Crumbling Ecosystem, Painful Memories Haunt Fishing Village

In his project “Dulce y Salada,” Jorge Panchoaga examines a fragile community in Colombia as their environment and culture is threatened

The village of Nueva Venecia floats deep within the arteries of the Magdalena River Estuary System in Colombia. The 400 families who live there in stilted houses share a deep connection with the water that surrounds them, depending on it for survival and sustenance even as it is being polluted and depleted by years of agricultural use dating back to the banana plantations of the 1900s. Today the main problem is untreated sewage from major cities. Many of the townspeople are unable to afford purified water which means drinking water from the river as is.

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Fishing canoes in Nueva Venecia come together to form a fishing corral, where fishermen launch their casting nets at the same time, a practice that is becoming less common.

Jorge Panchoaga first visited Nueva Venecia (which translates to “New Venice" in English) in 2010 as part of a study on Colombia’s cultural heritage. A photographer and an anthropologist, Panchoaga quickly discovered two fundamental influences on the collective psyche of this community. One was their deep-rooted connection to their environment and the inherent challenges posed by years of misuse beyond their control. The other was a painful memory of an incursion in 2000 by a Colombian paramilitary group that left between 35 and 40 fishermen dead.

Panchoaga was inspired to translate this experience, using the three states of water— liquid, solid, and gas—as a metaphor for memory in a body of work called "Dulce y Salada" —"Sweet and Salty" in English.

The liquid state, he says, “compares the liquid form of water in the river channel to the way social memory works … [the water] is constantly moving and changing, just like social memory.”

The gaseous is akin to “the stage of forgetting in the human world.” To do this he developed his 120 millimeter black-and-white film with water from various Colombian rivers to affect the image as it exists in a physical state.

Finally, Panchoaga froze objects of importance in blocks of ice and photographed them as a means to preserve the legacy of the villagers' experience. “Ice is the form in which the land remembers our presence,” he says.

Now is the time when Panchoaga feels all of the issues of the past, present, and future are coming to a head. “We believe that the whole ecosystem is in crisis,” he says. The problems with water now come down to their main source of food and income—fish. “If the pressure on and crisis in the marshlands continue, the townspeople in coming years will have nothing to fish and their life on the water will be jeopardized.”

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A fish is frozen in a block of ice. Panchoaga froze objects of value in ice as a way to illustrate the importance of preserving the culture in Nueva Venecia.

Jorge Panchoaga is a photographer based in Colombia. Follow him on Instagram. This interview was translated from Spanish.