Erika Diettes: A Poet of Grief and Humanity

© Erika Diettes ‘Sudarios’ (Shrouds) installed in Templo El Señor de las Misericordias, Medellin, Colombia

I have chosen to represent not the details of the violent acts, but instead to focus on the grief of the survivors.


Grief is a vast aching secret. Like an ocean in thrall to the moon, it moves inside the individual with a profound gravity. Squalls of emotion my stir the surface from time to time, but they cannot speak of the magnitude of what yearns silently beneath.

Photography is an art of surfaces. To capture some sense of another’s grief is difficult indeed; to attempt to communicate it collectively is near impossible. The photographic installations of the Colombia artist Erika Diettes attempt this near-impossible… They succeed because she understands that true human connection is a matter of fellow feeling not pity.

In this interview we discuss four bodies of work which variously explore the emotional residue of trauma; the memory of cruelty, torture and violence almost beyond endurance. The first series pays tribute to the survivors of the Holocaust of World War II, when six million Jewish people in Europe were exterminated under the Nazi regime in the German Reich and German-occupied territories. The other three series bear witness to, and preserve the testimonies of, the relatives of those Colombians who were murdered during the on-going conflicts between drug traffickers, guerrillas, terrorists and the government armed forces.

Her most widely exhibited series, ‘Sudarios’ (shrouds), consists of portraits of twenty women made during interviews with a psychological counsellor. Each woman is recounting the story of being tortured during the conflict. As part of their ordeal, they were forced to witness the mutilation and murder of a loved one… father, mother, husband, son…

Erika Diettes noticed that during these interviews there came a moment when the narrator pulled back, often closing her eyes, as if holding a memory inside, keeping the loved one close and, perhaps, shielding the listener from the full force of her reality. It marked the moment in their story when everything changed and life would never again be as it once was. Like the climax of a tragic drama, a tipping point was crossed where the future is set and there can be no return. It is these expressive gestures that are preserved in the portraits, as the narrator leaves the present conversation to immerse in her private elegiac ocean.

It is difficult to be moved by abject horror. Our mind recoils, emotions numb. A protective reflex blocks the full impact of such knowledge and leaves only gruesome disconnected spectacle. Erika Diettes avoids this cognitive defence mechanism by focusing not on confrontation but on the emotional echo of empathy. She draws a veil across these chronicles of depravity, degradation and death to focus instead on the inward grief of the living; to understand the profundity of these events not in the horror of their execution but in the depth of their consequence.

Alasdair Foster

© Erika Diettes ‘Raquel Guedalovich’ from the series ‘Silencios’ (Silences)


Alasdair: How did you begin as a photographer?

Erika: When I was 15 years old my family moved to Washington, DC, where my father was the police attaché at the Colombian Embassy. I didn’t understand any English; suddenly words were no good to me anymore.

At school they placed me in ‘ESL’ [English as a Second Language] and other classes where language wasn’t so important. I ended up studying art, ceramics, theatre, photography. It was like a semester at art school and it was one of the brightest moments in my life because I discovered the camera. I am sure I learned English fast just because I wanted to understand photography!

Tell me about your early series ‘Silencios’ (Silences).

I had recently married and my husband, Joseph Kaplan, is Jewish. His grandmother and her family fled Germany in 1936. When she died in 2004 and we were clearing out her things, I found a photograph of her and her family boarding the boat to leave Germany for Colombia. This came as a surprise to me because the Jewish community in Colombia is small and, outside that community, people aren’t aware that there are Holocaust survivors in their midst.

‘Silencios’ is a project about survivors of World War II who live in Colombia. I started by photographing people in Bogotá, but the research took me on to other cities such as Barranquilla, Medellín and Cali. The exhibition had a significant impact in Colombia because it made public the testimonies of those who had survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other concentration camps. The book became a historic document recording these testimonies of pain and the stories of how they had rebuilt their lives in our country.

Tell me about the making of ‘Sudarios’ (Shrouds). Who are the women in the photographs?

These twenty women live in Antioquia, a region of Colombia that has, historically, been caught up in drug trafficking, and the paramilitary and guerrilla conflict. Each woman had been tortured and each had been forced to watch dreadful violence perpetrated against their loved ones. They themselves had been left alive to bear witness to these horrors – as a warning to others.

Why do most of the women have their eyes closed in their portrait?

I was photographing the women while they were talking about their experiences with a therapist. I had the very specific intention of photographing them at the precise moment when they were remembering the horrors that they had witnessed. For almost all, it was at this moment they shut their eyes. This is the moment where the memory of the pain of losing their loved ones is most present. I believe that in this particular moment you can sense the presence of the perpetrator and the horror of the violent act… but, more than this, you can feel the presence and their love for the person being killed. It is, in a way, a moment of reverie.

I believe this instant is so poignant because you can sense the precise moment when their lives fractured. From then on life would never be the same.

© Erika Diettes ‘Sudarios’ (Shrouds) installed in Iglesia Museo Santa Clara, Bogotá, Colombia

The works are printed and hung in an unusual way.

I always intended to print these portraits on silk because I wanted the images to be somehow ghostly, ethereal; not ephemeral, but also not solid. The women themselves told me more than once that they felt they were beings who no longer belong to the world, that violence had left them ‘dead in life’. I wanted to represent this and printing onto silk was the perfect way.

And I wanted the audience to have a very specific way of interacting with the work; to become enfolded within these portraits, these shrouds. When installed, some images are hung low enough that the people walking through the room can be in direct contact with them. It is as if the pain of each woman is literally touching the viewer.

You present these installations in churches and cathedrals, places very different from the ‘white cube’ of an art gallery. Why have you chosen to do this?

