A photographer navigates the loss of a loved one through his images

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In Farewell Maria, Andres Cardona asks how does a family survive grief during a pandemic?

Maria Zinia Vargas was a chatty woman. An 89-year-old living in Puerto Rico, an isolated town in the south of Colombia, she regularly spoke with family members across the country and beyond. “She was worried about my work,” says her grandson, Andrés Cardona, a photographer who has devoted much of his career to covering violence and the legacy of the 57-year armed conflict in his country.

“My grandma wanted to talk all the time,” he recalls. But that changed when she became ill last August 2019. “My family said she was ok, but when I asked them to pass [her the phone], we spoke for less than a minute, and she said ‘I am very, very tired and I don’t want to speak anymore’. She handed the phone to someone else.”

Plants are being used to counteract the effects of Covid-19: moringa, eucalyptus, guava, lemon and honey © Andres Cardona.

Cardona left Bogotá, where he lives, in a nervous rush. When he arrived, he and Vargas did what they had done countless times before: he massaged her feet while they swapped memories. During these moments, they often related the same stories: the death of Cardona’s parents, histories of estrangement, disappearances and flight during a war that has displaced over 8 million Colombians since 1985. But this time, something was off. “[Maria] was talking nonsense. She didn’t remember well the events that she had told me before and that I had already documented,” says Cardona.

Vargas was admitted to a hospital in Florencia, the province’s capital, which marked the first of many trips from one medical centre to another. “By the time she was put in [isolation], she couldn’t breathe or speak anymore,” remembers Cardona. He had been shooting photos the whole time, and began taking pictures of his grandmother from outside the unit where she stayed; no one was allowed inside.

When my father was murdered in 1993, my grandmother supported my mother with taking care of us. Then, the same year, they killed my mother. Maria decided to take care of us and make sure we studied © Andres Cardona.
In Colombia, the pandemic was declared in March 2020. Maria Vargas was 89 and she didn't leave the house for five months. When she got sick she was taken to the local clinic and urgently transferred to another clinic where they look after patients with Covid-19. She died six days later in isolation © Andres Cardona.

On 09 August 2021, Vargas passed away from what turned out to be Covid-19. Earlier that day, she had been shown a video. The family had made her a collection of good wishes from across Colombia. Maria, “the memory” of the Vargas family, was now gone, but life continued. Through his photographic series Farewell Maria, Cardona wanted to document this moment. How does a family live through grief during a pandemic?

It was a strange time. The photographer and a team of men in hazmat suits were the only people allowed into the cemetery for Vargas’ burial. Soon after, medical staff arrived to test Cardona for Covid-19. He and five other relatives had caught the virus and were ordered to self-isolate.

When Maria died, several people were tested to determine if we had Covid-19. Six people were infected and we had to spend a month in isolation, some did not go to Maria's funeral. Today Aldemar is coming to the cemetery to see his mother after his release from isolation © Andres Cardona.
This project is about mourning after the death of a family member from Covid-19 and how to return to daily life in the midst of a pandemic. Sara poses in front of the tree near her grandmother Maria's house (RIP) © Andres Cardona.

Cardona spent the following weeks alone in his flat, unable to perform the typical rituals surrounding death in his community. “My family is very Catholic, and it’s a tradition to have a wake, where the body is in its coffin for a couple of days while the family gets together to say goodbye,” he explains. Instead, Cardona organised a virtual “novenario”: nine days of mourning and praying via Zoom. “She was the person that would make 50 of us meet,” he says, so in her honour, they had to continue getting together. “This has united us.”

The family burned every one of Vargas’ belongings at her request. But it was hard to part ways with objects that carried so much meaning for her. Cardona says Vargas was like his mother. “She was the pillar of the family.” In 1993, after the military killed his parents, Vargas took in him, his brother and three cousins. “People say that they didn’t kill her that day because we were there with her,” he explains.

Maria asked her children and grandchildren before she died that some of her belongings be burned. The family gathered around a campfire and made her request a reality. Because she died from Covid-19, the family was unable to perform the traditional Catholic rituals to which they are accustomed, so this moment was the time to say farewell to her. In this photograph Enid is holding a T-shirt of her mother before she burns it © Andres Cardona.
After Maria's death, she asked her family to have her clothes and other belongings cremated. Aldemar is Maria's son © Andres Cardona.

Cardona’s work is an exercise in memory. From Colombia’s armed conflict to the traditions of indigenous communities or the deforestation of the Amazon, his images document the present while hoping to make sense of the past.

The documentary photographer Susan Meiselas, who is best known for documenting the turmoil of Central America in the 1970s and 80s, helped edit the series. As did Yael Martínez, whose work addresses violence in his native Mexico.

At this time the weather begins to change, summer is approaching, it seems like autumn. A giant tree drops its leaves on my grandmother's grave © Andres Cardona.

Farewell Maria is also a glimpse into how the pandemic has unfolded in the Colombian Amazon. In the southern jungle, large rivers, countless canyons, caves and waterfalls surround Puerto Rico. People there spend a lot of time outside together. But when the pandemic struck, the social fabric disintegrated. “The person who went out into the street was like a walking virus,” Cardona says. “Everyone was afraid of each other.” Isolation and poverty meant that locals were left to their own devices. A doctor who saw Vargas days before she went into hospital sent her home, concluding she had an ordinary cold.

Now the town is returning to what it was before. With these photos, Cardona hopes to capture not just his family’s story of Covid-19 but the more indistinct, nebulous experience of loss and grief in his community. “The pandemic is just one chapter of the whole thing that I am documenting,” he explains. “I want to tell this story beyond the data; the figures.”

The work was supported and produced by the Magnum Foundation, with grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and National Geographic.

Clara Hernanz Lizarraga

Clara Hernanz Lizarraga is a freelance journalist currently living in London. Her words have appeared in The Guardian, the Financial Times, VICE and Dazed magazine, among other publications.