How can we be sure that things will go the way we’ve planned? There’s only one way to make that happen: you have to believe in yourself and turn negative into positive.
Arriving in Bogotá, in Colombia’s central Savannah plateau, we’re immediately struck by the hustle and bustle of the place — colourful, noisy buses clatter along against a backdrop of the Andes Mountains. The pace of life is slower when we get to Cartagena, but we can’t sleep. We know the next day we’re leaving the Caribbean coast behind and setting off for the top of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, 5700 metres high.
A dilapidated and overflowing 4x4 drives me to the end of the road, people and animals hanging out every window and jammed in every possible space. I’ve travelled from Paris to Bogotá to Santa Marta, then onwards by 4x4 and now I have to buy three donkeys to carry on. One donkey for all our provisions; fish and dried meat, blankets and presents, sugar-free chocolates to give out to kids. The two other donkeys will carry all the equipment; tripods, cameras, lenses and the backdrops which I brought with me all the way from the Saint Pierre Market in Montmartre. Everything has to be brought in duplicate to avoid a two-day journey back down the mountain in case anything breaks or gets lost.
My assistant, my guide, my mule drivers and I all try to gloss over the fact that we must cross a region known for the most dangerous and violent of the Colombian guerrillas. This is an area riddled with extremist paramilitary groups. I can’t imagine how I would begin to feel if after so much careful planning, I might be forced to abandon this project so close to my heart because of these rebels’ lost causes. The most important thing to me right now is to start my work with this incredibly remarkable people: the Kogi!
The Kogis have the most natural and organic philosophy on Earth. Without radio or television, they know everything that happens on our planet. They communicate telepathically and live in a society much more advanced than ours. The perfect peace and harmony they live in should be preserved for all eternity.
I have always been intrigued by this fascinating people who manage to live on this isolated mountain, born on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches lapped by warm, multicoloured waves. The Kogi wear all white and live in harmony with nature. They first seek to cure the spirit before looking to cure the body. Their hearts in tune with the cosmos, they work to find inner joy. This incredible and remote mountain acts as a background, swathed in constant snows.
Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the Kogi’s problems of guerrilla killers and usurpers,. I’m deeply saddened by the injustice of their situation. We walk for a long time before arriving at some huts for the evening. After resting in hammocks, we prepare “sancocho de gallina” — a savoury Colombian stew made with chicken stuffed with grubs pulled straight from the virgin soil.
We arrive at the base of the Ciudad Perdida archaeological site and by the time we’ve reached the top I’ve found a real-life version of the Garden of Eden. I see a scene that could be taken straight out of Genesis: surrounded by verdant, lush nature, a Kogi man and woman wash each other in the crystalline waters of the river. I’m transfixed. I burn this image into my mind forever. Trying hard to not look ridiculous, I wave hello before diving into this spring-water pool. The water is clear, filled with the sweetness of nature and the beauty of the world. The sky is clear too, arcing over an unspoiled land. Immersed, submerged, I almost want to drown in this sacred water.
Our group has set up camp a short way off. I’m take the chance to change my clothes putting on some white pants and a white shirt — to match the colour the Kogi have adopted. The Kogi have been photographed before, but only from afar with a telephoto lens. They’ve never posed with a photographer, and I’m not sure how to convince them to step into a “studio” full of gadgets and instruments brought from Paris. I’m all too aware of the fact they view photography as black magic, designed to finish off the worst genocide in human history: the extermination of the Native people of the New World.
I say a prayer, fill my heart and arm myself with an enormous smile. With no language in common, I go to meet the village chief. Communicating mostly by gesture, I try to explain my philosophy and my goal. I want to help the Kogui, win them respect, find a way for them to live on their beautiful land and carry on their wonderful tradition of love.
The chief looks at me a long while. The moments go by, slow and agonising.
—“Tomorrow, five AM.” he tells me.
—“Please, a bit later” I plead. “I need the sunlight.”
—“Sunrise is at five. That, or nothing.”
—“Thank you mama” –using the Kogi word for chief. “See you at five.”
I leave all the gifts I brought from the city as tokens of my immense gratitude. I’m trembling with emotion. It seems impossible that two people should be able to transmit their desires despite the lack of common language.
I celebrate with half a bottle of aguardiente and fall asleep, dreaming that everyone will be able now to see the richness of our planet.
I wake up at three in the morning and in the middle of the village I start setting up our studio in the dark. The mama arrives with his wife and wonderful children, who are all quite cross after being forced to wash themselves in the icy night-time water of the rio. Their reward: some chocolates, brought by a crazy man from far away. It’s their first time eating chocolate and I wish I was able to film the looks on their faces.
