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.

A roof for the roofless

Sao Paulo, Brazil

By Nacho Doce

It was close to midnight on Sunday night, the hour at which 1,200 families planned to occupy 11 vacant buildings in downtown Sao Paulo. Their mission was to improve their own living conditions by occupying and squatting in the buildings long enough to make their eviction a long, drawn-out legal process, and in the meantime, go on with their daily lives.

When I arrived at the meeting place for one of the building occupations, there were around 150 families sitting along a wall with their suitcases. The leaders were registering the names of all present, to keep control over who would enter the empty building. Elsewhere around the city, there were ten more groups like this one, ready to act.

These are members of a well-organized group known as the Movimento dos Sem-Teto, or Roofless Movement. The movement’s members are people who live in precarious housing in high risk areas, mostly in slums known as favelas. Contrary to what the group’s name implies, most of the family heads have jobs. They are largely not homeless but rather in need of stable, dignified housing that allow them to carry on with their lives. Their organized occupations of buildings are almost always in the city center where many of them work, and where they can’t afford to live in decent housing. The lack of a more extensive subway system in a city with more than seven million private cars circulating also makes it difficult to live on the outskirts and commute to work in the center.

Hardship deepens for South Africa’s Poor Whites

SAFRICA-WHITES
Children walk through a squatter camp for poor white South Africans at Coronation Park in Krugersdorp, March 6, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Sitting in a deck chair at a white South African squatter camp, Ann le Roux, 60, holds a yellowing photo from her daughter’s wedding day.

Taken not long after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president in 1994, it shows Le Roux standing with her Afrikaans husband and their daughter outside their home in Melville, an upmarket Johannesburg neighborhood.