Photographing the Gentrification of a Quito Neighbourhood

Ecuadorian photography duo, Niru Kolectivo has spent the last four years documenting the historical 24 de Mayo neighbourhood in Quito. Their photographs break with traditional stereotypes of the area, offering a window into the myriad cultural classes that are transforming the social fabric of the community today.

© Niru Kolectivo, from the series The 3x8 Behind the City

In their series, The 3x8 Behind the City, Johanna Alarcón and Eduardo León - under the name Niru Kolectivo - explore the urban transformation of Quito’s 24 de Mayo neighbourhood, one of the oldest and most diverse regions of the city. Once home to the upper classes in the early twentieth century, 24 de Mayo saw all the wealth leave in the 1950s when oil revenue allowed for the expansion of the city and the elites moved northwards, opening up spaces for those coming from rural areas in search of a better life. Its identity changed and homes became occupied by merchants, potions vendors, artists, and sex workers.

Now, it is seemingly coming full circle, with a process of gentrification taking place across the neighbourhood with new areas of development springing up and a new social fabric emerging.

How was Niru Kolectivo born and what were your individual roles in this project, The 3x8 Behind the City?

Niru Kolectivo was established in 2015, and it grew as a result of The 3x8 Behind the City. What united us as a collective was an interest in using documentary photography as a tool to relate to people and break down barriers through the camera.

We always photograph together with the understanding that photography goes beyond the shutter and the picture itself. It is about the story and the relationship you develop with your subjects. We invested a lot of time in hearing the locals' stories… then came capturing spontaneous photos and building a cohesive narrative. This is how we got to know 24 de Mayo, but also ourselves as a team - it was rather complex but satisfactory. Beyond being photographers, we are humans who dream and believe light exists within so much darkness and that photography is our weapon to continue fighting, creating, and communicating.

© Niru Kolectivo, from the series The 3x8 Behind the City

In 2016 you were awarded the prize, Photojournalism for Peace "Juan Antonio Serrano" (Fotoperiodismio Por La Paz "Juan Antonio Serrano"). What impact has the prize had on your project?

It is really important to us to have won this prize. Firstly, we thank Paradocs who have worked really hard to create this great award in documentary photography. Many opportunities have arisen and important names in the industry have looked at the project and given us their thoughts and suggestions, which for us is invaluable, considering editing a project can be endless. To be aware of fresh views and experiences helps us discover new perspectives and creative ways that help the project.

The diffusion and dialogue of the work, locally and internationally, and the economical support to continue the project is fundamental, since it has been rather difficult to get the funds to sustain the initiative and finish this documentary. Our dream has been to exhibit it in the neighbourhood, and we hope to accomplish this and to communicate to 24 de Mayo the love and friendship that we have been given.

What motivated you to produce this project? For how long have you been working on it?

In short, the need to produce a collective memory of a neighbourhood which is disappearing due to gentrification. It is an area of the city that historically has been marginalised through prejudice towards the inhabitants, with the use of fear as a tactic to delay public policies that work for the locals. We felt that a photographic project that can allow a historical testimony by the locals themselves, and by the Quito society, was necessary. The project is a small window into a neglected neighbourhood that can work as a reflection upon the whole city.

© Niru Kolectivo, from the series The 3x8 Behind the City

How did you gain access to the communities in 24 de Mayo and what challenges did you face?

Johanna has been a part of Nina Shunku, an independent cultural organisation based in 24 de Mayo for four years, and this gave us access to the community even prior to the start of the project. We managed to make connections by knocking on people’s doors and explaining that we wanted to know the history that unfolds in 24 de Mayo. As we talked to more people, we started to see how there was a thread that united them all at some point.

We continued with an open and friendly approach and this was key to gaining access. Without even thinking, we would talk to people in common areas or enjoy meals with them. We were involved in their stories, and so we would go back. We are amazed how the camera became our ally, a good excuse to make friends - to know the daily routine. We discovered their reality by being part of it. 24 de Mayo is a place that for decades has been considered very dangerous, and it was difficult to imagine how we would get access, but the locals were the ones who opened up their doors to us. The biggest challenge was to stop photographing and to walk the streets without knocking on people's doors.

Have you exhibited the project in Ecuador?

The photographs were part of an exhibition about a new vision of the capital with many more artists at Centro Cultural Metropolitano curated by Claudi Carreras. What was most interesting was that many of the locals photographed enriched the show by giving guided tours to other neighbours from 24 de Mayo. The fact that this neighbourhood, forgotten and silenced by politicians and citizens, has a space in an exhibition that talks about the city and the community feels involved in it, is moving.

© Niru Kolectivo, from the series The 3x8 Behind the City

What is the opinion of the residents of 24 de Mayo about the work?

Together with the making of the photographs, we created a narrative workshop with the locals, during which we gathered many of the neighbours that previously had not met. We showed the photographs and they were able to express what they felt, seeing themselves in them. This process helped us to have a dialogue where we could agree on and establish how we wanted to represent them.

To finish - once you end this project, will you continue producing documentary stories under the umbrella of Niru Kolectivo or do you have other plans?

For now, the collective will continue working in the neighbourhood. We stepped back at one point due to the fact we were working on this on our own, which did not allow us to move forward in the way we wanted to. However, the break allowed us to approach the work more thoughtfully and now we have the opportunity to photograph the changes in a community that is constantly transforming because of the gentrification.

Each of us are working on different forgotten subjects within Ecuadorian society. For instance, Edu is photographing a street in Quito where the new upper class has located after the first petrol barrel came out of the Ecuadorian jungle. It is vital to photograph the upper class in order to understand the inequality in Latin America. An insight into what every Ecuadorian looks to accomplish.

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Niru Kolectivo is a documentary photography collective featuring Johanna Alarcón and Eduardo León, based in Quito, Ecuador. Their work explores the use of art as a social transformative tool. Follow them on PHmuseum.

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 Twitter and Instagram.

PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant
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