Venezuelan photographer Ana María Arévalo spent a long time living abroad. When she returned to her homeland in 2017, she found a country in a deep state of crisis. She began her Días Eternos series by photographing women being held in detention centres. Many of them have been imprisoned arbitrarily and languish there for months or even years before coming to trial. For Arévalo, the image of the inhuman conditions these women experience while they wait, was a reflection of the crisis in Venezuela. We spoke with the photographer about closeness, respect and the advantages of the Leica Q, an inconspicuous, quiet camera.
How did you come up with the idea of doing a photo series on detention centres?
I went back to Venezuela in 2017 after having been away for three and a half years. Three years without going back to Venezuela, in the middle of the crisis the country is going through, was like an eternity. The country had changed radically. One day, I was working with a journalist friend on ideas about how to photograph the crisis. She talked to me about the situation of people who have been arrested and taken to pre-trial detention centres. Soon after that conversation we visited one of the detention centres in Caracas and I realized that the situation was very critical. So many of their human rights were being abused.
What did you see exactly?
Inside the “dungeon” (that is what they call the cells), a group of women were sharing a very small, dark room. The air was suffocating. They had little room to sleep, no privacy, and to go to the bathroom they had to use a bucket in front of the other women. They were waiting for their families to bring them food and water. They were imprisoned for months or years, without even knowing when their trial was going to be.
That visit gave you the impulse to produce your Días Eternos photo series, a long-term project …
Yes, after the visit I was embarrassed not to have known anything about these conditions – like so many other Venezuelans. So I decided to deal more intensely with the subject. This is where one of the roots of the Venezuelan crisis becomes obvious: the penal system is not on the side of the citizens, and certainly not on the side of the most needy: the women.
How did you manage to get such close, touching pictures?
First I needed to develop their trust and take my time to talk to them, listen to their stories and be honest about my purpose: to advocate for their rights through photography and interviews. As they talked about their different stories, I also talked about my own experiences. I sang for them. Once we trusted each other, I took the camera out and shot the pictures. In a period of three years, I went back to visit the same centres several times.
You have invested a lot of time. Do you consider time to be the key to trust and, ultimately, the basis for a good picture?
Yes. One day I spent so much time with them, that when I yelled for the guard to open the cell he didn’t come: he forgot that I was there! I decided to keep on shooting pictures of the women until the guards remembered me. The intimate moments arrived when they realized I was not scared of staying with them. We always treat each other with respect. That is the basis for taking a close-up picture.
How did you manage to draw a line between your work and your human empathy?
Why would I want to draw a line? That’s how I feel every time I visit a detention centre: vulnerable, empathic and honest. I feel rage and frustration when I leave those centres. The honesty helped me connect. The connection I felt with these women enabled an intimacy that resonated in the images created. The vulnerability translated into my photography. I want to pursue this project until the situation changes, to visit more centres, to interview more women and to follow some of them in order to document their return to society upon their release.
How were you able to leave these women behind? How were you able to deal with it mentally?
Every time I leave these detention centres, I feel very frustrated, sad, enraged. These feelings translate into my heart wanting to do more. The biggest motivation behind my work on Días Eternos, is the hope that my pictures might contribute towards understanding how incredibly unfair and corrupt the penal system in Venezuela is.
The spaces were very tight and the lighting bad. How was it to work with the Leica Q in such extreme conditions?
The Leica Q is the absolute best! It worked perfectly in those environments because, first of all, it is a pretty small camera, and the guards sometimes thought it was an old analogue camera. Second, it is silent and fast. It’s recommendable to choose the Q to work in small spaces, because the camera itself is quite small and the silence helps to “disappear” in the moment. Third, it works really well in situations of low light. In the most extreme situations I could push the ISO to 12.500 in 1.7, and the results were quite good. I could use the macro function to shoot close-up details or portraits. The battery lasts a long time, but I also carry a spare one. The Venezuelan, Caribbean light and the photographic quality of Leica, make a perfect combination to enhance the contrast of light and shadow.
You will find a comprehensive portfolio of Ana María Arévalo’s Dias Eternos long-term project in LFI 3.2019.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1988, Ana María Arévalo studied Photography at the École superieur de Photographie in Toulouse, France. Arévalo uses photography to create visual narratives of high documentary value. She received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for her work on Dias Eternos. The series has already appeared in the New York Times’s Lens Blog. Arévalo’s work has been published in DUMMY, Wordt Vervoldt, Libération, Tal Cual, El Pais Semanal, Der Spiegel, among others.
To see more of Arevalo’s photography you can visit her website.