I conceived ‘Sudarios’ as an installation. The idea of showing this series in sacred places and spaces of reflection is fundamental to the project. I want the audience to understand and relate to the images from a place of humility and seclusion; elevating, literally and conceptually, these images to the level of the sacred helps to involve the audience, taking them to a new level. Regardless of religion, I want the audience to experience an overwhelming sense of transcendence; to become involved in the profound pain that the images capture and to be aware of their own fragility.

[Left] © Erika Diettes ‘Sudarios’ (Shrouds) installed in Trinity Church, Houston, Texas, USA
[Right] © Erika Diettes ‘Sudarios’ (Shrouds) installed in Capilla de Jesús Resucitado, Barichara, Santander, Colombia

How do you decide the way they are to be installed?

As an artist, what you are providing to the audience is an experience. Everything tells a story, and every detail counts. I have come to realise that even the way light hits a piece of work is a part of that story. Each space is different, with different challenges. And so the installation changes with each new space.

I wanted the audience walking through the images which hang at different heights. Always, in the middle of the installation at eye level, you will find the one image in which the subject is facing the audience and has her eyes open. But, even though you see her eyes, her look is vacant, empty… a horrified stare. As you keep walking and the images begin to ascend until the final portraits are high above you.

Tell me about your earlier series ‘Rio Abajo’ (drifting away), what ideas are you exploring here?

‘Rio Abajo’ is a series in which I focus on the clothes that the families of the ‘Disappeared’ keep as a relic of their loved ones. I travelled to different areas of Colombia and interviewed many families of victims of ‘forced disappearances’. The images refer to one of the most common ways in which this atrocious crime ended – throwing the mangled bodies of the Disappeared into the river. In many cases, after the endless torture to which they are subjected while still alive, the Disappeared were quartered and disfigured post-mortem… to such an extent that, even if their bodies re-surfaced, it was impossible to identify them.

The clothes were photographed under water and printed large onto glass. Each sheet was then set into a free-standing frame. My intention here is that the audience is able to walk around the images. I wanted viewers, to feel as if they were in the images; that these could be images of their family, or even themselves.

[Left] © Erika Diettes Untitled No.25 from the series ‘Rio Abajo’ (drifting away)
[Right] © Erika Diettes Installation of ‘Rio Abajo’ (drifting away) at FotoFest [photo biennial], Houston, USA

In their specifics, these are local stories you are exploring, but the feelings they express are also universal. How do different audiences respond?

When I have shown the work in the places where I collected the testimonies the experience has been extremely powerful, because, in this case, the people looking are not just an audience but mourners, the victims. It has meant taking the art to isolated mountain locations, momentarily creating a space of healing, a space for visibility where once was darkness and wanton cruelty.

I have also had the opportunity to show in different countries: Argentina, Australia, Dominican Republic, Mexico and the United States. Here I find the response of the audience is very similar. People are able to relate to the pain of losing a loved one. Sadly, it is something that we all will experience at some point, something that we can all identify with.

My work speaks about events that are specific to the social context of my country, but I have chosen to represent not the details of the violent acts, but instead to focus on the grief of the survivors. For this reason, I believe my work is universal and this is why it has caught the attention of different audiences internationally.

What is your current project?

I have been working for almost four years now in a project called ‘Relicarios’ [reliquaries]. My initial inspiration was amber. You know, the kind of amber that has an insect trapped within it that has been there for millions of years. I think this is the way violence is in my country… many, many conflicts, over many, many years. It doesn’t really matter who the perpetrators are: the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the FARC [The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], the government armed forces. After all these years of conflict, we Colombians are grieving, and it is that grief that I want to represent.

‘Relicarios’ has demanded an intensive production process that has led me to make certain radical decisions about my practice, like having a studio in Antioquia. I live in Bogota, over six hundred kilometres away, so this means distancing myself from my daily routines and dedicating a large part of my time to the project. It has led mourners to undertake journeys of up to thirteen hours on foot and five hours by bus just to come to my studio. For them, this is not simply a physical journey. They come to honour the memory of their loved ones in public. To do so they must hand over personal possessions, objects that once belonged to the Disappeared, which they have preserved for periods of up to twenty years.

I encapsulate each object in a material called tri-polymer rubber, like the insect in amber. My intention is to create a long series of pathways, leading the viewer around in the same way one would walk in a cemetery. The ‘relics’ will be on the ground so that viewers must gaze downward, assuming a position of humility, devotion and respect.

It remains a work in progress and will take me at least one more year to finish.

Looking back, why have you chosen photography as the expressive tool to tell these stories?

I believe that photography captures our essence; fulfils our desire to transcend time … not to be forgotten. It allows us to freeze a moment of our existence so that it can last forever.

© Erika Diettes ‘Relicarios No.159’ (reliquary No.159)

Biographical Notes

Erika Diettes was born in Cali, Colombia, in 1978. She has a degree in social communication from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá and an MA in Anthropology from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá. This dual focus on visual art and communication is reflected in her art and in her publications, which establish an intimate dialogue between the subject, the work and its audience through a synthesis of image, concept and process.

In Colombia, she has presented exhibitions in the principal museums of the country including Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá, Museo Nacional de Colombia, Museo de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Museo de Antioquia, (Medellín). Internationally, she has exhibited in Argentina, Australia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Poland, Spain and USA, in such prestigious institutions as the Fine Arts Museum (Houston), Centro Cultural Recoleta (Buenos Aires), and ExTeresa Arte Actual (Mexico City). In 2017, Erika Diettes was awarded a fellowship by the World Press Photo Foundation and, in 2018, a fellowship by the Tim Hetherington Trust.

photo © Olga Lucia Jordán

This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.