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Juan Arredondo, photographer injured in Ukraine: "I said to myself: now, I'll die here, I can't do anything"


The Colombian-American was shot in March along with his colleague Brent Renaud, who died. In this story for EL PAÍS, he recounts what happened that day and his journey to the epicenter of the war

Our idea was never to look for the line of fire.

It was never fetching bombing.

Documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud and I had worked together on several documentaries, and in March of this year we were working on one for

Time Studios

on migration: we had gone to Greece, to Central America, we wanted to go to the Horn of Africa, and when the war started in Ukraine we decided to go to cover the crisis there.

I had always wanted to cover an international conflict and Brent had more experience than me: he had already been in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia.

That gave me peace of mind and, furthermore, ours was to tell the story of the refugees.

We wore bulletproof vests, we wore helmets, we sought refuge in a hotel when the alarms sounded.

It never crossed my mind that something could happen to us.

First we arrived in Poland, at the border, and we began to see a huge number of people trying to cross.

Then we entered through Lviv, in the Ukraine, where we began to see many people helping each other: we met a couple who had a cafe in a basement and they adapted it to use as a shelter;

then we went to an old theater, which was also converted into a hostel;

we saw very long lines of people to get on a train and leave the country.

We went through small towns, without a blog, always seeking to document the path of the refugees.

A man searches for his belongings in his former neighborhood in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

Shelter at the metro station in Lviv, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

A shelter set up at a community center in Vinnytsia, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

Old sports court in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

The neighbors return to their destroyed houses to look for belongings.

Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

Refugee women weave nets to be used as camouflage in shelters in Lviv, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

Hundreds of survivors descend the bridge seeking refuge in Lviv, Ukraine.

2022Juan Arredondo

We passed through kyiv, the capital, which is a transit city for refugees, and there they told us to go to a place on the outskirts, to Irpin, because people evacuated from other places were arriving there.

They were the images that we were missing.

We wanted to get to the genesis of all this and follow a family that made its way out of the country.

We went to Irpin on foot, because the bridge from kyiv had been bombed.

There they told us to go to another bridge, where the refugees from Bucha and the north arrived.

We passed checkpoints, but the translator who accompanied us said that he did not feel capable of continuing, that he was very scared.

At that time, much more shelling was already heard than in kyiv, sometimes the earth vibrated.

We began to walk and a man, who spoke a little English, told us that he could take us to the bridge in his car.

It was all very strange, he was driving fast and we passed a checkpoint on the road: there were some barricades for cars to slow down, but the checkpoint was empty.

I was there looking out the left window and I saw that something moved.

There was a trench, I saw two soldiers, and one of them raised the AK-47.

That's when I yelled: they're going to shoot us!'

I threw myself on the floor of the car and a flurry of shots began.

The driver makes a U, goes through the checkpoint again, and we were literal cannon fodder.

It was a deluge of bullets, from side to side, it sounded like one was throwing stones at a can.

But it was bullets in the car and the windows breaking.

I said to myself: 'Now, here I died, I can't do anything'.

I accepted it.

It was strange, I had never had that helplessness to say that: 'I died and I can't do anything'.

But I accepted it and said: 'I hope this doesn't hurt me, I hope this news won't devastate my mom.'

And at that moment I feel the shot…in the buttock.

There I yelled,

I got shot!

But no one answered me.

When I get up I see that Brent is bent over in the passenger seat and he has a hole in his neck with a lot of blood coming out of it.

I put my finger in the wound trying to stop the bleeding, and there I feel that he was already dying.

I see that he is babbling some things but I don't understand him, and I look at the driver who stopped his car and is trying to stop another car.

We managed to get Brent out but he was already dead.

John Arredondo.

Visa pour l'image

I thought about the cameras when they put me in that other car, and there I begin to feel the cold, I begin to pass out.

But something very curious happened: I think I survived out of shame.

Because there I said to myself: 'I can't be

Forrest Gump

, I can't die with a shot in the ass'.

I can't be that


that people say: 'Do you remember Juan Arredondo?

The one who died from a shot in the ass.

I said no, what a whore no, that you have to stay alive.

I eventually passed out.

They put me on a stretcher, they took me to an ambulance, and there I asked if they are with Brent and if they took the cameras.

No one answers me, in English.

A girl sat next to me, she took my hand, but she didn't understand what I was saying.

At the hospital in kyiv I was operated on by a doctor — from Doctors Without Borders — who turned out to be a world specialist in gunshot wounds and had gone there to train others in this type of emergency.

He explains to me what happened to me: the bullet entered the left buttock, pierced the rectum, and embedded itself in the right thigh.

