Since the mid-90s, Colombia has struggled mightily to shed its reputation as one of the world’s most violent countries. While the crime rate (and homicide rate, in particular) have gone down over the past two decades, this violent history still remains etched in the minds of Colombia’s natives.

Andres Orjuela’s “Archivo Muerto” is a remarkable series on this important topic. Orjuela’s photographs juxtapose the medium’s purported ability to document history with its unacknowledged capacity to twist the truth—and even deceive.

A police officer played Russian roulette with the bartender. He lost. © Andres Orjuela

The project began when Bogotá’s most well-known tabloid newspaper went out of business. By closing its doors, it left behind 50 years of unique vernacular photography—a visual record of the city’s most infamous crimes, murders, gangsters and politicians (sometimes one and the same person). Fortunately for us, in 2011, a waste-collector spied a mountain of boxes filled with these photographs sitting in front of the old newspaper building. From there, the images eventually made their way into the hands of Orjuela, and “Archivo Muerto” was born.

On the documentary side, these images are replete with historical details, since they were originally produced as evidence rather than for their visual appeal. Yet time spent with these photographs makes us realize that “evidence” as a concept is not as ironclad as we imagine. For example, quite frequently, the inscriptions on the back of the photos do not seem to match what’s on the front. In one image, titled “Coca Traffickers,” two men stand beside bags stuffed with marijuana. On the label, an original typewritten inscription describes the haul of marijuana that was brought in by the police. This text is crossed out and in colored pencil, we find the words “traficantes de coca” (cocaine traffickers). Apparently the evidence needed to be altered to fit the accusation.

Orjuela himself pushes further in this delicate (and sometimes not so delicate) realm of historical erasure and modification. At times, he uses a hand-coloring technique that give the prints a nostalgic air. The romanticism of such brightly tinted images is complicated by the difficult subjects depicted therein: prisons, murders, arrests, beatings, suicide. Orjuela creates a historical distance but with a lost innocence.

Burglar © Andres Orjuela

Thus, these factual documents—often made to support bogus claims by those in power—can be read as part of an idealized history. This body of work reveals the tension between our current knowledge about the past and clear evidence of historical transgressions. In short, we are challenged, once more, in our comfortable assumptions about the truths offered by documentary photography.

—Alexander Strecker

Orjuela was chosen by Siobhán Bohnacker, senior photo editor at The New Yorker, as her juror’s pick in the Portrait Awards 2018. Explore work by all 39 winners, finalists, and jurors’ picks.