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Big city life, somewhat paradoxically, can be quite solitary. There are people all around us, yet as we go about our business they may as well not exist — indeed at times we might wish that to be the case.
In this regard, Bogotá is no different to any other metropolis (a few barrios excepted). Anonymous, insignificant faces abound.
However, one man is attempting to change this. Going by the belief that everybody has a story to tell — and in Colombia those stories can be quite something — coupled with his skills for photographing people, Jonathan Smoak has set about giving us a greater perspective to the faces we see in Bogotá on a daily basis.
Via his Facebook page Personajes de Bogotá (literally ‘Characters of Bogotá’), he has been introducing us to the everyday characters around the city. The format is quite simple: a photo or two of the people in focus followed by a brief background blurb of their life story, in both English and Spanish. With more than 7,000 likes on his page so far, Smoak’s virtual photo biography certainly seems to have found a niche.
The idea to create it partly came from the hugely popular Humans of New York, a Facebook page that has almost 18 million likes.
Another spark came from Smoak — whose previous humanitarian work has taken him to a host of developing countries — just being here in Bogotá itself. “I walk everywhere in the city. There are millions of people and I get a sense there’s not much camaraderie, especially between classes and neighbourhoods“, he explains. “I thought this (personajes) is a good way to humanise and connect races, classes, jobs, artistic communities, businesses — anything — and to say we all have a story.”
While he tries to accommodate all sections of society on his page, he does reveal that some Bogotanos are more difficult to feature than others. “The higher up the socio-economic ladder I get, the more people say no.” He acknowledges that security concerns in a city obsessed with such things, in many instances for sound reasons, probably play a factor in that. The fact that he’s a well-built man with a foreign face might also mitigate against him. Yet a few seconds in his company for anyone who might initially be intimidated and you’ll find he’s very much of the gentle variety.
Smoak’s own life story has been quite the adventure. At three months of age his parents left their Virginia home to come to Colombia to work with a charity organisation that helped indigenous communities (it wasn’t from nowhere he gained his charitable qualities). The country’s secluded plains, in the department of Meta, were to be the family home for the next 17 years.
So while he isn’t ‘officially’ Colombian, the country is another home to him in many ways. Yet, as he puts it, with such a background, one almost falls between two stools as to where home is: “Here, when I was growing up I was the ‘gringo’ and then when I went to the United States I was the strange kid from Colombia. In some sense when you’re multicultural you don’t have a true home; or they’re both home.”
Until this latest return to Colombia three years ago, the majority of his adult life was spent in the US, where he married and fathered four children. Images of a ‘settled’ life that might portray, but it was far from that. As a university student in Chicago he took a group of his peers to Honduras to install a potable water system in an isolated mountain village. “I did that because I was frustrated returning to the United States with so many people who were not socially and culturally aware of the world.”
Out of that frustration emerged a future career where he continued to take university students to help out less well-off communities all over the globe. Countries that have benefitted from his humanitarian work include China, Honduras, India, Pakistan, the Philippines as well as the aforementioned Honduras.
Coming back to Colombia hadn’t really been on the cards but a job offer that he just couldn’t refuse saw him return. Unfortunately, that employment fell through. Not only that, but after setting up a photo studio he had the misfortune of having his top-of-the-range camera stolen last year. Despite these blows, he has set about making the country home again, be that temporary or otherwise. In fact, he has tinkered with the idea of doing here in Colombia the same non-profit, humanitarian work that he did elsewhere.
As for Personajes de Bogotá, the future goal is to publish a book with a collection of the best characters and their stories he has featured on the Facebook page. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the affable Smoak traversing Bogotá’s streets, camera in hand. Don’t be shy guys, he’s just trying to make the world a friendlier, more inclusive place.
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