Orlando diplomat-photographer uses unique access to capture sensitive portraits of Colombian life

Juan David Tena’s show hangs at the Mills Gallery through Sept. 30

click to enlarge "We Know Who We Are" hangs at Mills Gallery through Sept. 30. - photo by Juan David Tena
photo by Juan David Tena
"We Know Who We Are" hangs at Mills Gallery through Sept. 30.

Photographers are notorious for letting their lenses do the talking, but Juan David Tena is an exception to the rule. His communication skills led him to a post in the Colombian Consulate-General in Orlando, which allows him rare access to people and events in that Latin American country. What shines through his official side is his humanitarian quest for connection that brings us closer to Colombia’s Indigenous, European and African blend of people.

At the opening reception of his exhibit at the Mills Gallery, Tena provided a narrative for each of his pieces, which range from the majestic to the horrific. As the one-time official photographer to the Presidency, Tena documented President Santos’ 2016 visit to Queen Elizabeth II, capturing Colombia’s flags intermingled with Union Jacks framing a horse guard outside of Buckingham Palace. National pride on display makes an unforgettable memory.

It is Tena’s ability to capture sensitive portraits of individuals and scenes from Colombian village life which demonstrate that this country is anything but ordinary. “Arhuaco Water Teacher,” “Wisdom of the Amazon Chief” and “Vivid Paia Hidden in the Colorscape” are full-figure portraits of indigenous Colombian citizens. The power of these portraits pull one into a sacred and mysterious world far from our scientific North American society.

Tena’s documentation of village life has a bite to it. “I’d like to provide additional context,” Tena said in a post-show discussion. Images of people coping with natural disasters show their resilience and spirit, he said, but “this one photograph, ‘Whispers of the Pacific,’ I took in Istmina, Chocó,” a richly diverse village that was formerly a market for enslaved Africans. 

This photo shows the survivors of a massacre by a rogue militia, taken some time after the soldiers had slaughtered most of the villagers, decapitated several and played soccer with heads, laughing at the sport of it. Some bounced back — there are children laughing, some jostling on the bleachers — but these are betrayed by the numbness, paralysis and somber expressions of most of the sitters. For those who think that massacres and pogroms are a thing of the past: Think again.

Tena donates a portion of his proceeds to Poca Lana, a foundation that works with children in impoverished Bogotá. Tena’s show is up only briefly in the back of the gallery (through Sept. 30), and is worth a visit for anyone wanting to understand our greater world and connect with a not-so-distant land.

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