That Sunday, Jairo Alberto Saldarriaga asked his son Manuel to come down to greet Santiago, who was 6 years old at the time and was not allowed to enter the León XIII clinic. Jairo had had a stroke that immobilized half his body.
“We took him down in a wheelchair,” recalls Manuel, “he couldn’t get out but through the front door he gave him a blessing with his hand and said to him from afar, God bless me!” The father was delicate, but they thought it was a matter of time before he recovered. None of them imagined that this would be the last time they would see him alive.
Jairo worked as a security guard in a parking lot in the center of Medellín, and with great dedication he supported his eight children and his wife in a three-bedroom house in Santa Cruz, one of those neighborhoods that from the other side of the river look like a carpet of small adobe houses that hang down covering the entire slope of the northeastern area.
Ending the 80s until the 2000s, Santa Cruz was one of the benchmarks of the merciless war that broke out in the neighborhoods of Medellín. In the Popular, which was next to them, the guerrilla militias did not allow traffic. In Aranjuez, which was on the other side, the law of Los Priscos, the armed wing of the Medellín cartel, was imposed. In that territory, where the wars between gangs and bandolas did not stop, the dreams of an entire generation were put on hold or completely erased by bullets.
Unfortunately, heartbreaking news arrived at the Saldarriaga Quintero house: two of the eight brothers, Jorge and Gonzalo, died in the infamous trap of ‘invisible borders’. But some miracle worked. Because the other three male brothers not only survived, but precisely today, 28 years later, Manuel and Santiago are celebrating something that perhaps has not happened anywhere in the world: each one won for himself, and on behalf of two different newspapers, the most prestigious national journalism award in the country.
Manuel won in the graphic reporting category, for his series of photographs of migrants who cross the Darién Gap in extreme conditions. Santiago won in the photography category for the timely image of a civilian shooting while policemen looked on idly during the April 2021 protests. One works at EL COLOMBIANO, the other is the El Tiempo correspondent in Cali.
It is not the first prize they have won but perhaps the one that has made them most happy for the strange coincidence of winning it together: “It was a magical moment,” they say.
Manuel is the only Colombian to have won three King of Spain awards: the most coveted award for journalists in Latin America. His brother Santiago also won the king of Spain for a moving photograph of the Mocoa avalanche. And they are joined by Jaime, the other of the three brothers who survived, who was also saved by the photograph
The awards are perhaps the least interesting part of the history of the Saldarriaga Quintero. The true story begins in 1987. Manuel finished his high school at Gilberto Alzate Avendaño. His dream was to fly a plane and that is why the only plan he had was to serve in the military. The neighborhood was very hot, Pablo Escobar was doing his thing in the city and many slums in the neighborhoods entangled their lives in the noise of motorcycles and gunshots.
The Army preferred not to risk it, they didn’t choose anyone from the school and Manuel, somewhat frustrated, then became his father’s helper: he washed cars from 7 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon.
An aunt of Manuel’s, Aunt Maruja, who was working at the house of Adriana Mejía, a journalist for the newspaper El Mundo, told him that she had a nephew who had finished high school. Adriana found out that a laboratory worker was going to appear in the newspaper, the character who was dedicated to developing the photographers’ rolls in the darkroom, and she told Manuel to send her his resume.
“And they called me for an interview. I said, oh, cool! I’m going to sell Colombians in the neighborhood,” recalls Manuel, who had no idea of the work he was going to have to do. It is well remembered that he arrived in May 1989, because it was a week before Nacional was champion of the Copa Libertadores, and as a rookie they did not let him touch a single one of the rolls to reveal.
In 1992 he touched the sky with his hands. There was an eviction in the Iguaná and there was no photographer available. So the editor-in-chief asked Manuel to take a camera and see what he could do.
Until then, he only had in his head the framing and the lighting that he saw when developing the photos. “I took the camera and left. I began to take photos of how they knocked down the houses. I ran into a lady on the street with her little things and her children. And she was that ”.
When Manuel returned with his photos, they had also sent Henry Agudelo, who was the star of the newspaper at that time, to the Iguaná. And when Henry arrived and saw the photos that Manuel took of the lady, he told the editor in chief: the photo in this story is Manuel’s.
