Illustrating Venezuela’s surreal prices

October 2, 2014

Caracas, Venezuela

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Finding images to accompany economic stories has always been a challenge. There’s a temptation to be repetitive and you sometimes end up illustrating, yet not informing properly. I wanted to do something more significant this time to really capture Venezuela’s economic crisis and the way it is hitting people’s pockets. I’ve been covering – and, as a Venezuelan, living! – this subject for a long time but I’m weary of the typical photo of an old lady spending her few resources on food at a supermarket.

So this time I wanted to create images that would really make people sit up and see the story at a glance – namely the crazily high prices for simple everyday products. The idea was straightforward: photograph an item with a price tag showing its equivalent in U.S. dollars and emphasizing that further by pasting up the notes. Executing it, though, proved complicated.

A kilogram (2.2 lbs) of raw carrots as photographed in a studio with an illustrative price tag of $19.05 (US dollars), equivalent to the Bs. 120 (bolivars) that it costs on average to purchase in Caracas at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar, in Caracas September 29, 2014. Venezuela's economic crisis has led to some shocking and surreal price distortions that hit people's buying power dramatically. While the government of President Nicolas Maduro calls the country's minimum wage of Bs. 4,252 the highest in the region when converted to $675 using the official exchange rate, the galloping black market for currency considers it as just $42.50 when converted at the street rate of Bs. 100 per US dollar, the rate which many importers and retail outlets must use to acquire hard currency. Venezuela's annual inflation rate of more than 63 percent is the highest in the Americas, according to official statistics. Picture taken September 29, 2014.   REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“Hi, good afternoon, I’m a photographer, I work for Reuters, an international news agency, and I’m doing a project in which I need to photograph a pair of new shoes. Could you help me?” That was how I began a long tour of shops trying to persuade puzzled shopkeepers and salespeople to lend me their wares instead of selling me them. My offer was to leave the money as a guarantee and then pick it up when I returned the product. It seemed reasonable to me, but most simply said ‘no’.An Adidas Adipure Crazy running shoe as photographed in a studio with an illustrative price tag of $1,198 (US dollars), equivalent to the Bs. 7,547 (bolivars) a pair of them costs on average to purchase in Caracas at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar, in Caracas September 29, 2014. Venezuela's economic crisis has led to some shocking and surreal price distortions that hit people's buying power dramatically. While the government of President Nicolas Maduro calls the country's minimum wage of Bs. 4,252 the highest in the region when converted to $675 using the official exchange rate, the galloping black market for currency considers it as just $42.50 when converted at the street rate of Bs. 100 per US dollar, the rate which many importers and retail outlets must use to acquire hard currency. Venezuela's annual inflation rate of more than 63 percent is the highest in the Americas, according to official statistics. Picture taken September 29, 2014.  REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

So in fact the most time-consuming part of this project was simply sourcing the items. My aim was to demonstrate how Venezuela’s currency controls and runaway inflation – the annual rate is more than 63 percent, the highest in the Americas – are distorting the economy. Using the government’s main official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, the minimum monthly wage of 4,251 is a relatively healthy $675, one of the highest in the region the government likes to say. But in reality, at the black market rate of about 100 bolivars to the dollar which many importers and retail outlets use as a guide for pricing, that monthly wage is in fact worth just a paltry $42.5 when it comes to buying anything other than basic necessities, which are price-controlled.

Determined to illustrate all this in an aesthetically pleasing way, I first borrowed a school blackboard but it wasn’t sharp or big enough, so I went out and bought a plastic marker-board and painted it with green blackboard paint.

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Then I disappeared into a studio with the objects and spent hours arranging and re-arranging them, sticking and un-sticking dollar notes onto the board behind, and then carefully writing and rubbing out the figures in chalk. All, of course, in the right perspective which was often the most time-consuming aspect to achieve.

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It’s pretty hard just to understand Venezuela’s economy right now – so you can imagine how tough it is to illustrate it! I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on my surreal homeland.

A 75-watt incandescent light bulb as photographed with an illustrative price tag of $13.51 in Caracas

2 comments

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This is one the things that freaks me out every time I call my family. It would be interesting to use a dollar bill and paint on the blackboard how many gallons of gas you can buy with 1 dollar bill in Venezuela. Some friends I have they don’t quite understand how gas is so cheap in a country where goods prices are way above from any unthinkable price. Thanks for illustrating the reality many people out there in Venezuela still ignores.

Posted by fxc | Report as abusive

This is not 100% accurate, you are using an exchange rate of 6,30 Bs/$ for all the products, but most of the prices of the items listed are calculated with a rate of 100 Bs/$.

For example 1 kg of “Harina Pan” cost 7,41 Bs (1.18$ or 7 cts$), this occurs with most of the food and medicines, surreal prices that leads to scarcity.

The government subsidize the economy with a super cheap dollar, but that situation is no longer possible to maintain, that situation originated a huge distorsion on prices, inflation and corruption that everybody knows.

Posted by joseamorillo | Report as abusive