The many faces of Bogota's women


Colombian Nubia Espitia poses with an old picture of herself at her home in Bogota on March 5, 2012.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

By Luis Acosta


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Burning someone’s face with acid is forever, but goes largely unpunished in Colombia. In spite of the viciousness of these attacks and the irreparable damage they cause, legally they are classified as “assault and battery”, which carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.  And for there to be a conviction, of course, the aggressor must first be identified and tried, and that rarely happens.

The obvious imbalance between crime and punishment, and the courageous efforts of victims fighting for justice, both encouraged me to dig in deeper on this story. I began in Bogota, looking for women who had endured this horrible ordeal, which invariably results in life-long disfigurement.

Why does this happen? What could possess someone to commit such an atrocious crime? These were the kinds of questions I had in mind when I began my research. Little by little, I discovered partial answers in meeting women like Nubia and Maria.

Colombian Maria Cuervo poses with an old picture of herself at her home in Bogota on March 5, 2012.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

Nubia was visiting home from Venezuela, spending Christmas in Bogota with her husband and children. One night when she was coming home two people threw acid in her face. She attributes the attack to “the jealousy of a neighbour over her beauty.” She was never able to identify the culprits.

Maria was walking to work when she says she felt “water” on her face. Except it wasn’t water. It was acid, thrown by a man paid by her husband, who was enraged because she threatened to leave him. “If she’s not with me, she can’t be with anyone,” she says he told her. But Maria didn’t have physical evidence, and she could not identify the attacker, so to this day the crime has gone unpunished.

Colombian Viviana Hernandez poses with an old picture of herself in Bogota on March 5, 2012. Hernandez, 28, was burnt with acid by her husband.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

After hearing their stories, and comparing them with similar cases happening in other countries, I suggested that the women pose holding a photo of themselves from before the incidents. It wasn’t easy to convince them. Every day they endure rejection by society. And in spite of their terrible situation, they are still invested in their appearance. But after a few conversations, they each relented.

What struck me the most when I arrived at their homes was that, in spite of their suffering, the women were always smiling. Thanks to them, each photo shoot was, against expectation, a pleasure to do.

Colombian Gina Potes poses with an old picture of herself in Bogota on March 5, 2012. Potes, 35, was burnt with acid by an aggressor and underwent different plastic surgeries.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

The women were aware that once they were published, the photographs might gain national, even international, attention. But truly understanding what that meant wasn’t always easy for them to grasp. When my photos quickly spread across the Internet and throughout social media immediately after their release, some of the women asked me to recall them. I had to tell them that this was impossible. In any case, when the photographs came out in print media the next day, the stories treated the women with respect, and emphasized their courage. The willingness to show their faces to the world, several commentators said, may help usher in better laws against such atrocities.

Colombian Nubia Espitia poses with an old picture of herself at her home in Bogota on March 5, 2012. Espitia, 33, was burnt with acid on 2008, and attributed the aggression to an envious neighbor, which she could not prove.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

Colombian Viviana Hernandez puts lipstick in Bogota on March 5, 2012. Hernandez, 28, was burnt with acid by her husband.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

Colombian Maria Cuervo combs her hair in front of a mirror at her home in Bogota on March 5, 2012. Cuervo, 41, was burnt with acid on March 8, 2004.
AFP PHOTO / Luis Acosta

POSTSCRIPT: AFP photographer Luis Acosta was awarded Colombia's Simon Bolivar prize in 2012 for his portraits of these women.