Comuna 13: From Violence to New Horizons

Exploring the Infamous Neighborhood in Colombian Medellín

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Behind the settlement are the slopes of heavily forested mountains where the guerilla hid — home of countless nameless graves dug by the paramilitaries. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

Colombia — a country that I’ve been fantasizing about visiting for the past two decades.

Descending after a torrential downpour. Shot on Kodak Portra 400 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

When the time finally arrived, the decision had to be made on which cameras and lenses to bring. In a mood to capture the essence of the place in an emotional way rather than just pleasing pictures, I decided to bring my 1979 Minolta XD-7 together with the Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 lens which made a great combo for street scenes. The focal length of 50mm is both challenging and rewarding with its slightly restricted field of view.

Shooting with Kodak Ektar 100 film helped enhance the prevalent brick-red and reddish-brown hues, which provide a striking contrast to the painted saturated green tones of the murals.

After finally arriving in Medellín, Comuna 13 was a must-see destination.


At the beginning of the 2000s, the infamous neighbourhood was like the last village in Goszinny’s and Uderzo’s Gaul, the last point of resistance for the Guerrilla fighters against the president Uribe’s paramilitaries. The conflict escalated and ended with Operación Orión, a bloody and brutal invasion of Comuna 13, where more than 2,000 military troops, together with helicopter support, entered the neighbourhood and started indiscriminate killing until the steep streets were slick with blood. The bodies are said to have been buried in nameless graves in the mountains behind the Comuna.

If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children.

– Confucius.

Hope through Education. A community mural with stark colours and a strong message. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

Education or the quest for learning is the single most important building block of a thriving community. Transformation can only be realized by increasing knowledge and wisdom throughout all strata of society. Lack of knowledge — ignorance — leads to conflict and, ultimately, violence; this is why the “virtue” of ignorance is propagated by both totalitarian and anarchistic bodies of rulership.

The main topics of the murals are past and future, hope and forgiveness. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.
A nondescript scene in rural Colombia. Shot on Kodak Portra 400 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

The people of Medellín have realized that through bitter experience. Hope is a prevailing topic in the murals which adorn the brick and mortar walls of the Comuna. The colour green dominates the visuals, symbolizing peace and equanimity.

My local guide told me haunting stories about how she was forced to flee from her village when she was a child, from random violence and vicious murder. Life in the big city seemed preferable then. At least there was some sense of mutual protection, if only through syndicate control.

What was not to be found was happiness and freedom. The tight confines of the Comuna do not allow for any amount of privacy. A love story unfolding? Only with the utmost care and secrecy. Pursuits of individuality? Not welcome. Expression of opinion? Dangerous. But life needs to be lived, so the freshly baked city dwellers made the best out of it.


Local rap gang performing under a corrugated iron canopy during a mighty thunderstorm. Shot on Kodak Portra 400 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

Using the fully manual focusing of a camera like Minolta XD-7 can feel daunting. Still, the process of adjusting the distance by hand sharpens the feel for the scale. Especially for street photography, where short reaction times are required to capture moving subjects.

While shooting with open apertures during low light conditions, which has happened to me plenty during this trip, the focal plane narrows dramatically, making it a real challenge to deliver focus. A strategy I used is to take a peek at the lens markings and preset the lens ring to the value at which you’d expect your subject to be the moment you press the shutter.

Waiting in the rain – the flight of the Escalators. Shot on Kodak Portra 400 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

In Colombia, when it is raining, it is raining hard.

Downtown Medellín engulfed in heavy rain clouds. Shot on Kodak Ektar 100 with Minolta XD-7 and MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4.

On my way to Comuna 13, the skies suddenly darkened; within minutes, heavy rain began to fall, drumming incessantly on the corrugated iron makeshift roof under which I was taking shelter. In the mere hour, an astonishing six litres for every square meter descended, flowing in torrential streams down the steep alleyways. This is a different weather, a different life from what I’m used to.

Not everything is rosy in Comuna 13. Still, matters are improving, which will hopefully continue to progress upwards for the next hundred years.