Juan Cristóbal Cobo: An Opaque Light
Words: Stuart I. Frolick
“El Bogotazo changed Colombia and the city of Bogotá forever,” says Juan Cristóbal Cobo. On April 9, 1948, the Liberal leader and leading candidate for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated, trig- gering a 10-hour riot in which large sections of downtown Bogota were destroyed. Protests in support of Gaitán spread throughout the country—he’d earned the overwhelming support of the nation’s long- suffering working class. Reverberations of that fateful day are still felt in Colombia; historical periods of politically motivated violence contin- ue to challenge the nation’s civil stability.
Juan Cristóbal Cobo, self-portrait, March 21, 2020
Born in Cali, Cobo moved to Bogotá when he was almost 30, after living in New York City for 10 years. Though too young to remember Bogotá’s Golden Age himself, Cobo speaks reverently of the city’s past, understanding the larger cultural significance of its Old Town’s demise. One hundred-plus years ago the nation’s capital was a thriving metropolis. Its main thoroughfare, La Carrera Séptima, felt much like a European promenade, attracting residents and visitors from all parts of the city. La Séptima was home to the central Plaza de Bolívar, the cathedral and blocks of government buildings. Streetcars, otherwise unseen in elevated altitudes in the Andes, carried passengers to and from the city. La Séptima occupies the heart of Cobo’s heart. In The New York Times, Annie Correal wrote: “Now, little remains of its grandeur. The old city was nearly reduced to rubble in the riots that left buildings ransacked and burned, the streetcars tipped over and torched. Those who could moved north, leaving the city center to fill with soulless office buildings and the indigent.”
Images from Cobo’s first book, La Luz Opaca (Raya Editorial, 2021), are posted on the photographer’s website, along with many other distinguished portfolios. The varied images in his expansive oeuvre—people on the streets, children at play, city or landscapes, political rallies—are all products of his singular vision. Cobo’s close observation of light and precise compositions reflect his 30 years as a cinematographer and commercial director. But his natural curiosity, seemingly about everyone and everything he encounters, cannot be taught. His depth of care for his subjects extends beyond appearances, beyond photography, beyond art. While he says that he is not a religious person, Cobo’s life and work respond to a personal longing to connect that may only be described as “spiritual.”
Bogota, June 13, 2015
Self-taught in photography, Cobo’s transition to the still image was fueled by a desire to explore his own concerns and values rather than those of his clients. It’s surprising to learn that in making street portraits he has found a way to confront his own natural shy- ness. (He may be hiding from us in his self-portrait here.) “I am not a mingler,” he says, “and photography gave me a way to get over my fear of meeting people. The camera is a perfect shield for me, and a tool for acknowledging many people otherwise unseen. I’m always taking photographs, even if it’s just with my phone. But at least once a week, I make an effort to photograph something with purpose.”
Cobo says that he doesn’t shoot pictures of the homeless population downtown; he doesn’t want to take advantage of, or exploit their circumstances. He often focuses on those closer in social status to de Sica’s Umberto D—they’re older, have worked their whole adult lives—people who Cobo says, “should be enjoying their retirement, but don’t have the financial means to do so. Some of these men dress in suit and tie every weekday morning, follow their old routes to the downtown offices they worked in many years before, only to return home to their lonely lives.”
Bogotá, November 10, 2017
The man in the opening photograph, “Bogota, June13, 2015,” his head thrust forward, his cane tucked under his arm, grabbed Cobo’s eye, and he ran up the block, hoping to catch the man walking past a construction site. “I’m drawn to gesture, to posture,” Cobo says. The man’s granddaughter later recognized him pictured in a Washington Post review of Cobo’s book, and she contacted the photographer. “I brought him a copy of the book,” Cobo says, “and even though he was very old and senile, he was moved to see it.” Of the silhouetted, foregrounded figure that walked into his frame: “It’s one of the wonderful things that can happen if you do this kind of work.”
The image at left (“November 10, 2017”), from Cobo’s religious-themed portfolio, was shot in a parking lot outside a Bogotá flea mar- ket. The carpet displayed for sale depicts a for- lorn Jesus, his head raised, eyes focused toward heaven, or, to the subtle patch of sun- light in the foreboding grey sky; or, is he considering the barbed wire fence?
Bogotá, February 2, 2015
“This picture is one of my favorites,” says Cobo. “I shot it without thinking about what it may mean, and it’s open to many interpretations—is the pole symbolic of the cross? The rituals of religion fascinate me. Colombia is one of the most violent countries on earth. Many people—even young people—have been killed by hitmen for a price of twenty or thirty dollars. The hitmen are often very Catholic; they always pray before killing.”
Decked out in faux military uniform (“February 2, 2015”), Anibal Muñoz, a.k.a. General Sandúa, was, says Cobo, “an iconic figure on the boulevard. He was mentally challenged and practically homeless. He adorned himself like a Christmas tree with ribbons and buttons, and gave fiery radical, anti-establishment speeches in favor of the elderly and poor. I photographed him three times. In the second picture (seen here) he’s holding the first photograph I had made of him the day before. I ran into him on the street again later; he had made and was distributing 50 photo- copies of the first picture, on which he had handwritten one of his political speeches. I was pleased that he had made my photographs into things of his own.” Muñoz died a few years ago from Covid-19.
