BEHIND THE LENS
THE MARKETS OF COLOMBIA BY ALEJANDRO OSSES
Alejandro Osses is an audiovisual producer and researcher focused on gastronomic culture. Based in Bogota, Colombia, he studied photography at the Motivarte Academy in Buenos Aires. In 2015, he lived in London, where he specialized in his true passion– food. Here, he won the worldwide Pink Lady People’s Choice Award for Photographer of the Year.
Osses has traveled the world extensively documenting food systems and the communities that surround them. He boasts collaborations with many renowned restaurants in his native country, as well as in London, New York, Siena (Italy) and Madrid.
In 2018, he embarked on the entrepreneurial path, founding Mucho Colombia, a digital food marketing platform that specializes in biodiversity, and in 2020 launched Frito LATAM, a media outlet and content lab focused on Latin American food culture.
The Colombian creative takes us on a tour of the country’s most important market places from Bazurto, in Cartagena, to Corabastos, in Bogota.
What captures you about markets?
The real culture of a place is recognized in its markets: country, city, municipality, town, etc. It’s where you manage to appreciate the essence and the dynamics of the relationships between people. Where you learn about their food culture and their links with the land. Where layers don’t exist and people want you to taste their world in bite-sized pieces. Where farm work mixes with transportation and commerce. I feel like I can identify the veins and DNA of the places I visit if I go to their popular markets.
Do the markets in Colombia have a particular scent?
They smell of their respective products from the region, of its biodiversity. Also of the countryside, of sweat, of land, of exclusive flavors, and, most of the time, of injustice.
In the Potrerillo market, you’ll find many tubers, mixed herbs, from the Tumaco coast to those from the Andes. The smell is more natural, of the countryside, and the atmosphere is friendly. It smells of diversity that does not reach other regions of Colombia. It smells of culture and of farmers’ resistance.
The Bazurto market is stronger. There’s the smell of fish all around, the sea, the diversity of its tropical fruits in beautiful sizes, of flavor, of mangoes, grapefruit and Chinese eggplants. The cauldrons in Bazurto offer a special seasoning. Their popular graphic designs stand out from the rest. It also smells of the ignorance of a touristy Cartagena that never sets foot there.
La Magola is definitely one of the most complex, challenging, rigorous, dangerous, but visually beautiful marketplaces. Its smell of fried food, mullet rice, patacón and dried fish make it a special place. Yet, next door they have poorly managed waste that, at many times throughout the visit, is impregnated in your brain. The good thing is that you can feel the magic of its people, which lets you forget. Seeing how they depilate a pig, the capybara legs and varieties of chili, makes it very diverse. Add to this the hot climate and that of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Corabastos is one of the largest wholesale markets in Latin America; that speaks of its complex dynamics, especially in a city like Bogota and in a country like Colombia. The farmer has no value, unlike the merchant and the middleman. The smell of something so large is difficult, but I can say that it’s much more like potatoes, since it’s the best selling product, and most ubiquitous, as well, since most of the monocultures in the vicinity of Bogota are dedicated to it. If I could put it in a color, it would be brown, like the one you see before washing the potato. It also smells of injustice, poorly managed and rotten waste, hostility and insecurity.
Tell us something one cannot miss about the main markets in Colombia.
Potrerillo, in Pasto: Vegetarian blood made with rooftop herbs.
Bazurto, in Cartagena: Cassava boiled with whey, rice cake or fish stew.
La Magola, in Barranquilla: Lisa rice in banana leaf and guandolo, and sausage. And the casino.
Corabastos, in Bogota: There is a large suckling pig. The taverns, although they are not recommended for random visitors.
Do you eat at the markets?
Always. It’s what excites me the most, what I do the most. It’s wonderful to be able to taste the diversity of the regions and see the dynamics while talking to the people who prepare the food or who bring the products.
What’s your favorite dish and drink from each market?
It always depends on where you are. The markets in the Colombian Pacific have a very special flavor because oftentimes their food doesn’t reach the interior or the capitals due to the racial marginalization that exists in the country. It’s regrettable because we’re missing out on some of the best food in Colombia, and possibly, in Latin America. The borojó juice and the Pacific viche attract the most attention in terms of drinks.
