Venezuela has been spiralling down for almost two decades, and its current state of collapse reminds us of how fragile a nation can be when geopolitical and economic interests are more important to those in power than its people. Journalist and photographer Adriana Loureiro has been documenting her home country’s decay into extreme violence, poverty and despair since 2010 in her series Paraíso Perdido (Paradise Lost), an ongoing series that will end when “it is safe to go home” for any exiled Venezuelan. In today's interview, we speak with Adriana about the country’s current situation, her participation in the Latin American Foto Festival, what makes her stay, and how she hopes everything ends.
Adriana, you’re originally from Venezuela but moved to NYC to study a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University. How did those years and studies influence you as a person and a photographer?
My initial thought process was that I wanted to learn how to research and investigate topics, and when it comes to the fundamentals of journalism, Columbia is the place to go. When I applied for a scholarship there, I wasn’t thinking all that much about my photography because, as a self-taught photographer, I had convinced myself that it was something I could expand trough practice alone (I was wrong).
At Columbia, I enrolled in a photography course and my professor, Nina Berman… she was a complete game changer for me. Her class and her lessons are today a great source of direction for myself as a professional, but also for the type of photographer that I aspire to become. I don’t think my career would be where it is without my experience at Columbia. It made me a well-rounded professional with a strong sense of journalism and ethics.
Even though Venezuela finds itself in a chaotic, desperate situation, you decided to come back. Why?
I was actually planning to stay in New York for another year, but then, the 2017 protests broke out and I found myself completely consumed by Venezuela even though I was in New York. Back then, Paradise Lost had been 7 years in the making, and I had always thought that the ending to this project was going to be marked by our transition back into democracy. In 2017 it felt like that moment was nearing, so I knew I had to return. It turned out that 2017 was far from an end but rather the beginning of another stage.
Once I came back, I was basically confronted with the understanding that my work was needed here and that it was so much more rewarding to do it in Latin America. I think the Caribbean just resonates with me… I have a really profound connection and love for the region.
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You pride yourself on having a traditional investigative journalism background and affirm that “You can expect journalistic rigour in my work, especially in long-term projects: I heavily research and source the stories that I cover.” Do you feel like this way of approaching stories is getting lost?
If anything, I feel it’s becoming more common. Or at least I see more of it today than I did five years ago. I think a lot of photographers are more interdisciplinary now. I do also see this new wave of more subjective or artistic approaches to documentary photography and photojournalism, which I absolutely admire and appreciate. I think both ends of the spectrum are enriching, informing and expanding our practice. As competitive as this profession is, and surrounded by so much talent in the region, I think it is important to recognize what my strengths and weaknesses are. I think that’s definitely one of my strengths.
Let’s talk about this investigative approach. How do you start a personal project or a commission? What are the first steps, and how do you convey it through your photographs?
I like to read – a lot. I like to consult with academics on subjects, and I take a lot of creative inspiration out of studies, essays, fiction and non-fiction. Most of the topics that I touch upon in Paraíso Perdido are backed by studies in the region. For example, when I talked to experts about the role of women in Venezuelan society and found out that Venezuela’s teen pregnancy rate is 85.3 per 1,000 adolescents, I knew I had to devote a chapter to that topic. I met dozens of teenage mothers until I found one that I felt could visually relate the multifaceted issue that leads to a teenage girl wanting to become a mother.
With time though, I’ve been forced to let go of the stats and the numbers that back my work because the government has become increasingly obscure. What that translates to in reality is us not being able to rely as much on figures and data, but I still make a concerted effort to be interdisciplinary in my practice and allow experts to inform my photographic process.
Are you doing research on a specific topic currently?
I’m currently on the research stage for the next chapter in Paradise Lost, which is about the meaning of death in a country marked by violence. For that, I’m consulting with phycologists and philosophers, but visually focusing on extrajudicial executions. The question that is guiding my photography relates to the value of life confronted with its fragility.
I took the conceptual structure of Paradise Lost from Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar. I loved this idea that if you break down a story into individual chapters, the readers can rearrange those chapters however they like and it would change the narrative structure completely. That’s eventually where I would like to get to because of this idea of reality and its multifaceted nature. It depends on who is looking and how. And this paradox that an event can be incredibly beautiful while also being incredibly painful – the infinite interpretations of reality – is definitely how I’ve experienced the world.
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One of your most renowned projects is Paraíso Perdido (Paradise Lost), an ongoing chronicle of Venezuela’s collapse where you document the many issues its society has to face on a daily basis. After touring around many cities, it’s now on view at the Bronx Documentary Center in NYC as part of the Latin American Foto Festival. When did you start the project, and what have you tried to focus on during these years?
The first images I made were back in 2010. Back then, I wanted to explain the experience of Latin American violence, which was rather a state of mind. I knew I was looking for something but I didn’t know what it was. The early stages of the project were very anarchic or organic, I think. I would just have this umbrella of a topic and photograph bits and pieces as I saw life unfolding. I think through this project I evolved as a photographer. It’s kind of my coming of age.
The structure came together in 2014. I was photographing very violent riots at the border and the sun was setting over a tree, with teargas filtering the sunlight. People died that day, with a surreal and dreamy sunset as the background. And in that moment, I realized how tragic it all was. I imagined all the other parallel realities that sunset could have set upon. But none of those imaginary scenarios existed. That day, there was only loss. So I was extremely nostalgic for sure, and then I realized that that moment kind of summed up my experience of this country. The feeling that we lost something wonderful – the possibility of another reality. That’s when I knew what Paradise Lost had to be.
