The village of Nueva Venecia floats deep within the arteries of the Magdalena River Estuary System in Colombia. The 400 families who live in the houses, which are raised up on stilts, share a deep connection with the water that surrounds them, as they depend on it for survival and sustenance. Thanks to the prevalence of banana plantations in the 1900s, the water is polluted. Years of further agricultural use has also depleted it. Today, the main problem is untreated sewage from major cities. Many of the townspeople are unable to afford purified water; this means drinking water from the river as is.

I first visited Nueva Venecia (which translates to “New Venice” in English) in 2010 as part of a study on Colombia’s cultural heritage. As a photographer and anthropologist, I quickly discovered two fundamental influences on the collective psyche of this community. One was a deep-rooted connection to the environment and the inherent challenges posed by years of misuse beyond the villagers’ control. The other was a painful memory of an incursion in 2000 by a Colombian paramilitary group that left between 35 and 40 fishermen dead.

I was inspired to translate this experience using the three states of water—liquid, solid, and gas—as a metaphor for memory in my series “Dulce y Salada” (“Sweet and Salty”).

The liquid state compares the form of water in the river channel to the way social memory works; water is also constantly moving and changing. The gaseous form references the stage of forgetting in the human world. Finally, I froze objects of importance in blocks of ice and photographed them as a means of preserving the legacy of the villagers’ experiences. Ice is the form in which the land remembers our presence.

To create this project I developed 120mm black-and-white film with water from various Colombian rivers; my intention was to affect the image as it exists in a physical state.

I feel that all of the issues of the past, present, and future are coming to a head now. We believe that the whole ecosystem is in crisis. The village’s problems with water affect their main source of food and income: fish. If the pressure on—and crisis in—the marshlands continue, the townspeople in coming years will have nothing to fish, and their life on the water will be jeopardized.

—Jorge Panchoaga

Editors’ Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016—don’t miss the work from all 50 of these outstanding, international talents!

The work will be exhibited at Casa America, Barcelona in the last weeks of February.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like one of these previous features: Nadege Mazars’ deep dive into the lives of the FARC guerilla fighters, The Other Colombia; Francesco Cilli’s series on nocturnal fishermen of the Adriatic, The Night Without Moon; and Garum, a project on the bloody bluefin tuna fishing trade off the coast of Spain.