Natalie Keyssar on Photographing Venezuela’s Angry Divide
October 22, 2015
Against a backdrop of economic free-fall and rampant street crime, Venezuela has split along class lines into two distinct worlds, with lower and upper classes struggling over the country’s future. A juxtaposition of images that evokes “the tension and darkness and sadness I feel in Caracas,” Keyssar says.
A 12-year-old boy in a building expropriated for the poor and homeless, juxtaposed with a wall protecting the residence of a wealthy family.
Keyssar’s images capture the fear and mistrust on both sides of Venezuela’s divide. In this diptych, an image of a young girl (left) watching from behind a chair in the working class neighborhood of Antimano is juxtaposed with an image of palm trees behind a wall with barbed wire in the upscale suburb of Lagunitas.
International coverage of Venezuela’s social and political breakdown has focused on street protests, and lays blame for the country’s problems on the policies of its left-wing government, says photographer Natalie Keyssar. But after visiting the country in 2014, she says she found the narrative of the international media “way over-simplified,” and decided to spend time exploring the story herself.
Keyssar eventually pitched a story to MSNBC.com, and landed a week-long assignment last February to return to Caracas. The resulting story, called “Post-Chavez Venezuela: one country, divided in two,” featured a number of diptychs juxtaposing scenes from rich and poor neighborhoods of the capital city. It was published in early March, to coincide with the second anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s much loved (and hated) former president.
“It highlighted the inequality, which is a big issue for us,” says MSNBC.com senior photo editor Elissa Curtis, who gave Keyssar the assignment. “And it was a chance to look at how democracy is working in Venezuela” under the leadership of Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Keyssar said she got interested in the story after reading Spanish-language news accounts of the unrest. She was struck by how impassioned the government opposition seemed. “Ultimately, the protagonists are the upper class youth. What does it mean when the comfortable classes of a country are rising up against what’s supposed to be a leader who represents the poor?” she says.
Keyssar made the first trip on her own dime. She planned to stay a week, but ended up staying for several weeks. The more she saw, she says, “the more I realized how little I knew. No sentence could sum up the political situation. There are tons of overlapping realities, depending on who you speak to.”
The poor loved Chavez because of his policies of economic redistribution. They blamed the wealthy for their privations, accusing them of hoarding all the country’s wealth and resources. The wealthy hated Chavez, blaming him for ruining the Venezuelan economy. They also blamed the poor for runaway crime—including robbery, kidnapping and murder—that has forced the wealthy to live under guard behind fortified walls.
“This was a story with no heroes. I came quickly to fall in love with the Venezuelan character,” Keyssar says. “I couldn’t take a side. I was forced to be neutral by how complex all of the issues are. At the same time, I came to really care about so many of the individuals I interacted with, from hardcore government supporters to the hardcore opposition.”
She made a second trip to Venezuela last fall, and started spending time with people on both sides of the political divide to try to understand the roots of the strife. She found it easy to meet members of the opposition movement at street protests. A lot of them became close friends, she says.
Meeting government supporters was a bit more difficult, but not much, Keyssar says. “What I found again and again is that if you approach people with open hands and honesty about your intentions” they will welcome you and open up, she says. “I was super curious about Tupamaro”—an allegedly violent far-left pro-government group—“because there’s a lot of fear of them.”
Against the advice of her friends in Caracas, Keyssar went to a Tupamaro rally, found their spokesperson, and introduced herself. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Natalie. I’m interested in your organization. I’m an American. I’m a freelancer. Can we talk?’ She gave me her phone number and we set up a meeting.”
Keyssar says the point was to meet and spend time with people across the political spectrum, including the most radical. The challenge was the street crime. Caracas, she says, “is another level of danger” compared to other places she’s worked. And the fear isn’t just theft of your cameras, but “the fear you might get killed over your gear,” she says.
“You can’t walk around with a camera out unless you’re very calculated and have someone watching your back. You have to shoot behind closed doors, or make sure people in power in a certain area are vouching for you. The biggest frustration is that you always need to be considering security in a way that can be sort of limiting.”
Keyssar relied on her network of local contacts to move around. Despite the social chaos, she says, Venezuelans are eager to help even strangers. Whenever she told someone she was interested in going to a new place, she’d eventually be introduced to someone who would offer to escort her by motorbike. “It’s part of the culture, and it’s what I love about [Venezuela].”
Keyssar shot with a Canon EOS 5D, two prime lenses (35- and 50mm) and a Canon Speedlite flash. “I wanted the work to have that hot white Caribbean sun feeling I associate with Caracas, and I used flash sometimes to make sure that [look] would be uniform throughout,” she says.
She avoided the most sensational images, which tend to be polarizing, she says. She also took advantage of her freedom to go beyond straight reportage. MSNBC, she explains, is “willing to combine literal, traditional photojournalism with something that’s more about a feeling…. This project was about a level of tension that you can’t necessarily take a literal picture of.”
Curtis’s suggestion to think in terms of diptychs was also freeing, Keyssar says. “I started to see the images as fragments of a phrase, as opposed to needing the photograph to always be a complete phrase. It gives you a few more notes to play. By mixing diptychs with single images, it gives me an opportunity to be more specific with what I want to say.”
The story opens with a tight shot of a crying eye on a billboard, juxtaposed with a photograph of a man standing halfway in shadow, halfway in light. “The pairing was Elissa’s, but it’s so evocative of the tension and darkness and sadness I feel in Caracas right now,” Keyssar says.
Another image, shot in a poor barrio where violence and murder are common, shows a young girl half-hiding behind a chair. It is juxtaposed with an image of a house in a wealthy neighborhood, behind a wall and barbed wire. “You look at these two photos together and it’s a real conversation about what protection and safety means and what money can buy,” Keyssar says.
Her concern while she was shooting the story was that one side or the other would feel unfairly portrayed in the end. “The purpose was to create questions and dialogue, not point fingers, and I felt my contacts from both sides of the equation got that and were comfortable with how they were portrayed,” she says.
“You’re highlighting these differences, but you’re trying to do it in a way that’s subtle and non-judgmental and honestly neutral because the idea is to make people on both sides see the other side as a little bit more human.”
Because the future of Venezuela remains so uncertain, Keyssar says she expects to return to continue telling the story. “There’s going to be a lot of change, hopefully for the good, and I want to see it.”