The Last Inhabitants of La Ciénega

Using a bold non-linear narrative, Santiago Arcos tells the story of a deserted Ecuadorian town, inhabited by only 11 aging inveterates.

© Santiago Arcos, from the series, La Ciénega

Projects addressing the future of cities invariably begin by citing the same dizzying figures: in 1910, 10% of humans lived in towns; in 1950, one third; today, half; tomorrow, much more... La Ciénega, in Ecuador, followed the fate of rural towns around the world. It’s been referred to in local media as “the only town with no kids”, when, in the late 1970’s, a severe drought and the lack of employment pushed its inhabitants to seek opportunities in the capital.

Intrigued by the headline, photographer Santiago Arcos went to La Ciénega for the first time in 2011. 44 times and many friendships later, he presents an intimate study of the place, inspired by his favourite comic book, The Watchmen, by English author Alan Moore, known to feature supplemental fictional documents that add to the backstory.

© Santiago Arcos, from the series, La Ciénega

Following Moore’s tracks, Arcos and writer Javier Carrera turned interviews into simulations of found objects such as a made-up report from the Ciénega general assembly dated April 1976, a newspaper spreadsheet, and a collection of poems. Each of the 9 fictional documents that they created introduce a new chapter of the visual story, taking the viewer deeper into the culture of the place. From a usual story of rural exodus aggravated with climate change, the narrative evolves towards a tale with mythological creatures and ghosts.

A screenshot of a blog post for instance features “La Osa” - a female bear, huge and very ugly, known to kidnap and keep men in a deep hole where she rapes them all day long. The only way to escape, the legend says, is to have children with her and convince them to help you get out.

© Santiago Arcos, from the series, La Ciénega

“The project talks a lot about what is tradition, and about the relation to death and life of La Ciénega’s inhabitants. They are really aware of living in a dying town - no one says that people will come back and things will get better. They talk about it with a lot of acceptance. They also know that they are getting old, and are all busy building their own graves”, Arcos recounts.

Including the voice of locals, Arcos mixes perspectives to disrupt the narrative and question the reliability of memory. “The first part is my vision of the town”, he explains. “But there is no interaction. So, we have created a space for them to interact and tell their own stories about La Ciénega in the form of a page on the website where they can upload photos from their family albums, from the town before the drought, and add comments. They are all very happy about it.”

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Santiago Arcos is an Ecuadorian photographer exploring everyday life in Latin American.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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