“I am happier! I took a number of newspapers. I took my friends to the neighborhood. I would hand them a newspaper and ask them, what do you see differently? Read below. And at the end when someone read the credit ‘Photo Manuel Saldarriaga’, I puffed out my chest and told them: that’s me”.
They titled it ‘Alone in the street’, someone sent it to the CPB award, and Manuel, still a laboratory worker, won the award that had an enormous reputation in the country at that time.
But also, in that 1992, Manuel knew what hell was: they killed his brother Jorge Alberto, who was the second in the litter. Manuel was 22 years old and Jorge was 21. “A boy was envious of him because Cone could go through all the blocks and all the neighborhoods. What others couldn’t. A friend of that boy told him “I’ll give it to him” and murdered him. That’s how they said: ‘I’ll give it to him’ and the gift was that they killed him”. It happened on a Sunday and Manuel, after leaving work, came to pick up his brother who had been shot in the street.
His murder was just one more of the 522 that occurred each month on average between January and August of that year in a fiery Medellín and with a Pablo Escobar that he had burned in the “prison” of the Cathedral, just one day before the Jorge’s death, his partners Galeano and Moncada.
Manuel from the newspaper recorded the thick news. And in his house lived the tragedy. In the midst of pain and glory, new job offers arrived. He went to Bogotá, summoned by the legendary editor of El Tiempo, Enrique Santos Castillo. But it did not last long because the death of his father, in 1994, filled him with nostalgia. Manuel felt that he had to support his mother again to help his brothers get ahead. He sent a resume to EL COLOMBIANO in 1995 and that was 27 years ago.
She called him and complained about his brothers and he scolded them because they were going to play arcade games instead of studying. And even a leash, Santiago remembers, he gave them. But they had the precaution of putting on double pants and shouting so that Manuel would believe that the punishment was being effective.
“Today I would have sued him. He hit us very hard!” Santiago recalls with a huge laugh amid various anecdotes about how drastic Manuel was with them. “But luckily it was like that. One is grateful for those things.”
In 1999 another tragedy shook the family. Juan Gonzalo, the men’s third in line, crossed an “invisible border” in the same Santa Cruz neighborhood. One day they spared his life. But the next day, when he wanted to go to the store to play billiards, one of the boys who controlled the block asked him to help him get a market and he sewed it up with a bullet. Jaime, the fourth brother, who had accompanied him to play billiards, was also shot but he ran. And when the thugs left, he ran to pick up his brother and carried him in his arms to see if they could save his life, but he died saying “Jaime, Jaime” worried about the fate of his brother.
Manuel then took Jaime out of the neighborhood. And he got her a job in the laboratory of the newspaper El Mundo. Perhaps in the hope that he would hold on to the log in the ocean that he himself had found. And then he did the same with Santiago. It was about avoiding the same fate as the other two brothers. “I wanted to protect the family. Santiago did not dimension the dangers”. So it was. Photography also saved them.
Jaime from El Mundo went to the Country of Cali, then to the Reuters agency in Cali, then he was the agency’s chief photographer in Bogotá and then went to Croatia for a year as a photographer for a soccer team. He now does freelance work and collaborates with the AP agency.
When Santiago arrived, there were no more scrolls to reveal. Everything was digital. He practiced as a photographer until an opening opened up and he spent three and a half years on staff at El Mundo and in 2010 he left as a correspondent for El Tiempo in Cali. Until today’s sun.
What do you think saved them from running the same fate as so many young people from poor neighborhoods who didn’t make it? I ask them. “To us, spirituality”, answers Manuel. “My mom forced us to go to mass. Go to mass, listen to a father, believe in God. All of this helps to avoid taking a bad step”.
Santiago explains: “One played soccer and listened to shootings. And then you already knew ‘if I go there it’s dangerous’. I got to see people being killed next to me. That is why if I am covering a confrontation in Cauca, I am like the calm gossipy neighbor taking the photos while I see the scared people running.”
And so it happened in the photo with which he won the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award this Wednesday. “During the protests, a shooting began on both sides. We photographers threw ourselves to the ground and tried to protect ourselves. I said, I have to get out of here, and I crossed the middle, I became cannon fodder, until I reached a neutral point between the Esmad and the protesters. I see that the civilians were the ones who were shooting and I start to take the pictures. The policemen yelled at me and told me that he will take the photos from the other side”.
Manuel concludes: “Photography gave us life”