I had a colostomy—where my colon is disconnected—and two more surgeries.

I found out about Brent's death after the first operation.

Faced with that news, to this day, I kind of feel nothing.

I feel like



It has not given me sadness, it has not given me joy, I have not cried.

The doctors explain to me that it's normal because the body is saying like: 'You have to survive, so you have to turn off all those other things so that you can recover.'

But I know it's sad, because someone who did his job very well died, a friend with whom we understood each other very well.

I feel lucky to have had him as a mentor.

It's still hard for me to believe that I'm not going to call him again, I'm not going to hear from him again, it's hard for me to accept that.

I think I haven't done the duel well yet.

Then I had to leave the hospital, because there was going to be a bombing.

The doctors took me on a stretcher to a train, where we had a 12-hour journey to leave the country.

I remember that trip a lot, because that trip was exactly the story that Brent and I wanted to tell: being on the train, watching the women say goodbye to their husbands, their cousins, their uncles, their children, crying.

It was very moving to see all those women say goodbye and that midnight train that takes them to who knows where.

I was sedated and at one point the women began to sing to us.

We started crying, I started crying, like I didn't understand where all this emotion was coming from, all these feelings.

It was a moment of solidarity, the one I wanted to document.

People wanted to help us because we had nowhere to hang the serum and some women even stopped at times to hold it.

Some wondered: 'And who is that man?'

but then they came and told me in Ukrainian: 'Thank you for being in my country, thank you for his work'.

The only thing I wanted was to record, but at that moment I had to stop being a photographer and just be there, in the moment.

But that moment was like the validation of what I do: being able to be in the midst of people and being a witness, being able to witness.

That's why I turned to photography.

rewind the camera

Before becoming a photographer, I worked for almost seven years as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company in the United States.

I'm an organic chemist, and I started photography late.

At first I was like


: I worked at the pharmacy during the day, and at night and on weekends I took photos.

With any luck, I started running them in the

New York Times

, in the Metro section, covering New York and New Jersey.

Until one day I decided to quit the pharmaceutical company because I said to myself: 'Bitch, are you really going to do this for the next 30 or 40 years of your life?'

No, no, well no'.

Colombia was my first laboratory to start making my portfolio.

Colombia is a patchwork quilt that has it all: displacement, conflict, and many social issues.

My first story was about internal displacement and I had a huge crash because, influenced by my upbringing here in the United States, I had the UNHCR tents in southern Sudan in mind when I thought about displacement.

But in Colombia there are no tents or anything like that, what there is is a drop-by-drop movement to the outskirts of the cities.

How do I photograph that?

Gladys Moncada with her two daughters and her mother Xiomara Álvarez making a four-hour boat trip to their town of Tangui.

Gladys and the residents of the Tangui village were forced to flee their homes after the FARC raided the village killing three community leaders and kidnapping four others in 2007.Juan Arredondo

Members of the FARC's 59th front watch television in their camp in La Guajira.

Watching television for only two hours a day has been one of the new activities to which the members of the FARC are exposed in their transition to demobilization.

John Arredondo

Covid-19 in Colombian La Guajira in May 2021Juan Arredondo

A group of children pull makeshift cars made from plastic bottles of motor oil in the port of Bojayá.

The town was rebuilt in 2010 after it was besieged by clashes between the FARC's 36th Front and paramilitaries in 2002, in which 119 people were killed, including 12 children.

Bella Vista, Colombia.Juan Arredondo

A father holds a coffin with the remains of his son killed by the FARC's 46th front, accused of helping the Colombian Army and deserting the group.

The indigenous community of Tortugaña Telembi.Juan Arredondo

Former FARC combatant Esperanza Medina holds her seven-month-old daughter, Desiree Paz, in the transition and normalization zone of Pondores, La Guajira, Colombia.Juan Arredondo

Members of the FARC soccer team share strategies before the next game against the 94th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces.

John Arredondo

Members of the 17th and 51st fronts of the FARC perform military gymnastics every morning for the main gym.Juan Arredondo

A mother with her daughters at breakfast in Colombia.

John Arredondo

If I have brought something from chemistry to photography, it is to solve problems visually.

Whenever I walk into a job I think like a scientist.

In the case of displacement, I went to live with a community from Tangui, near Quibdó, that displaced as a form of resistance: they had killed four leaders, and about 400 people had gone to live in a school in Quibdó.

My way of photographing is very immersive, very long-term, so I asked them to lend me a mat and let me sleep with them.

That was nice because in the end I ended up being part of the community and I began to feel that the photos told a story and that they were not distant photos: I was able to document Christmas and New Year with them, their decision-making, their goodbyes and their return to home.

