18 October 2017
18 October 2017 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
After witnessing the mood and mental state of her homeland deteriorate, Fabiola Ferrero set off to portray the country’s despair, finding an atmosphere of sadness, anger, and fear.
People in Venezuela have become lost amidst the need for survival against a backdrop of a faltering economy, a lack of food, and a severe shortage of medicine. Besides the inflation and the alarming murder statistics, Fabiola Ferrero pointed her camera to the mental emotional state of her countrymen and women, previously known for their humour and Caribbean spark. Yet today, the country seems to be in a collective depression, according to a research study made by a Venezuelan university, Ferrero says. Venezuela: Blurred in Despair; is an ongoing project that looks to document the national spirit of depression and how Venezuelans are changing as a result of the current crisis engulfing the country.
The initial motivation to begin your project, Venezuela: Blurred in Despair, was the personal realisation that the mental state of your countrymen was changing behaviour. What actions did you witness to make you conclude this and drive you to produce a photo essay?
One of the most obvious signs of how the violence has been normalised by Venezuelans is language. I constantly hear sentences of how people wish they could kill whoever they think is to blame for our current situation. If you make drawings of these sentences, you could visually see just how aggressive people's wishes are. Our murder rate (already one of the highest in the world) has increased. People started to lynch others, a way to take justice into their own hands. Whenever I visit families to photograph, I start by asking how they have been feeling lately, and they all cry. "I'm scared", a lot of them say. Scared of not having food for their children, of getting sick in a country with a medicine shortage of 85%, of getting robbed or killed when they go out of their houses.
According to a recent study made by a Venezuelan psychologist, Yorelis Acosta, called the "Emotional Map", Venezuelans experience sadness, anger and fear as their main emotions. Imagine living with that every single day. Naturally, there are many people trying to stay hopeful (this is one aspect of the crisis) to create groups of help, and to maintain dignity through it all. Yet, to me, the fact that mental health is collectively compromised, is important to document. Its creating a psychosocial trauma that will last for years.
The project focuses on different aspects of the country such as pagan religion, protests, a shortage of food and what appears to be an untouched landscape, almost virgin like. How are you consolidating all the aforementioned subjects to depict such a state of depression and despair?
I have to portray something that has no physical shape. Emotions are not so obvious, but I do have to show the most public part of it (the crisis itself: the why we got to this point). So I mix it with images that are more metaphorical, or that try to create the atmosphere of that dark mood present in the country - details, diptychs, and the decision to work with a grainy black and white. For example, there is one shot of a funeral ornament next to an image of an animal's legs tied together - I find that while these scenarios do not necessarily show you shortage, they talk about violence, death, and despair.
How has the current political climate in the country had an impact on the development of your personal work?
It has had an impact in a lot of ways. For instance, one of them is that, as a local, you live what you photograph. You can't ignore the tension, the danger, or the crisis. This environment has made it more dangerous for journalists on the ground, so we have to take more security precautions to work on certain topics. But also, in terms of the body of work, it exposes the most obvious way for the society to express the anger: taking to the streets, fighting the security forces, and temporarily letting go of fear.
It appears that the freedom of press is under threat in Venezuela and journalists have been attacked. How has your experience been as a photojournalist actively working for foreign media in the country?
I can't think of a colleague that hasn't been robbed, injured or threatened in some way while working in the country. It is already difficult to be there as a regular citizen, but anyone who plays a role in political life is a target. There are many stories on that subject, but I try to keep them private. The important thing, for whoever decides to report there, is to take safety seriously and not to try to have a first-hand experience to confirm that it is dangerous. Latin America is tricky in that sense: the danger seems hidden, but it’s there.
As you know, PHmuseum ran a Women Photographers Grant this year with the objective of building equal opportunities in the industry. Can you talk about your personal experience as an active female photojournalist in a conflict zone? Has your work been overlooked or have you encountered gender based difficulties that you would like to share.
Sometimes being a woman helps to stay safe. For instance, I visited a gold mine ran by an armed group called El Sindicato. I was there with a male colleague, and in their own words, he was safer just because I was present. In their moral codes, they can't hurt a woman, but they could do it to a man.
Like everything, you find people who treat you equally and some people who don't. I have received upsetting comments from colleagues, or people I interview, or even bosses. But I see my female colleagues just doing their jobs and proving that constant work overcomes any gender based obstacle.
And of course, the everlasting list of questions when I am by myself: "where is your husband?" "aren't you afraid of being alone in this place?", and it goes on. It bothers me sometimes, but the truth is that when I'm working, I have the option to lose energy fighting it, or I can get around it and get the job done. By understanding the codes of the society, you slowly learn how not to let this get to you.
You have been documenting Venezuela for a couple of years now and your work has been recognised in both Venezuela and abroad. Can you name some female photographers who have inspired you to continue and improve in your profession?
There are a lot of photographers that inspire me, but I have a group of journalists friends (not photographers) that motivate me with their ethics and hard work: Alicia Hernández, Katherine Pennacchio and Maolis Castro. They do some serious work in Venezuela.
In a more personal note, I have a story with two photographers from Venezuela. They are some years older than me, and therefore, very wise women. For some reason I met them separately but they were very close friends. This was in 2016, I was very sad at the time and struggling with some personal situations. They encouraged me to use photography as a tool to heal, and thanks to them I made my first photobook called Oblivion. It was the first time I used the camera to photograph myself and not others, and the first time I was out of the photojournalism world. I loved it, and my photography changed since then.
I see a group of women making a very important effort to change the industry, like Daniella Zalcman and Natalie Keyssar, and I think I speak for a lot of us when I say we're very grateful and proud of this movement. Some other women just inspire me with their work and how they handle themselves, such as, Meridith Kohut, Juanita Escobar and Luisa Dorr. There are, of course, a lot of other photographs that I constantly follow, like Cristina de Middel, Laura El Tantawy, Maggie Steber, Emilia Lloret, Newsha Tavakolian, and so many more…
Fabiola Ferrero is a journalist and photographer based in Caracas, Venezuela. She is a regular contributor for El País (Spain).
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers.