A vaquero, or cowboy, participating in a cattle roundup in Colombia’s LlanosOrientales, the vast grasslands spreading East of the Andes Mountains.
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There is a saying in Colombia, which is that good things can come from bad ones. It’s often true. And It’s happened to me.
By 1985, living in Colombia, my wife’s country, as a freelance documentary photographer and writer, I had seen my income shrink worryingly. So much so that I considered emigrating back to the United States, where I had lived previously for 12 years. But I found it hard to throw the towel. Instead I self-published a photo book on the region I lived in, the Cauca Valley, and it was an instant best-seller. At least by Colombian standards. This pushed me to self-publish eight more books on Colombia, one a year, all of which sold well.
In 1995, as I was ready to go to press with a new photo book, on Ecuador this time, that country got involved in a war with Peru, its economy collapsed, and book sales ended overnight, leaving me with material that had cost me dearly and would never see publication. Coincidentally, Colombia was going through financial and insecurity hell. And book stores there stopped paying me for the few books they were still selling.
Not only that, but kidnapping for ransom had become a very real threat, for myself and for my family, and many Colombians left the country for safer ones. I could no longer travel safely around Colombia. Worst of all, the color slides I mailed to American publishers in response to requests had stopped getting back to me and I was losing hundreds of my best pictures.
The reason was that the drug mafia had started using registered mail to send huge amounts of hundred dollar bills back from the U.S. Registered mail had been the way my color slides had traveled between Colombia, the U.S., and the world. After some post office employees discovered dollars in the mail, the word went around and registered mail from the U.S. stopped being delivered. It was opened at the post offices and then thrown away—without the dollars but with my color slides.
Even if that had not happened, something else had started making my work impossible in Colombia. The last few packages that had still been returned to me came back with most of the color slides perforated. Attempting to stop the flow of cocaine, American or Colombian authorities must have passed needles through the packages to check if any white powder would stream out.
Emigration was again on the table, and this time it was impossible to avoid, even though my wife, Martha, and our two teenage sons rebelled against the idea of abandoning what had been an idyllic life. I hated the idea too, for I had been very happy there myself. And I had already lived in several countries—Belgium, where I was born and raised; Germany; the former Belgian Congo, Canada, and the U.S. But our sons, 18 and 19, spent their weekends out late at night when streets were most dangerous. If anything happened to them I would have to blame myself for it. I could not stand the thought of it. Anyway, how would I maintain our way of life without an income?
Once again, however, everything turned better after arriving in the U.S.. Jean-Pierre and Philippe went to university in Philadelphia and ended up with jobs and incomes they could not have dreamed of, had they graduated in Colombia. And I got back in business, traveling the world again, not just Latin America. Poor Martha was the great loser. She lost her domestic help and her many friends. But like our sons, and for the sake of them, she ended up accepting the wisdom of our move.