Nowadays, the project develops organically, kind of following life as it unravels. I don’t know where the project will be headed a year from now, I just know it has to stay true to our collective experience, remembering that there’s always so much beauty, even in our own tragedy.
Working on long-term projects is very demanding, even exhausting. You must select and edit dozens of pictures, try to give a narrative, even ‘make justice’ to the amount of time spent documenting a specific event, city, or situation. How does your approach change from short-term to long-term projects? Do you do anything differently as a photographer?
I think short-term projects are the way to build a long-term project; long-term projects, to me, are a concerted succession of smaller ones. A long-term project can feel way too overwhelming if I can’t break it down to smaller ideas, like chapters in a book.
With short-term projects, I think I’m a bit more organized – I have my to-do list and rather specific ideas of what I need in an image. Long-term projects give me the rare privilege of time, which I use to allow life to happen naturally. I can just let relationships and events unfold naturally. I really enjoy having the space to see what becomes of people, how their experiences shape their lives.
I previously worked at an art gallery, La Plataforma, whose director, Claudia Costa, is Venezuelan. She always told me how much she yearned to go back, and that she’d love to grow old there because it’s a tropical paradise. I guess it’s a shared feeling among those who lived there long enough before everything collapsed… Do you have any memories of a better time in Venezuela?
I think all Venezuelans share the nostalgia. The ones who left and the ones who stayed too, because the country’s collapse has been so steady that even us who are still here struggle to recognize what we’ve become. I think we all feel estranged. I think many of us are homeless in that sense, like we don’t have a home to go back to. And this idea is heartbreaking because there’s no other feeling like the safety of feeling at home. We all lost that.
I think at its core, that is the Venezuelan struggle: us trying to find a way back to better times. That’s the ending that I’m waiting to photograph for Paradise Lost. Whenever it feels honest to say that Venezuela is doing better – that it is safe to go home.
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Even though the situation is so desperate and seems like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there must be something to do about it. What can people from outside Venezuela do to help? Any organisations, NGOs, or projects you think we should know about and contribute to?
There are a lot of people working hard to help in Venezuela but, as in every country in crisis, the NGO dynamic is dicey. As a photographer, I’ve worked with several NGOs, and the ones that in my experience are really saving lives are Alimenta La Solidaridad, a non-profit that serves lunch to children and mothers suffering from food insecurity. Their network is nationwide and they’re literally saving starving children.
Plafam provides sexual health services for lower prices to women in Caracas. I really admire the operation that Médicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) has in the mining region of Venezuela. Last but not least (and I really hope this doesn’t sound self-serving), any contribution to the free press in Venezuela, I think is a contribution to restoring our democracy. I really admire Efecto Cocuyo, a local news site. ArmandoInfo, also a news site dedicated to investigative journalism – they’re doing outstanding work and enduring extreme political persecution for it.
Your work must take a toll on your mental and physical health. How do you distance yourself from the realities you document when you feel it’s too much? What do you do to keep yourself sane, motivated and going?
I think it’s extremely humbling to live in a place like this. I’m so privileged to have food on the table and running water in my bathroom; most of my family is alive and managed to migrate and build a good life abroad. I’m achieving my dreams thanks to a lot of people that have helped me throughout my life. It feels like there’s not much place for me to complain, especially because I know how extremely hard it is for most people here. So I just try to remind myself of how lucky I am and appreciate all that I have. That helps a lot mentally, to be grateful and humble.
I don’t think it is possible to completely distance myself though. The decomposition of the country is such that it’s just too pervasive, all-encompassing. Everyone working here still struggles with water shortages, power outages, unending hyperinflation, gasoline shortages. All of those things affect all of us to a different extent. The collapse of this country feels like a tsunami sometimes. You can only run so far until it catches you too.
Violence also is inescapable. Everyone I know here has had a somewhat traumatizing encounter with violence, whether it is kidnapping, armed robbery… I do think though that all of these things enrich and inform our understanding of the struggles that others are going through; they take empathy to another level. So I really try to appreciate those experiences too the best I can.
After working on so many harsh stories, do you ever plan on leaving Venezuela? What makes you stay?
Yeah, I love photographing Latin America, so I don’t see myself as a photographer that’s bound to a singular country. I know that my life’s circumstances have led me back home over and over again, so I’m also not resisting that pull. But I hope that in the coming years, I get the opportunity to travel more and see other things, new perspectives, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. I’m excited and curious to see what comes with that.
Craig Allen, my editor at the New York Times, just gave me this amazing opportunity to visit Guyana earlier this year, and I was like, ‘whoa, I’m actually interested in finding out who I am visually outside of Venezuela.’ So I’m just hoping that those opportunities cross my path because the questions I have for myself as a creator and visual interpreter are growing, and there’s so much more I want to develop and explore.
I see the future right now as extremely uncertain but also filled with new questions and possibilities that I want to explore. Can’t say I’ll stay in Venezuela forever but part of me knows that I’ll always have a reason to come back. At least until it gets better. When it does, I’ll know for sure that I did my part.
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