What’s something that only locals know about?
There’s always something that only locals know: where to go eat, the place that’s been there for decades… For example, the vegetarian black pudding from El Potrerillo, or the encocado from the Guapi market. There are always products and dishes that only exist in a market. You’ll find tradition and what to eat in all of them.
A souvenir one should get in the market?
Ingredients and flavors that you’ve never seen or tasted. Always ask for that little taste, and also always try to buy.
A market you’d love to photograph?
For life reasons, I haven’t been able to go to Riohacha market, in La Guajira; I have that pending. Also the markets in Uganda, Kenya and Southeast Asia.
Your photos are quite intimate. Do you make several visits to the markets to achieve this level of intimacy?
Many times, yes. Others are about understanding sensitivity: respecting the people you portray, being able to open up and talk to them, knowing how to offer a smile and an honest word, making them understand that what I do is a tribute to their work and their product. I almost always chat with them, explain to them, ask them if I can photograph them, show them my work, and try to buy what they sell or give back to them in some way, other than just a quick empty conversation.
In your opinion, what’s the most curious stand in these markets?
Usually butcher shops. That’s where there’s a more delicate environment, where there is blood, where there are things that, many times, people don’t want to see. In these stands, you’ll surely perceive more hidden movements than in those of fruits and vegetables.
What’s something you haven’t seen elsewhere?
In the Buenaventura market, I ate chocolate with a cow’s eye. I also saw small armadillos and sharks. In Guatemala, I ate raw bull testicle ceviche and cow’s eye juice. In La Magola, next to the meat where they dumped the waste, there was a slaughterhouse full of crows and vultures… something beautiful. In Silvia, Cauca, I saw how hundreds of Guambianos (mizak) from the region arrived at their market. It’s been one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in my life.
The markets have incredible things. In El Potrerillo I found a number of vegetables and fruits that I’d never seen before. In each one there are things that you won’t find in other places.
If you had to choose your favorite thing from Colombian markets, what would it be?
The relationship with the people, the product, the culture and the diversity of each place.
If every market was a song, what would it be?
Corabastos: Que me devuelvan la tierra, by La Muchacha.
El Potrerillo: Doña Justicia, by Briela Ojeda.
Bazurto: Rebelión, by Joe Arroyo.
Barranquilla: Alegría, by Elia y Elizabeth.
Do you know of any tours around the markets that we can recommend?
There is one in Paloquemao, in Bogota, but I don’t know if markets should be a tourist attraction, or if they should really be an incentive to get to know the culture of a place and get involved with the food. The tourist’s romanticism of market plazas sometimes causes a denaturalization of farmers, because sometimes vendors are just that: just vendors. Before them, and in most markets, there are many links to reach the one who works the land, which unfortunately is the one that earns the least in the entire chain, even though they are the ones that make the most effort. That’s why I prefer to research markets I visit well, because they are all handled differently.
Any local words or slang ?
Each market has its jargon in products, accounts, food, nicknames, coteros. It’s a world of words that, many times, it’s impossible for me to pronounce. It also varies in each region. On the coast they address you more like “compa” or “llave“; in Antioquia, more like “parcero” or “patrón”, and in Boyacá, more like “sumercé”.
Something everyone should know before visiting each market?
It’s a place to recognize the real cultures of a territory, and you should not romanticize everything you see and all the colors. You have to go a little further… to understand more about food.
Your best discovery?
To understand how to move in a market I don’t know, how to take a photo with a thousand people in front, and how I can relate to the people who are there. Understanding the way in which I relate to food and how I respect each task. I’ve made these discoveries on these visits to the markets throughout the years that I’ve been doing this.
How do you define beauty?
Beauty lies in understanding the relationship we have as human beings with each other and with the planet. The bond from the heart, the natural, the understanding of the human chain, its food and its culture. Beauty does not lie in what we’ve been taught about it. Many times I find a finished dish with leftovers more beautiful than a plated one.