Meeting the hungry of Caracas
By Carlos Garcia Rawlins
For a year or so now, we photographers have been illustrating Venezuela’s economic crisis with photos of empty shelves and queues forming outside supermarkets. But now I wanted to do something different.
In search of a more intimate perspective on the story, I found out about a eating center in Caracas that has been caring for homeless people for the last 14 years. At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find it. The only directions I had were: “it’s in San Martin district, under a bridge next to some tyres”.
But even though there was no one on the phone who could help me pinpoint the centre’s exact location, when I arrived in the area a strong smell of vegetable soup wafting from behind a closed door let me know I was on the right track. Sure enough, there it was: The Mother Teresa of Calcutta eating centre.
In a dishevelled back street of central Caracas, under a bridge, the centre houses a number of long, concrete tables and benches. It has faded indigo-blue walls and bears marks from the floods that occur regularly during the rainy season, with just a couple of lightbulbs to complement the faint stream of light from the only window in the place. Willy, the shelter’s resident cat, helps keep the floor clean of scraps.
The center’s Venezuelan version of Mother Teresa is Fernanda, a warm and smiling lady, who for over a decade has been carefully preparing soup in a gigantic pot. When someone makes a special donation or the budget stretches far enough, she provides a meat dish. The food is always free, and no questions are asked of the people who come in to eat it.
As always with these sorts of projects, the most interesting part is getting to know the individuals involved. Spending time with the 50 or so people who fill the soup kitchen every day was a very special experience and everyone I spoke to had an amazing story.
I wanted to take portraits of everyone I met, but to start with not many of the soup kitchen’s visitors were willing to be photographed or to chat with me about their personal circumstances.
But when the first ones agreed, I brought them a copy of their photo the next day, and it was incredible to see how they cracked up laughing at the pictures of themselves. They were so thankful when I told them that these photos were presents. One of them even had tears in his eyes when he told me that he had not seen himself for many years. After that, they all wanted pictures and eagerly compared among themselves who had and had not received a photo yet.
As for Fernanda, her story is remarkable too. Leaning against her kitchen surface, she told me how she had been so hungry one day that she knocked on a priest’s house asking for help. He gave her food and – more importantly – a job at the soup kitchen. She’s been working there ever since.
Her biggest problem these days is finding the ingredients she needs. I stood with her outside the supermarket in the queues that form in the early morning. Hundreds of people wait for hours in these lines before the store opens, some starting before dawn, to buy whatever is in stock that day. Often, basics like rice or lentils are not available, so Fernanda has to go back the next day and queue all over again.