A Nation’s Collective Memory of a Devastating Earthquake

Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero use a Polaroid camera to document and share the emotional turmoil felt by the Ecuadorian people in the aftermath of a natural disaster.


© Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero, from the series Siete Punto Ocho / Seven Point Eight

In April 2016, a massive 7.8 degrees Richter scale earthquake hit the Ecuadorian coast. Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero set off to the affected areas to document the shaken lives of the residents. They describe the Polaroid photographs – in which people expressed their emotions - as brief as the moment when the earthquake shook the region. They recently launched the project in a book form hoping the stories contained in the series will reach more people in their nation.

Do you both recall where you were when the earthquake happened in 2016? How did your personal experience of the earthquake affect the way you both approached the project?

It was almost 7 pm on a lazy Saturday evening on April 16th 2016. We were watching a movie together on a third floor in Quito, Ecuador. Then, everything started to move. At the beginning, we both thought that the other person was shaking or moving nervously (we were watching a thriller) but then we realised that the building was moving. We did not have time to run down the building, so we thought the safest place would be to be on the balcony. From there we watched all the electricity cables swinging, it seemed they were going to break. Isadora started panicking and said out loud that it would never end. The earthquake lasted around a minute but it felt like it was forever. There was a lot of uncertainty in the country after the event. The news about the epicentre and magnitude came more than an hour after it. The only clear thing was that it was very strong. When the information about the victims started to arrive, we were terrified. We had never heard anything like this.

The coastal provinces of Manabi and Esmeraldas had no electricity and no phone signal, so we did not know the real impact of the tragedy until the next day. Our first instinct was to find a way to go there as soon as we could in order to help. We were not the only ones that had the same thought. Many people travelled to the coast, as volunteers, but soon there was news that many of them passed out due to not being psychologically prepared to see so much human loss. In order to avoid a shock, we prepared ourselves talking to psychologists: they advised to listen to the victims. Then we asked ourselves - how could we listen with photography? That is when the idea for this project arrived. We went to the affected zones five days after the earthquake and listened to everybody who wanted to talk to us. After that, we asked them to participate in this project by deciding the background for their portraits and writing on the instant images what they felt and thought at that point in time.

The concept of instantaneity was very important for us: the time that a polaroid picture takes to develop is about one minute, which is the same time it took the earthquake to change so many lives. Finally, we found it very symbolic to create a physical object in a disaster zone, this is why we made other colour instant pictures of the context of the earthquake. For us, this was kind of a symbol of reconstruction.


© Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero, from the series Siete Punto Ocho / Seven Point Eight

The book reads as a collaborative narrative, as well as a constructed memory to your countrymen and women - was this a conscious act when you set off to photograph the location?

From the beginning we wanted it to be a collaboration. We wanted to distance ourselves from the classical pictures of disaster - those that show people suffering and appear in a newspaper together with a cold statistic. We wanted to tell the story from the voices of the people, to see the tragedy from their own perspectives. When we were working on this project in that area, we felt every testimony was very strong and important, which exhausted us emotionally and this is why we weren’t able to think about what form the project would take in the end. When we returned home and put all the Polaroids together and read the whole body of work, we became aware of the importance of this project as a document of collective memory and the importance it will have later on in history.

What was the response of the people to the instant photographs and your project idea in the aftermath of the disaster?

In the capital, about a month after the earthquake, people started to forget about the issue. People were not sending as much aid as in the first couple of weeks after the event. At that moment we exhibited the pictures in large format (3x3m) on one of the most transited avenues in Quito. This is a very democratic part of the city because on that street everybody walks by, from business executives from the financial zone to people selling candy and cigarettes in the park. It was very touching to see each person passing in the hurry of everyday life to stop as if they hit a giant wall. They started looking at the pictures and reading each testimony. Some even started to cry. We realised how this project reactivates memory and, for us, this is very important.

We live in a country in which important events are easily forgotten and we tend to commit the same errors from the past. The casualties that the earthquake left were the result of negligence when building houses and the poor infrastructure of two of the poorest provinces of the country. We don’t want this to happen ever again because we know that we live in a zone where these natural disasters can occur. That is why every year that we commemorate the earthquake, we use the book as an excuse to debate and in order not to forget.


© Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero, from the series Siete Punto Ocho / Seven Point Eight

Could you tell us more about the messages people wrote onto the photos? Did you suggest any ideas to the subjects or how did this image - text collaboration occur?

This was a completely collaborative process. We visited the affected people and after chatting with them for a while, we told them about the project and asked if they would be willing to participate. As mentioned before, they decided where they wanted to be portrayed and once the Polaroid was developed. The only direction we gave was to write their thoughts and feelings anywhere on their image.

In the beginning, we were a bit afraid of what people would write. We were concerned about re-victimising the portrayed, if the messages were too sad or negative. But the surprise was that despite the horror they usually told us while we were there, the majority wanted to leave a message of resilience. "We are sure we are going to rebuild our lives” they said. 
There is a picture of a woman called Betty Arteaga. She lived in Pedernales, the city where the epicentre was located. She told us that she wanted to be portrayed in front of the ruined wall of the restaurant she had with her husband before the earthquake. She told us that there were huge waves through the earth, which did not allow her to walk and this is why she did not manage to escape from that building. Together with her husband they just managed to get against the wall in the picture and while the house was falling apart. "This is the wall that saved our lives” she wrote, when she gave us back the Polaroid. We felt goosebumps.

© Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero, from the series Siete Punto Ocho / Seven Point Eight

Was the project always intended to be turned into a book?

No, at the beginning we really did not know what was going to happen with the material we had gathered. We had about 80 testimonies and were afraid that the pictures would remain in the drawer. But luckily, when we came back to Quito we were able to show the pictures in two big exhibitions: in an open-air place and at a city cultural centre. For us, it was important to preserve this collective memory and give back the pictures to the people who helped us build this project. We also wanted the whole country to read their testimonies so we decided that the best way to do it was with a book. We wanted this printed memory to be a tribute to the victims and to the people of the affected areas. 



The book has been well received in the photo industry by receiving special mentions and book reviews, but most importantly, how has it been received in Ecuador and especially by the affected people?

It was a surprise in Ecuador because it was the only photographic work that talked about the issue in a collaborative way and from the perspective of the affected people. We think it engaged a broader audience because not only photographers were seeing the work. We launched it in 2018 in the affected cities and people from very different backgrounds were present at those events. Nowadays, we are very proud that the book is a conversation starter and a memory activator. After watching the publication, people start to talk about their own experiences during the earthquake so the catharsis continues. For us, this is very important because we aimed to keep this memory alive. Not much has been repaired in social terms in the provinces affected. We need to continue talking about this event so when it happens again we can be better prepared.

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Misha Vallejo and Isadora Romero are documentary photographers focusing on social and environmental issues throughout Latin America. They are both based in Ecuador. Most recently, their book Siete Punto Ocho received an Honorable Mention at the POY Latam 2019. Follow Misha on PHmuseum and Instagram; Isadora on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitterand Instagram.

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This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.

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