of Puerto Nuevo, in Ecuador, draw the border with Colombia - an unattended outpost with no authority outpost, no police, and no military. “It’s a twilight zone there. You can feel that something is not right”, Misha Vallejo describes it.
In this village populated predominantly by Colombians fleeing armed conflict in the south of their homeland, Vallejo captured everyday life where nothing much is happening, especially during the burning day - proof is, the equation of 5 churches and 5 disco-bars for a few hundred inhabitants. “Nothing is going on but you have this sense that something is going to happen”, he adds. This atmosphere of anxious boredom transpires in the expressive gestures of the characters and the recurring elements spread throughout the book. The head of a decapitated Barbie doll, for instance, appears once in close-up - a symbol of the inhabitants’ uprooting - once blurry, hanging under a mirror on a wall covered with religious icons.
Visual repetition and metaphor enable Vallejo to depict a drama that unravels behind closed doors. Within a few pages we know the characters enough to recognise them from a few inches of their clothing. Full bleed images also contribute to this sense of intimacy. “I didn’t want white margins around the photographs so people feel at home, or at least feel like they are there”, Vallejo explains.
The book is organised in chapters - a family, another, the children and the nightlife - each introduced by an object and the reproduction of a vernacular photograph featured as a loose postcard. “I was really bored there - sometimes you can’t take photos because some things are not visual, or invisible. Someone told me that as a photographer you have to be a collector so, I started to gather objects from people’s houses and ask them to show me their family albums”, Vallejo recounts.
Washed by time and humidity, these “memory postcards”, as Vallejo calls them, work as a reminder of the longing for the other side, for the country often left because of violence. So does the editing, when two separate vertical images melt with each other and create a new, single, image. This visual trick translates Puerto Nuevo’s state of limbo. “I wanted to play with this idea of border, which also melts when people say ‘I am from the other side’ rather than ‘I am from Colombia’”, Vallejo concludes.
Al Otro Lado (On the Other Side) by Misha Vallejo
Edited by Claudi Carreras // Designed by Mariana Lara Resende
Published in 2016 by Editora Madalena
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.