Photographers' Blog

The Tower of David – Venezuela’s “vertical slum”

Caracas, Venezuela

By Jorge Silva

I have wanted to photograph life inside Caracas’ Tower of David – also known as “the vertical slum” – for years now. At times, it became something of an obsession; it was a story I had to tackle.

The tower is an icon of modern-day Caracas. Although squats or “occupied spaces” are common downtown, the Tower of David has literally taken the phenomenon to whole new levels. The third-tallest building in the country, it was intended as a financial center but abandoned after its developer died and the financial sector crashed. Squatters have now occupied the tower for years. Its unfinished, humongous, modified skeleton can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The stories of what happens inside have become the stuff of urban legend.

The place could be the perfect setting for what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has called the “novela total” or “complete novel” – a book that encompasses the many and contradictory aspects of life. The tower is a physical example of the greatest problems faced by Venezuelan society: a great scarcity of housing, and a security crisis. It is also a symbol of what happened after the collapse of the country’s financial system in the 1990s and of the historical juncture at which Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution now finds itself.

The first time I tried to get access to the tower wasn’t really a success. I was told, not in the friendliest of terms, that I should leave while I still could. This happened sometime after a critical article appeared in The New Yorker and was widely translated in Venezuelan media, featuring a long interview with the man who led the occupation of the building in 2007 – a born-again evangelist who had done prison time.

The residents of the tower, and particularly those in charge of managing it, were (and still are) very sensitive to media. Publications frequently feature headlines such as: “Tower of terror,” “The shanty skyscraper,” “Inside the tallest vertical slum in the world,” “Woman raped in the tower of David.” It has even been featured in an episode of the TV series “Homeland” as a kidnappers’ den.

In Caracas – The business of death

Caracas, Venezuela

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

As a photographer I’ve been present at many funerals and I’ve often found myself, in one way or another, surrounded by death and all that it entails.

One of the more gruesome things that I have witnessed is the sight of a victim of violence being embalmed.

The pungent odors of formaldehyde and decomposition, and the way that they make your eyes itch, are nothing compared to the moment when the embalmer methodically removes the seal that closed the head-to-belly incision following the autopsy.

Rehabilitating each other

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The day William decided to change his life was when he woke up on the street soaked in gasoline and engulfed in flames. I met him at the Nosotros Unidos (Us United) Christian shelter in Caracas a year later. William, 39, doesn’t remember how many years he lived on the streets, stealing to feed his drug habit. He also doesn’t know who set him on fire. But he does remember the year he spent in a hospital recovering from the burns.

Surrounded by one of the biggest slums of one of the world’s most violent cities, the walls of Nosotros Unidos have, over the past 15 years, sheltered more than 20,000 people in search of a way out of the self-destructive cycle of drugs. With high ceilings and little light, and rows of bunk beds occupied by people whose worldly possessions fit into a small locker, the center run by a Protestant church offers free rehabilitation to people with problems of drug abuse and indigence.

The main therapy to those who enter the program is religion through prayer.

Douglas is on his third and longest stay in the center. Among the several violent incidents in his street existence was the time someone shot him with a homemade shotgun that used screws and nails as ammunition. His abdomen still retains the deep gouges from the blast. Inside the shelter it’s impossible for him to hide his joy when his mother and 15-year-old daughter come to visit him. He admits they are the only motivation he has to find a way out of the world in which he was immersed.

Venezuela’s healthy city

One of the daily activities I enjoy most is arriving home in the evening after a long shift at the office, grabbing my iPod and going out running. It makes me feel good, keeps me active, and more important still, it banishes all of the stress of the day.

But I don’t like running in a park or some other quiet place, much less shutting myself away in a gym to jog on a machine, which bores me very quickly.

What I love to do is run through the city, through the streets, without worrying about the traffic, skipping around pedestrians on the sidewalks. I always thought I was a bit crazy because of that, and then a friend told me about a big group of people who don’t just run in the streets, but they do it in packs at night. So I decided to document them.