Over the next several weeks we will be profiling this year’s new Reportage Emerging Talent roster. The first is Alejandro Cegarra, from Caracas, Venezuela. Alejandro originally took up photography as a hobby while studying publicity at Alejandro de Humboldt University in Caracas.
After working for a year at an advertising agency, he quit to pursue photography as a fulltime profession. He has worked for Venezuela’s largest newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, as well as freelanced in his country for the Associated Press. Earlier this year, he was recognized in Magnum Photo Agency’s 30 Under 30 contest and was the first-prize winner of the Ian Parry scholarship. We asked Alejandro a few questions about his work and burgeoning career as a photographer.
Q) Your winning portfolio for the Ian Parry Scholarship was a story about Caracas’ Torre de David, an unfinished skyscraper that was turned into a makeshift community of squatters. Where did they predominantly come from, and what is life like for the families who live there?
A) In 2007, around 2000 people moved into the building: many were families with no place to live; others arrived because they were tired of the insecurity where they lived, etc. Mostly, the people who live in the tower come from the slums of Caracas, which form a ring of poverty around the city. Life in the tower is not easy: you have water one day per week; if you live in the high floors, you have to carry everything on your shoulders (beds, refrigerators, furniture). The garbage system is to throw everything out the window. They have problems with plumbing and other basic services. Also, they are prone to fall into the void [a large shaft in the center of the tower]. The tower has a lot of places that are dangerous to walk near. Two days ago, a pipe fell from one of the higher floors and hit a kid in the head. The kid later died.
Q) The fate of the building’s residents remains unclear. What is the most likely future for the building and its occupants?
A) The government has started moving out the squatters to new houses outside Caracas. They are going by their own will and mostly they are happy with the new apartments. Meanwhile, other inhabitants do not want to leave Caracas, and want new apartments in the city. I expect that, by the end of the year, the tower will be empty.
Q) You covered the protests in Caracas earlier this year. What were some of the challenges you faced while working, and do you think your experience differed from the foreign journalists covering the story?
A) It was the first time covering that kind of protests, and I was the rookie among the agency photographers. I paid a lot of attention to my colleagues who are more experienced. During the protests, I felt afraid, angry, excited, sad, overwhelmed – and to keep out all those feeling while I was shooting was the challenge.
On the first day of the protest, the 12th of February, I took the picture of the first death of what became 40 over the next few months. His name was Bassil Da Costa and I still remember the scared faces of the guys who were carrying him.
I think that my advantage was knowing “the behavior codes” of the Venezuelans and be able to anticipate their reactions. Also, knowing how to handle the National Guard and be always safe from them – they weren’t friendly with the press.
Q) After the protests died down, Venezuelan politics faded away from the radar of international news outlets. How would you describe the current political situation, and what would you predict is the next chapter in the story, so to speak?
A) Venezuela is the most bipolar country of Latin America. Early this year the protesters and the opposition were willing to give their lives for what they believe. Now, everything is so calm. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. Venezuela right now is in an economic crisis, with high crime rates and a shortage of food. There is a belief here that “when the slums comes down to protest is when the government is going out.”
Q) When did you first take an interest in photography, and which Venezuelan photographers have most inspired you?
A) I started by chance 4 or 5 years ago. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an ambassador to the UN; then I wanted to be in advertising; then photography came along and made me dream bigger. I took inspiration from a lot of Venezuelan photographers and picking one name is hard, but I think I most admire my coworkers who are making photos with me in the streets: Juan Barreto (AFP); Carlos Garcia and Jorge Silva (Reuters); Ariana Cubillos and Fernando Llano, who gave me the chance to work with them for Associated Press; and Miguel Gutierrez and Santi Donaire (EFE). I’ve learned a lot from these guys, especially during the protests.
Q) You’re currently working on a project about violent crime in Caracas, which has increased significantly over the last decade. What do you envision as your approach to telling this story, and what element of this story – one that is shared by other Latin American cities – feels uniquely Venezuelan, either in terms of the root causes or the governmental response?
A) I have too many stories to tell about the country’s violence. There are so many layers of information about the violence and I’m trying to find a way to put my feeling in the pictures – put my life experience, my fears about it – because it is also a pain that I’ve lived through more than once. I’m angry and sad about the violence and the inability of the government to stop it. In 14 years, Venezuela has seen 23 official security plans, without results. That’s why I feel outraged. In Venezuela in 2013, more than 24,000 people died violent deaths. That’s why I want to show our silent war.View more from Alejandro Cegarra’s project on Reportage by Getty Images Explore the new Reportage Emerging Talent on Reportage by Getty Images Follow Reportage by Getty Images on Tumblr for the latest insights, profiles and industry news