“If only you had asked”: How former child soldiers’ images are misrepresented by media


This year, Restless Development, along with War Child and Youth Business International, published the Case for Space From Rhetoric to Action research to understand the conditions needed for young people to participate in development. As the three-day Case for Space conference kicks off next week in Bangkok, we are publishing blogs from the young people behind the research. In our second blog of the series,  Nathalia Salamanca focuses on the Colombian peace agreement negotiations in June earlier this year as a moment when she reflected on the misrepresentation of former child soldiers by the media.

Thursday, 23rd June 2016: the Colombian Government and the guerrilla group FARC signed in La Habana (Cuba) a historical agreement to cease fire in a long lasting armed confrontation that lasted 52 years. In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, celebrations were in order (at least for a fair amount of citizens that gathered in the city centre to watch the streaming of the historical moment in a big screen). I, ironically, had to watch it on my computer, and alone, 5000 miles away.

As videos and messages from family and friends arrived, they showed me how emotions flooded and among hugs, and cries of excitement and tears, several photographers captured images that later on would be published by national and international media outlets.

One of those images caught my attention: it showed a young woman crying heavily, while the footnote said something along the lines of: “This woman can’t control her emotions out of excitement because of the historical agreement.”

I know that woman. I met her almost a decade ago in Colombia, when I was working with a national platform of NGOs, and we remain close. When I saw her picture, I was moved. Moved because I couldn’t even begin to think how she would take or understand this massive step in the peace process. Why? Because she was a member of that guerilla group for 12 years. She is now almost 30 years old, but was only recovered by the army when she was 16.

So this was the face I encountered in an online outlet the morning after the historical statement. For the photographers, she was just a woman in the street. Her anonymity was perfect, as she has been a regular citizen for more than ten years now. Nevertheless, her emotions went way back, and those who took pictures of her had no idea because they did not stop and they did not ask.

I talked to her that day. At first, she was ‘moved’ by the moment. Memories flooded her mind: her family, friends who did not make it until this point and would have certainly loved to have the opportunity to negotiate a peace agreement after decades of fighting. Nevertheless, she was also, she said, “kind of upset because of the pictures”. She felt that the moment was taken away from her, and manipulated by the media, as an attempt to sell more papers, get more clicks, call people’s attention. She wanted, she told me, to “own that moment”, to own that picture, to be in control of her image that day.

I waited for some days for her to make her personal statement about it, and it came not in a written form but in a graphic one. A couple of days later she started to share her account of what happened that day with pictures of her smiling, sharing a public space with others, celebrating. Her authorised memory was of happiness, not sadness or uncontrollably crying. That was how she owned that moment.

nathaliaThat particular example speaks loud and clear to me about misrepresentation. On one hand, others’ interpretations of people’s emotions might share a valid account of events, but might be in danger of (as in this case) “misrepresenting the real story behind those emotions”. And, on the other hand, it reminded me how some people who have been directly involved in the Colombian armed conflict, such as former child soldiers, are tired and exhausted of being portrayed as suffering individuals and victims. For the photographer, that was certainly a great picture. For the woman being photographed, nonetheless, it was a misreading of how she wanted to remember that moment. And nobody took a moment to just stop and ask her about it.

Note: This blog piece was written months before the referendum (October, 2nd) when Colombians voted no to the first peace deal reached by the Government and the FARC, and also a second revised version of the deal were presented to the Colombian people (November, 12th). At the moment of publication, Colombians are still waiting for a defining way to implement the new agreements that will allow the oldest guerrilla group in the world to demobilise.

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“If only you had asked”: How former child soldiers’ images are misrepresented by media

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min