Bogotá, November 21, 2019
Seventy-one years after his death, protesters invoked the memory of Gaitán at a political rally (“November 21, 2919”) marking the first day of what became a two-year national strike. Cobo calls this picture “a subtle political commentary.” Gaitán’s soulful expression is echoed in the precisely scaled face of the young man, bottom, left.
In “Bogota, July 10, 2015,” the man hold- ing a 1,000-peso bill in both hands (approximately 25 cents) Cobo characterizes as typical of the men populating Bogotá’s downtown streets. “He was possibly surprised by my presence,” says Cobo. “I was kneeling down, looking for a background, and he stopped and posed for 10 seconds. Then, without a word, he walked off. This was magic for me because there is so much information in the picture. The bag on his left arm is from a well-known restaurant, but its contents—used napkins, pieces of toilet paper—is trash. I see melan- choly in his face, and noticed his care in tying his tie.”
Bogotá, September 22, 2015
A description of “Bogota, September 22, 2015” is from Cobo’s website: “I noticed a homeless man walking, and behind him a trail of six dogs, all black, all menacing. They looked like wolves. I started to follow them at a distance, and made a few shots. But I wasn’t happy trailing them, so I decided to walk faster, and wait at a spot that might add to the story. I stopped in front of this building with the front door open, and waited. The man walked by, but still, no interesting picture for me until the end, when the last two dogs stopped to drink out of a puddle… The water was black, which seemed to say something larger about the condition of Bogotá. That satisfied my wish to create something a bit wild and scary—kind of apocalyptic—expressing the spirit of La Carrera Séptima.”
Cobo asked Luis Alberto Falla Rivera (“November 5, 2017”) to pose with his dog “Blundi” at the door of the 20 de Julio Parish in Bogotá. The beautiful light on Rivera’s face suggests the chiaroscuro in Renaissance painting. Also apparent in his tight grip on Blundi’s legs, is Rivera’s love for his canine companion. “I shot 12 frames of this man,” says Cobo, “whose spoken English was perfect—better than my own. He told me that he had been living with a woman in Canada and had ended up in prison for 20 years, for a murder he did not commit. Deported, he was now homeless. It’s impossible to know if his story is true, because many of these people live on the border between reality and their imaginations.”
Bogotá, July 10, 2015
Cobo: “I could take 50 pictures a day like this (“September 29, 2019”), and I didn’t think much about this one until I processed the image, and saw that beneath her sweater the woman was wearing the shirt of Colombia’s national soccer team.” Cobo’s low angle monumentalizes this imposing-looking soccer fan.
Of the man collecting wood (“August 4, 2015”), Cobo says, “I took this in reaction to his posture. His body is like the branches he is carrying—everything is twisted.”
Bogotá, November 5, 2017
Beautiful late-afternoon light animates the image of a man silhouetted behind a construction barrier in the Plaza de Bolivar (“July 25, 2015”). The building, back, left, houses Colombia’s Congress.
The face of a man sitting alone in the corner of one of Bogotá’s many coffee shops expresses a loneliness often captured by Cobo (“July 2, 2015”). Window reflections posed an unusual technical challenge. “This is one of my saddest pictures,” says Cobo. “He just sat there, not ordering anything. He looked so lost.”
Bogotá, September 29, 2019
Of the portrait of Sandra (“January 19, 2018”), who sells coffee to chess players in the downtown streets, Cobo says, “She is a very seductive woman who disliked any of my pictures in which she thought she didn’t look very beautiful. Sandra often needed money to pay for that night’s rent in a cheap hotel.”
“September 6, 2017”depicts a woman waiting for the doors to open outside of Bogotá’s main cathedral. Cobo’s sharp focus delineates every hair and facial wrinkle earned over the course of a difficult life.
Bogotá, August 4, 2015
“I began work on La Carrera Séptima in 2015,” writes Cobo on his website. “I think I will always return, and I may never stop work- ing there. For me, this place embodies everything about street photography with a purpose…I try to never engage with my subjects before taking a photo. When I do, the results are not the same. However, I do talk to people sometimes after I take a picture, and when I work the same place repeatedly, I bring prints and offer them to the subjects I’ve photographed. That’s always a rewarding experience. I value spontaneity in a photo and I think it can be achieved either by having no contact, or by staying with the subject for a very long time.”
Cobo’s photographs have been featured in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Leica Fotografie Internationa and The Ground Truth Project, among others. He is a permanent contributor @NatGeoTravel. See more at juancristobalcobo.com and instagram.com/juancristobalcobo.
Bogotá, July 25, 2015
Bogotá, July 2, 2015
Bogotá, January 19, 2018
Bogotá, September 6, 2017