“This never-ending spiral of economic collapse is changing everything,” says photographer Ignacio Marin. He has been capturing the crisis in Venezuela since May last year. He talks about his photos. Excerpts:
Have you noticed a deterioration in the conditions for ordinary people in the time you have been covering the crisis?
Absolutely. One thing that struck me in 2018 was the endless queues to buy what scarce food was left. Some people would queue during the night so they could buy some chicken or rice. Now, on my second trip to the country in January and February, I wanted to photograph some of those lines again, but it was impossible: people have so little money now that they can no longer afford to go to the supermarket. There are no lines anymore. This is just one example but there are many.
Blackouts are constant in Caracas. At least two people have died in hospital after the electricity was off for several hours. Medical supplies are gone. Pharmacies are empty.
And I actually think that this never-ending spiral of economic collapse is changing everything. The rhetoric of the socialist revolution that Chavez started was sustained on the premises that everything was serving one ultimate goal: to serve the people, the poorest of the poor, and achieve social justice. Everything, from the mass government nationalisation of private assets and industries to the increase of the military and security forces, people were told, was done to serve that end. There were murals of Chavez in every street and he was the people’s hero.
Most of the situations I witness are truly uncomfortable moments for my subjects and yet they allow me to photograph them in exchange for their message being spread.
But now, the economic free-fall under Maduro’s administration is hardest hitting for those same people. While the rich and middle class can migrate or earn in dollars, the poorest are the ones suffering from hunger and the rise of violence. So the same people that once cheered Chavez are revolting against Maduro. For the first time, there was a protest in a barrio (slum neighbourhood). The government responded to the protest by sending the FAES — a special armed force called an “extermination group” by some human rights NGOs. They killed 43 people, according to Provea, a local NGO. So, now, even the barrios, the strongholds of the chavismo (chavezism), are somehow revolting against Maduro’s government.
How has the political crisis for the Maduro regime affected the security situation?
The political crisis has meant more instability and also repression. As said above, dozens have been killed after participating in demonstrations.
At the same time, the economic crisis has meant prices doubling every week. Even employed people with steady jobs can’t afford to buy the most basic goods. The last Encovi survey reported 89.4 per cent of respondents said their household income was not enough to buy food and 61 per cent reported sleeping hungry at night. Another report from Caritas found the average family required 98 times the minimum wage to afford adequate food to subsist.
In a country where virtually all crimes go unpunished and money is worth less than the paper it is printed on, crime becomes a viable solution to hunger. Fathers go out at night to steal motorcycles. Gangsters recruit youngsters by paying them in food. Crime and insecurity are on the rise. Robberies and kidnappings have become a major industry.
Many are leaving the country — do you think Juan Guaido provides hope?
I believe he does, both in Venezuela and abroad. He was recently on a tour to other Latin American countries and the Venezuelan diaspora was cheering him, many crying that he would help them come back to their homes. People are desperate and they have found in him a symbol. It is part of the process that has turned him from an unknown politician a few weeks ago to a sort of messiah today. I believe that one of the pictures I took of him in a church in Caracas, with all the international and local media in front of him, illustrates this. It will be very hard to meet their expectations ...
How do you personally approach covering a story which is one of so much fear and desperation for so many people?
Personally, I take on this sort of project with a major feeling of respect and a huge feeling of responsibility. I understand that most of the situations I witness are truly uncomfortable moments for my subjects — garbage picking, at a funeral, behind bars — and yet they allow me to photograph them in exchange for their message being spread.
For example, I was able to take pictures during the funeral of a young man named Keiber Cubero. I am sure his family was heartbroken and it was hard to have a camera pointing at them (I am sure it would be hard for me if that ever happened to me). But they allowed me to be there because they felt that what happened to Keiber wasn’t fair, and that it had to be known. I always feel the responsibility of having to deliver on my end, of making sure that the story is told. It happened with Keiber, but it’s the same with pretty much every subject in the story.
Is there a moment or a photograph that particularly stands out in this feature that you can talk about?
I think that the one taken at the police station, with the hands coming out from the bars, is quite shocking. I was only able to take a few frames because we had very little time. It was extremely hot and humid inside and there were no windows or sources of light beyond a small lamp at the end of the cells. I was also able to talk with the inmates, and most of them told me what I was trying to tell with my story: that many people are forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
The Venezuelan people seem to be incredibly resilient in the face of such difficult hardships as a lack of basic resources — how do you think people are able to cope?
They are indeed incredibly resilient, but I think they are growing more desperate by the minute. Millions weren’t able to cope and left the country while others who were left behind are suffering from mental disorder and depression. Wherever you go there are only two topics: the crisis and the hyperinflation. The economic aspect has become such a huge part of everyone’s life it is making people crazy.