Manuel H. Rodriguéz, 89, died last week after a long illness. Manuel H. was the Colombian Capa: a man who for more than half a century captured the history and “moments” of his country with his emblematic Rollei. And like Capa, his career in photojournalism was born out of chaos and violence.
Call it circumstance, or destiny — but life has an uncanny way of sweeping certain people into the “moment.” For Robert Capa, undoubtedly the greatest war photographer of our time, that moment came when he photographed the Spanish Republican militiaman falling after being shot in his hills of Andalusia on September 5, 1936.
Assassination and Uprising
For Manuel H. Rodriguez, his moment erupted on the morning of April 9, 1948. “It was a Friday, and the day was clear,” recalled Manuel when I spoke with him last year. “I had just left the Café Colombia where I was talking with my brothers about bullfighting. It was around one o’clock when I heard on Radio Santafé that [Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer] Gaitán had been shot,” he recalled with painful detail. “Gaitán was a leader of my medio (class).”
Bogotá in 1948, according to Manuel, was a “divided city” where political tensions ran deep. And so too, the anger of the working classes at their lack of representation in government. Liberals and Conservatives were seen to defend the interests of an elite; those well-to-do families who imported their goods from the finest shops in Paris and lived behind the stonewalls of La Candelaria. The Conservatives were the party in power under President Mariano Ospina Perez. The Liberals were the opposition and supported their man, Carlos Lleras Restrepo.
Gaitán was also a Liberal — except that like Manuel H., he was born on the wrong side of the tracks. So when this man from the Las Cruces neighborhood was shot, while stepping out of his office for lunch, on the corner of the Carrera 7 and Jimenez Avenue, the reaction was immediate and violent.
There are no records of exactly how many people were killed in the aftermath of the assassination of Gaitán, but the carnage and the destruction of the city was absolute. The street cars of Bogotá, operated by the Ferrocarril Central del Norte, where Manuel H.’s father worked, were set ablaze by an angry mob. Shops were looted. Fires blazed out of control. Angry men stormed the Ferreteria Berrio to steal machetes and marched towards the city center looking for revenge.
Manuel H., just seven years younger than his European contemporary Capa, didn’t need to photograph a civil uprising in a faraway country. He had one blazing outside his doorstep. “I saw these men with machetes and they started posing for my camera. I took two pictures,” he remembered. “Then they started following me to take my camera,” he said with the clarity of a cinematographer. “They damaged my camera strap.”
When the civil uprising, known as the “El Bogotazo,” erupted, Manuel was 28. He had already been working for more than a decade as a typographer in a local printing press in the center of town, in order to help his family make ends meet. Photography, until that moment, had only been a pleasant pastime, which offered him the possibility of taking family portraits and snaps of daily life in different parts of the city where he was born. “I wasn’t a photographer. I was just an ordinary person who took pictures.”
Armed with a Rolleiflex, which he had purchased with his savings, Manuel started taking pictures of everything he witnessed on the streets of Bogotá that fateful day. He went to The Ritz to witness the destruction of the grand hotel; he convinced a family friend, a nurse on duty at the Clinica Nueva, to get him inside the hospital where Gaitan’s bullet-ridden body was rumored to be. “There were snipers on the rooftops,” he recalled.
Life as a Photojournalist
For Manuel H., life as a professional photographer began the following day. “I went to the Cementerio Central, which was very familiar to me. I was walking among the bodies when all of a sudden I saw the body of a naked man. The only person there among the corpses who was naked.” Then in another twist of fate, which Manuel H. refers to as “coincidence,” he realized that he had stumbled across the bruised and blood-soaked body of Gaitan’s assassin, Eduardo Roa Sierra.
“It was the identity of a person. Good or bad,” he said about what he felt when he saw the face of the man who in an instant had silenced the dreams of so many. And with a couple of clicks of the Rollei, Manuel H. the photojournalist was born. “I was no longer a typographer!” he exclaimed with a sigh of relief.
Sixty years later, Manuel H. was still taking pictures in his studio on Carrera 7, next to a theater that bears the name of Gaitán. His studio was a shrine to photography, with nearly every inch of wall space covered with his black-and-white portraits. There are thousands of other pictures — some 700,000 to be precise — all catalogued and filed in cardboard boxes.
In his final years, Manuel H.’s health was failing and money tight. Despite having photographed for every publication in his country, especially the leading dailies, for more than half a century, he received few royalties from his work. He lived in a rented apartment, just blocks away from the streets and places that made him a legend.
But for Manuel, photojournalism was never about making money. “Money ends, but the picture remains,” he told me. “Without photography there is no history.”
[This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in The City Paper, a free Colombian newspaper launched by the author. The story and accompanying artwork are republished with his permission.]