The children start to pose as if they were used to this kind of thing; perfect naturals. Feet firmly planted on the ground, arms crossed (though whether it was to be in harmony with the universe or to keep the hungry mosquitoes at bay, I’m not really sure). A single shoot to share such incredible magic. I’m happy beyond belief. I was able to photograph the most remarkable people on earth.
Now I only have a single objective in mind: to preserve these films. I also have to protect them against my sworn enemies, airport customs officials. I have to fight to get these images across borders. I must not raise suspicion about the priceless treasure I’m carrying back.
I take advantage of my time here to further explore the Kogi’s luxuriant environment, in such contrast to their simple lifestyle. In addition to their spring-fed river, they also have a much larger river nearby, with water just as clear. It flows down the mountainside as a peaceful reflection of the people who live on its banks. I open my eyes below the surface and watch pastel refractions that dance together in perfect aesthetic harmony. The disappearance of the sun, which shines through the thick cover of vegetation during the day, plunges the region into abrupt darkness with the start of nightfall. Strange forms take shape in the shadows, spirits and spectres which trouble me much more than guerrillas.
The next day I have the opportunity to set up my “studio” again and take more pictures of the Kogi going about their daily business. I then make my way back down the mountain to the entrance of Tayrona Park. The area’s reputation for guerrilla activity has left the park deserted. I enjoy the most magnificent white sand beach imaginable, washed by a kaleidoscope sea of green, turquoise, azure. The water is as warm as the air and moving between the two is almost unnoticeable. Fish, jumping into the sky, seem to feel the same way too. I think of the first conquistadors and pirates who set foot in this virgin land. One of the most exotic national parks in the world. A marriage of beaches and snows, the past and the present, colour and light. An untouched beauty — but for how much longer still?
The natural world reverberates through this beach, caressed by breezes full of birdsong. The hues and perfumes of tropical flowers crown the glory of the scene. This natural beauty that was shaped by gods and coloured by celestial painters, is worthy of the greatest galleries of the world.
I take a plane to Bogotá, then another to Laetitia near the border with Brazil and Ecuador, in the heart of Amazonia. I meet up with my old friend and famous painter, Javier, who’s joined me in many adventures before. After two days of searching, we finally manage to find a boat that will take us deeper into the Amazon for a five-day expedition.
We leave the main Amazon River and go up a tributary. The intense summer heat has caused river levels to drop by as much as 15 meters in some places. We frequently have to get out of the boat and walk through this emerald universe towards our goal: the Guaya. What a shock when we finally arrive! People are wearing old, dirty clothes full of logos and slogans. Threadbare rags that make the Guaya look like beggars — a shocking contrast to the beauty of the surrounding. Giant fish swim nearby and pink dolphins paddle up to us unafraid. A wealth of medicinal plants and glossy leaves, exotic fruits, tigers, giant butterflies and birds, undiscovered kinds of fish that swim right into your hands; all of it proof of nature’s love orgy.
Some trees spread their enormous monster roots into the riverbanks, creating vaults and spaces that cradle us. These giants soar hundreds of feet into the sky, but are reduced to a pile of lumber in less than a day.
There are panthers, seen from afar, and giant cockroaches seen from much closer, freaking us out when they crawl through our pointless mosquito nets. We catch young crocodiles for fun, stunning them with lamplight and grabbing them from behind in order to look at their razor rows of teeth. Sharper teeth still are the piranhas that attack our hooks the instant the bait touches water. A fisherman stands next to us, harpoon at the ready, while an arapaima fish, sometimes weighing up to 300kg, ignores us, making a languid splash in the water nearby. No worry: we’ve already caught plenty today, just by reaching into the water teeming with more species than a fish farm.
If I’ve sang for joy on this trip, I’ve also cried with sorrow, with only jungle spiders as my comfort. I realise that not everything can happen the way we want it too. If we can learn something from the negative, we grow and develop. We come to understand that peace and happiness are what’s important in this life. I lost this battle: I lost the opportunity to photograph the Guaya. I didn’t want them to put on their traditional clothes, just for my benefit. I couldn’t try to fool myself that way. A chapter was coming to a close.
I make my way back to Paris and hold my first exhibition, in the Place des Victoires. I only have a single colour: the original one.
It’s been 38,000km, four planes, two jeeps, three donkeys, a boat, two pairs of shoes, 15,000 euros, hundreds of mosquito bites, a dozen time zones and… thousands of images to take my breath away.