Winner of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award 2017

A former FARC fighter holding her baby-boom child, shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Catalina Martin-Chico.

Catalina Martin-Chico has won 2017’s Canon Female Photojournalist Award at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France.

Martin-Chico’s winning project proposal focuses on female former-members of FARC, a left-wing Colombian militant group that officially disarmed in June this year following a historic ceasefire agreement with the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, in 2016.

It’s ninth time lucky for the French-Spanish photographer, who predominantly shoots in the Middle East for titles including Le Monde, Le Figaro and The New York Times.

This award gives me the strength and faith to go forward.

The annual award, supported by Elle magazine, is given to “an outstanding female photographer in recognition of her contribution to photojournalism”. It comes with an €8,000 grant to support the development of a new series to go on show at next year’s Visa pour l’Image festival of photojournalism.

A former FARC fighter holds two children. Canon Female Photojournalist Award 2017 winner Catalina Martin-Chico spent a fortnight in three FARC camps documenting the baby boom.

Throughout its 53-year war, FARC banned women fighters from having children, so those who became pregnant had abortions or sent their babies to be raised by family. “In the best case scenario, they would give the child to their mother or grandmother to look after. But for the duration of their pregnancy, they would still be walking in the mountains for ten hours a day, with heavy bags,” Martin-Chico explains.

However, since the peace deal was announced, there has been a baby boom, with some 300 ex-members of FARC becoming pregnant. Reading about this phenomenon in El Pais, Martin-Chico decided to travel to Columbia to see for herself. “In France, Colombia isn’t covered that much in the press. I wanted to talk about this transition because it’s the last guerilla army of South America, and the one that ran for the longest time,” she explains. In May 2017 she spent a fortnight in three FARC camps across Columbia. 

Many of the fighters she encountered – both male and female – had joined up as young teenagers, so had little experience of the world outside the guerilla camps. The story of Hido is typical, as Martin-Chico discovered. “When he was a kid, his mother and three of his siblings drowned in a river near their house, so he and his sister joined FARC. Since then, he moved every two or three days and they lived with no cellphone and no pets, so that they couldn’t be tracked. In the camp they would build trenches around their tents so they could jump in and hide if they were bombed. On one occasion he jumped into a trench with his girlfriend, but she was hit and subsequently died. He had to run away and find another camp.”

One of around 300 ex-members of FARC who have become pregnant since the peace deal. Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens by Catalina Martin-Chico.

For Martin-Chico, the focus on motherhood provides a prism through which to understand the rebirth of Columbia. When she returns later this year, she plans to follow the women she met on her first trip as they adjust to a new beginning, both personally and societally. “We’re still in touch on Whatsapp, and as soon as the women give birth they send me pictures,” says Martin-Chico. “I hope to be there when the women are in labour, and will try to understand what their lives will be like after peace.”

I like to stay a long time and get as close as possible to people.

Working with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, she takes an immersive approach. “I like to stay a long time and get as close as possible to people. On the first trip I stayed with one woman in her tent, even sleeping in her bed – I lived with her 24/7 to try to capture intimacy.” In this story, as she often finds when photographing women in the Middle East, being female is an asset. “Women will talk to me about their pregnancy fears or about their boyfriends who died in the guerilla war.” 

The award is vital in continuing with the project. “The photojournalism market is precarious,” she says. “This award gives me the strength and faith to go forward. It’s increasingly difficult to be a photojournalist if you don’t have another income. We need this kind of recognition: firstly, it’s a psychological motivation and secondly, it’s a crucial grant. A magazine might give you money to produce a story in five days, but this story can’t be told in five days. It’s hard to work a story deeply. I persevered with entering, hoping to win this award one day. I’m very happy, and very grateful.”

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton