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The faces of those fleeing Venezuela

Blending portraits with defunct bolivar banknotes, Felipe Jácome captures the exhaustion of Venezuelan migrants and the broken country from which they flee

A group of adults and children appear on the horizon. Getting closer, one woman becomes defensive: “I don’t want any photographs,” she says, cradling a baby in a blanket in her arms and gesturing to Felipe Jácome’s camera. The group continue walking, but, as they do, the child’s leg slips out. A malnourished leg. A leg the size of a thumb.

Jácome does not take photographs without permission, and so he is taken aback by the woman’s adversity — he had no plans to photograph her without her consent. However, he quickly acknowledges the intrusiveness of his camera: unwelcome amid the desperation and vulnerability. “It was at that moment, upon seeing the baby’s leg, that I realised these people had lost everything,” says the Ecuadorian documentary photographer, who accompanied Venezuelan migrants, known collectively as Los Caminantes, or the Walkers, as they fled the ongoing crisis unfolding in their home.

The crisis in Venezuela is not new. The election of Nicolás Maduro to president in April 2013 precipitated an economic free fall in what is now South America’s poorest nation. Today, the national currency is nearly worthless, and predictions indicate that hyperinflation, which began in 2016, may increase to 12,000 per cent this year. Food, water, electricity and medicine are scarce. Political turmoil is rife with the country’s two presidents, Maduro, and the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself acting president on 23 January 2019, engaged in an ongoing struggle for power.

As a result, a mass exodus, unprecedented in peacetime, has ensued, with the UNHCR reporting over four million Venezuelans emigrating to date. This year, predictions suggest that number will surpass the number of Syrians driven from their country by the civil war, yet, despite this, the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, one of the largest in history, has received disproportionate international aid.

Arlenis, 2019. Arlenis, 12, is from Trujillo, Venezuela. She had been walking for five days when this photo was taken © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.

“I held that origami figure in my hands and wondered what everyday life was like in a land where money had stopped being money”

Lisette, Maracay, Venezuela, 2019. Lisette hoped to reach Perú where her cousins are currently living. She left her two children with her mother in Venezuela. “We need to fight for those we left behind,” she said. As of January 2020, over one million Venezuelan children have been left behind as the nation’s economic turmoil has forced their parents to migrate for work paid in hard currencies © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.

Initially, Jácome was covering the refugees’ arrival in Ecuador, when a young Venezuelan handed him an origami star constructed from a worthless Bolivian banknote. “I held that origami figure in my hands and wondered what everyday life was like in a land where money had stopped being money and where a monthly wage can barely purchase a bag of rice,” wrote Jácome in an article for The Washington Post, reflecting on an exchange, which compelled him to witness the exodus himself.

“In 2019, I reached the Venezuelan border, and there were hundreds of people leaving the country,” remembers the photographer, who travelled from Cúcuta, a town on the border of Venezuela and Columbia, 125 miles to Bucaramanga, Colombia, covering up to 25 miles per day of inhospitable terrain, and crossing the Berlin Páramo, an alpine tundra at 9,000 ft where temperatures can fall below zero degrees. Jácome accompanied Venezeualans and photographed them as they walked. Employing a silver gelatin darkroom process, the resulting images blend portraits with defunct Bolivian banknotes — manifestations of the “cause and consequence of the crisis” from which his subjects have escaped.

“I hope the images will have the same effect on viewers as receiving the origami note had on me,” continues Jácome, “that they make people wonder what could be happening for money to lose its value and the implications of that.”

Caminantes, The Venezuelan Exodus, by Felipe Jácome is on show in Anastasia Photo’s virtual viewing room until 27 June 2020.

Jairo and Julia. 2019. Jairo, 18, and Julia, 15, rest on each other after walking for 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) on the road from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga, the first stretch on the migrant route out of Venezuela and into Colombia. The journey is approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Diana María and her children. 2019. Diana María and her children are traveling to Ecuador to join her husband who had left five months before them. “He was sending us money regularly, but once converted to Bolívares it was not enough to buy food for the household” © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Pedro and His Nephews. 2019. Pedro migrated to Perú early 2018 but went back to Venezuela to bring his wife and child. His eight nephews decided to tag along and join him in Perú in search for a better life. According to the UN, Perú reached a record daily high of 8,000 Venezuelans crossing the border in June 2019. There are now over 800,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in Perú © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Fernando, 2019. Fernando, 25, is from Valencia, Venezuela. He decided to leave the country soon after his first son was born. “We do anything for our children,” he said. This image was taken on the road leaving Cúcuta, Colombia. As of 2019, over 1.2 million children are not in school with another one million highly vulnerable individuals dropping out due to the crisis. Many families cannot afford the clothing, footwear or transportation required and children are instead working to help pay for their family’s essential needs © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Unnamed Migrant, 2019. This migrant was photographed as he walked through Berlin Páramo, an alpine tundra between Cúcuta and Bucaramanga. At 9,000 ft, it is the highest and coldest point on the route to Bucaramanga where temperatures can go below 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit) © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Luis. 2019. Luis, 62, from Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, left his home three months ago. “Seeing my grandchildren go to sleep feeling hungry broke my heart. That ́s why I ́m on the road,” he said. Puerto Cabello is on the north coast of Venezuela. The city is home to the largest port in Venezuela and thus an integral part of the country’s oil industry. Puerto Cabello is 930 km (577 miles) from Bucaramanga © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.
Shadows. 2019. A group of migrants walk at night on the highway from Cúcuta to Bucaramanga. Every day, more than 3,000 Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia to begin this gruelling walk © Felipe Jácome, courtesy Anastasia Photo, New York.

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