When they decided to return, I was in a


with the community, and other journalists were in another.

They were portraying migration, but I was at the center of it.

Then I started doing other projects, like the sad neighborhood, which I dedicated two years to.

I first met with Fátima, a woman who moved to Medellín because the paramilitaries asked her and her husband to be part of the group.

And they said no.

The paramilitaries murdered her husband, in front of the family, and she is displaced with her three children.

Barrio Triste is a crazy place.

It is in the center of Medellin and has many hotels where you pay daily, and Fatima was in one called

The Traveler's Rest


It was the only one that allowed children, and in fact a child was kidnapped there, it is not known if it was for sex or organ trafficking (she found him later).

Each hotel in Barrio Triste was like a little piece of Colombia: there was a section for Afros, indigenous people, single mothers, there were stories in each room.

And the neighborhood has a very typical paisa expression of the landscape, that place where you're a fan of Nacional or a fan of Medellín.

It has microtrafficking, prostitution, displaced people, families that lived on the streets, it was a microcity.

They call the place Barrio Triste but in reality it is called the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and there is a photo that is very popular, which is the Sacred Heart walking: a man carrying the picture of Jesus.

And the Sacred Heart appeared in warehouses, in people's houses.

And I kept playing a lot with the religious.

I really like the photo of Sol, a prostitute with a client, who had the Virgin of Veracruz tattooed on her back, who is the patron saint of prostitutes in Medellin.

She had to talk to many clients until one agreed, and that photo tells me about many things, like... who shoots with stockings?

And the toilet paper next to it and the blanket.

It is not a tender moment, but it is delicate.

I am very fond of that photo because it is also a point that I have wanted to reach with photography: that they forget about me.

I think there are two types of photographers: ones where the photos are about the photographer, and ones where the photos are about their subject.

I try not to attract attention, I want people to feel in a moment without feeling a camera.

Another of the projects I did came about because I was hired to make a profile of a delegate from the International Red Cross, and we went to an ELN camp and I saw that there were a lot of children.

We child soldiers always associate it with Africa, Asia, but we also have many child soldiers: there was a report that estimated that there were around 15,000.

The commander of that front allowed me to go in to photograph the children, and that was two or three years of only photographing child combatants.

Then someone opened the door for me to a rehabilitation center for children, especially Afro and indigenous children, children that no one wanted to receive.

Many of them had been kidnapped at a very young age and did not even remember where they came from.

I don't really like photos of photos, but in that project there is one of a lady holding a photo of her son because she told me that was the last time she had seen him.

Well, it turns out that later I was at the reunion of the mother with the son, because he was in that rehabilitation center.

The lady remembered me, we hugged, we cried.

I get very involved with my subjects.

Now I am the godfather of one of the children of one of the ex-combatant girls.

I get very involved in the story because they are stories that move me.

If you visit someone for two years, how can you not be his friend?

I never understood that story of objectivity, it seems absurd to me.

Then in 2016, with the peace process with the FARC, I did another project, which lasted almost 5 years, on the history of the Caribbean Bloc.

There was a case of hope: a guerrilla, whose history I documented, from her pregnancy until last year, that her child is about six years old, which leads the peace process.

Javier and his daughter Celeste with his partner Melida Ortiz Melida was recruited at the age of nine by the FARC and later became the personal assistant and lover of 'Rumaña' -a high-ranking commander of the FARC-.

Javier's brother died in combat. Juan Arredondo

I don't know why, but mothers are always very present in my projects.

I think it's a tribute to my mom, who was a single mother because my dad was killed by a hit man when I was 3 or 4 years old.

My mom did everything to support me and my grandmother, and for that I have a lot of respect for mothers.

I have another project called

La Madre

, which is portraying a transvestite woman.

When people from other cities arrived in Medellín, LGBT, who did not know how to be trans, or how to enter prostitution, she welcomed them.

She taught them how to dress, how to put on makeup, how to put on a show, or how to prostitute themselves “the right way”.

Her name is Diana, and she was in all the drag and trans contests in Medellin, because she puts on an impressive show, she is stunning.

What if after what happened in Ukraine I want to continue photographing?

Yes, because this has not changed the way I see my work.

I feel that they deprived me of what I started, I was already picking up the pace, I was already understanding the story there, I was already in trouble.

But I can't, I'm still limping, it seems that there was damage to the sciatic nerve in my left leg that gives me some

really bad jolts

, and I still have internal wounds in the colon that haven't healed.

So now I have to do mundane things: I'm taking care of my bonsai.

And I think a lot, I just think: if this had not happened, what would I be doing?

Interview and edition of

Camila Osorio.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2022-05-23

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