20 February 2020
20 February 2020 - Written by Laurence Cornet
Natalie Keyssar – the winner of our 2019 Women Photographers Grant – investigates the contradictions and causes of the Venezuelan socioeconomic crisis, constantly expanding the narrative to give the most honest representation of a place she fell in love with.
Natalie Keyssar went to Venezuela for the first time at the beginning of the crisis, back in 2014. Well-versed in leftist ideology – she had been covering Occupy Wall Street and other leftist movements against capitalism - she was intrigued by what seemed to be the reverse story. “I had heard a lot about the legend of this place, about this attempt to create a sort of socialist utopia funded by nationalizing oil money, but I didn’t know anything about what it would be like on the ground”, she recalls. What she found was a very complex situation, “a humanitarian crisis that unravels in a beautiful place where people have taught me a lot about how to be a better person, she describes it.
Yet, she took on assignments, invariably covering the protests and the most extreme examples of the crisis. “At the end of my first month I felt that I had failed because pictures of political violence and protests are sort of anonymous, they are decontextualised symbols. At a time of international polarisation between the left and the right, between socialism and capitalism, I felt like my images were used to support oversimplified views of the situation, like that all socialist ideas are bad”, she explains.
Aside from the assignments she continued on her trips to pursue an alternative narrative that would cover the other sides of the story. She drilled down, exploring Venezuela piece by piece. “This project follows my own exploration of the place; it’s my stubborn journey of trying to include everything – the ugly, the difficulty and the crisis, as well as the beauty of the place and of the people.”
She coined a complex narrative including the rich and the poor, the crime and the militarisation, the unrest and the militant chavismo, the protests and the dance lessons, the parties and the struggle. Sometimes, she even draws parallel between two supposedly opposites. In her photograph of cheerleaders raising fists during a performance, superheroines of the everyday, one wonders whether they’re dancing or protesting.
When Keyssar looked at her thousands of photos after nearly six years of working in Venezuela, she noticed patterns that emerged organically. That is, the recurrence of strong women protagonists. Throughout the years, they had become her muses, her friends, her allies in dangerous situations. In her photographs, they are omnipresent, strong, beautiful, and men remain hidden behind masks or pieces of clothing. “The society is held together by these beautiful matriarch archetypes”, she says. “And beauty is a big part of the culture here; the possibility to be sexy and powerful is a big thing for Venezuelan women”, she explains. Even during protest there's these moments of striking femininity, just like this female officer whose bright red lipstick glows through the scratched glass of her riot shield.
Besides the smoke and the helmets, tenderness emerges, a laughter pierces the frame, as if anticipating the hints of a recovery that recently materialises in some small ways in the country. “Venezuelans are kind of unbeatable”, Keyssar says. A photograph sums it all, of a little girl being hopped over a fence by an older member of her dance team. In a poetic and quiet way, it shows the power of a people leaving obstacles behind.
Natalie Keyssar is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is interested in class inequality, youth culture, and the personal effects of political turmoil and violence, primarily in the US and Latin America.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.
This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.