From Deep Politics to Deep Photography. James Mollison latest offering is Pablo Escobar, a multi-faceted view of the life of Pablo Escobar. It's a great book with an engaging text and has some fabulous images from a variety of archives, including this one of Escobar with his wife. Here's a piece I did for the lovely folk at the BJP.
A Myth in His Own Making
by Colin Pantall
“As a child, he loved nature and animals,” says Dona Hermilda, the mother of Columbian drug dealer, Pablo Escobar. “He loved trees from a very early age. He nearly cried when his father had to chop them down.”
Pablo Escobar was not so sensitive when it came to people. His rise from small-time gangster to the world’s biggest drug dealer was accompanied by a level of violence that brought Colombia to a state verging on civil war. He was responsible for killing half the nation’s Supreme Court and blowing an airliner out of the sky, he murdered politicians, journalists and police at will and transformed his home town of Medellin into the world’s most dangerous city. In 1991, he walked out of a prison he had built for himself and spent the next 2 years on the run. He escaped over 14,000 police raids before his death in 1993, shot by Colombian police on the rooftop of a safe house in Medellin.
James Mollison’s latest work, Pablo Escobar, is a visual examination of the life and times of Escobar. Tying in images from a variety of archives with a text, the book provides a visual overview of a man who was once America’s Public Enemy Number One.
“I was in Colombia and I was doing this Narcotecture project,” says Mollison. “I got excited about it because of the idea and name. People would tell me about buildings made from drug money which had swimming pools instead of balconies, but then I got there and there would be nothing interesting to photograph. The buildings were boring.”
“I was depressed about it, but I was photographing in Medellin and was in the process of going to an old Escobar office block called Edifacio Monaco - which only confirmed that the project didn’t work. The building was occupied by Columbia’s public prosecution service, I was apprehended by security and had my camera confiscated. I was taken to meet the boss whose office was in Escobar’s old bedroom. He was so excited by this and brought out this whole book of photographs. Seeing this record really threw me because other books on Pablo Escobar have a US perspective but the images I saw were gritty and not glamorous. I wanted to know how Escobar had got into this position.”
Mollison returned to Columbia 6 months later and set about searching for visual records of Escobar’s life, not an easy task considering many pictures had disappeared or been destroyed - Escobar paid the police to destroy their files and the mass media were not much help either. Most journalists who were brave enough to tell the truth about Escobar were killed. Escobar closed down Colombia’s second biggest daily, El Espectador, by killing its editor, bombing its offices and forcing advertisers to withdraw their patronage. However, the bravery of El Espectador’s journalists shows in the archive they held on the activities of Escobar and his associates.
The El Espectador archive forms the heart of Mollison’s book, its black and white images detailing the height of Escobar’s sociopathic terror against Colombian society.
“One thing I came to understand was Pablo was obsessed with power,” says Mollison. “He was a classic gangster. He wasn’t really a drug smuggler, but he was born in the right place at the right time and there was an opportunity for him to do what he did.”
Images show the rise of Colombia’s cocaine industry in the early 1980s, a time when Escobar’s exports to the United States were earning him tens of millions of dollars a month. In 1982, Escobar’s obsession with power caused him to make the mistake that would ultimately lead to his downfall - he entered Colombian politics. Disturbed by the open influence of drug money on Colombian society, government minister Lara Bonilla attacked Escobar in congress. “The violence started at that time,” says Colombian congressman, Alberto Villamizar. “Lara Bonilla was fighting them and they killed him and until Escobar was dead it was just a war.”
The El Espectador archive shows this war - the bombs, the killings, the mayhem and the continuing fight to extradite drug dealers to the United States. Police archives show the slow victory of the authorities - one shocking image shows the corpse of Gacha, a kingpin in the Medellin Cartel, his skull blown off, one eye staring to the heavens above. Other images show the victims of the death squads who operated against Escobar and his supporters, while colour pictures of Escobar’s death in 1993 come from the personal album of Hugo Martinez, the police officer who hunted him down.
“Escobar’s story is surrounded by so much myth,” says Mollison, “so we decided to let the people speak and tell their own story.”
So we see pictures of his rise to power in the late 70s, informal snaps taken by his personal photographer, El Chino, and Mollison’s own pictures of the landscapes and people who survived Escobar’s war on Colombia.
These images provide a different perspective on Escobar and together with the interviews with those close to him - his family, his minders, his hit men - they provided a more three-dimensional view of a man who was mythologized to a point where he was America’s Top International Bogeyman - a position since occupied by Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
Most interesting are El Chino’s photographs. These show Escobar the family man. One series of images shows him at his daughter’s 12th birthday party, just after Escobar had become number one on the FBI’s most wanted list. He’s on the run, but we see him dancing and drinking and presenting his daughter with a white horse. The final image shows him sitting deep in thought, a bizarre cocktail of dry ice and cordial foaming in front of him. “That is my favourite photograph of him,” says El Chino, “because in the middle of the party he is left thinking and that is him... He was not a happy man.”
We see Escobar’s country retreat, Hacienda Napoles, resplendent with its own private zoo, and the prison Escobar built for himself (and walked out of) as part of a surrender deal to avoid extradition. Rough colour shots show the sex toys found in the prison and the football pitch where Columbia’s most successful team played Escobar’s prison side. Escobar’s side won.
Mollison’s provides the images for the aftermath of Escobar’s life. There are interiors of homes built by Escobar for the poor of Medellin - their ramshackle but immaculate interiors decorated by images of Jesus, Mary and Pablo Escobar. A portrait of Escobar’s mother shows eyes that perhaps saw, heard and spoke more evil than she would have us believe, while a searing portrait of Popeye, one of Escobar’s most trusted lieutenants, shows a face that seems almost incapable of showing any remorse or pity or pain.
The artwork of German Arrubla recreates Escobar as a kitsch Jesus/Che figure, complete with camouflage robes and a bleeding heart, while the personal album of US DEA agent, Javier Pena, shows Pena ( a Borat-lookalike with crimpy hair and big tash) posing with the guns, gold and drugs seized by the police on raids on the Medellin Cartel’s properties.
Mollison was only able to research Escobar because he has become a mythic figure. “He’s become someone you can talk about because he’s the bad guy,” says Mollison. “If I had asked about the people controlling the drug trade today, that would have been different. The new guys have learnt from Escobar not to be so flamboyant, to be more low key. In Escobar’s time, if somebody got killed they would be dumped on the street. Now they get buried instead, but it’s not that different.”
Mollison’s Pablo Escobar is both a simple and a complex character. Simple, because he was essentially a gangster, complex because his violence was on such a grand, almost legendary, scale. Mollison’s text draws a picture of Escobar that acts as a primer on the politics of the drugs trade and how money, power and law influence each other both domestically and internationally. Mollison doesn’t make any solid conclusions about anything. Instead, he poses questions that remain unanswered, and lie awake in one’s mind long after one has read the engaging and accessible text. The effect is compounded by the images ( and the wide range of sources they come from) that contradict and undermine each other and add to the idea of Pablo Escobar as a myth in his own, and many other people’s making.
“He was just like any other bandit,” says Hugo Martinez, the police chief ultimately responsible for Escobar’s death. “I have always put a lot of the blame on the gringos - the agencies, the press that built him up on the world stage as a Mafioso who was very important... They fanned the flames. He thought that he was very important and started believing that he had the right to kill presidential candidates - to do anything he wanted.”