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.
"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!"
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."
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.'
"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."