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 year without the Comandante

Caracas, Venezuela

By Jorge Silva

March 5, 2014

Once in a great while there comes a day that marks the end of an era. That’s what happened the afternoon Hugo Chavez died.

It was a year ago as I write this blog, and at times I still find it hard to believe. He was such a dominant presence that in the days after his death that it seemed he would appear at any moment on national TV or in a military parade. The months passed and reality sank in. Today Venezuela seems to be a very different country from the one he left behind. It feels as if it happened a long time ago.

Chavez’s death also coincided with my tenth year documenting his controversial Bolivarian Revolution. He was the Revolution’s icon and his bombastic personality was the focus of almost all that we covered during those years. The story of Venezuela and Chavez were one and the same.

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.

Body shop, or chop shop

Caracas, Venezuela

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

I thought I’d heard it all, but I was wrong.

“Doctor, a friend of mine got them and they looked great. I want to look beautiful too…”

“Doctor, when my husband turned to look at another woman I knew if I got them he would look at me…”

“I lost weight and they started to sag…”

“Doctor, I was tricked, they told me they were injections of expanding cells that would be absorbed…”

Musical recovery

Caracas, Venezuela

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Crisvan Reyes suffers a type of bone cancer and has undergone unimaginable medical treatment at his young age of 11, including the amputation of his right arm. In spite of that, smiling and laughing, he makes jokes and teases other kids as he plays the drums during a rehearsal of the orchestra sponsored by the Alma Llanera Hospital Care Program. This is the last rehearsal before the program’s first anniversary concert.

The Alma Llanera Program is one of the most recent initiatives of Venezuela’s musical education program known as El Sistema, whose most famous alumnus is Gustavo Dudamel.

Barely a year old, the Alma Llanera Program is specifically for children who are going through medical treatment and are hospital-bound. It teaches them to play a musical instrument for the length of their stay, and allows them to continue afterward at one of El Sistema’s regular orchestras.

Bolivar everywhere

Our Father
thou art in Heaven,
in water, in air
in all our silent and broad latitude
everything bears your name, Father, in our dwelling:
excerpt from Chant to Bolivar, by Pablo Neruda

 

Caracas, Venezuela

by Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a country where “everything bears his name”, the currency, plazas, schools, and political speeches, among others, the Father of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela finally has a tomb in line with his historical stature.

Simon Bolivar’s mausoleum stands adjacent to the National Pantheon, a former neoclassical 18th Century church. Although the Pantheon, with its colonial structure and its pastel colors, is joined by the foundation with the mausoleum, this new “skating ramp” of a building breaks completely with the surrounding architecture to become not just the first contemporary architectural landmark of Caracas, but also the first modern building erected by City Hall.

Down for the count

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

I was standing on a raised television platform less than ten meters from “El Candidato,” when the scaffolding collapsed. It was nighttime in Barquisimeto, and with great difficulty I saw him appear, navigating through the dark mass of supporters. He was riding atop a pickup truck, waving to the crowd on the way to the stage. I could barely see anything in the darkness as the lighting system seemed to fail completely.

Just as I was about to take a picture, one of our platform supports gave way and we were on the verge of toppling onto the dark mass of people. It could have been a tragedy. It was the second collapse of the day, after another platform meant to hold journalists had collapsed earlier. In hindsight it was a perfect metaphor for what would happen four days later, when Henrique Capriles, a.k.a. El Candidato, lost the election to Hugo Chavez by more than a million and a half votes.

But for him and his team, losing wasn’t an option.

The rallies always had the same script, like a movie looped around to repeat itself. There were a few changes in light or in landscape, depending on the regions where they were held. It was a frantic campaign in which the opposition candidate toured all 24 states, four times. The state he visited least was Delta Amacuro, but he still stopped there twice.

Chavez’s latest K.O.

By Jorge Silva

Before the recent election campaign in Venezuela, the last time that I had been close enough to Hugo Chavez to use a wide angle lens was last February when he left for Cuba to be treated for a recurrence of his cancer.  That farewell began as a solemn procession through the streets of Caracas, with Chavez dressed in black, riding in a dark van with open sunroof and an image of Christ on the windshield. His supporters showered him with flowers on the way to the airport, as he left his followers in suspended animation, and his future full of doubt.

This campaign was a re-encounter with him; one that many didn’t believe would happen again. His cancer disappeared from the agenda, and Chavez was back. For his followers it was the difference between night and day, or the idea of a Venezuela without him contrasted with his reappearance in power, where he had been for the last 14 years.

Whenever Chavez appeared the masses screamed wildly. If he were a boxer he would be an undefeated veteran, with many blows against him and without the same youthful agility, but with his own solid punch intact. To his faithful, Chavez remained the synonym of hope.

Rare Amazon encounter

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

When I show him a photo I’ve just taken of a fellow tribe member, he smiles. He’s fascinated and can’t believe it. When I point the lens at him and then show him his own image on the screen, his body retracts. He frowns, confused.

In the depths of the Amazon jungle, just 19 km (12 miles) from the Brazilian border, is the village of Irotatheri of the Yanomami tribe, that still groups around a fire. They live barefoot, semi-naked, and free. Until last week they had not seen any humans that didn’t look like they do. Never had they seen any outsider, let alone a bearded one.

We had flown five hours from Caracas with the Venezuelan Army to accompany them as they investigated the alleged massacre of 80 members of the tribe by Brazilian miners. We landed at a small shapono, or Yanomami village, consisting of a ring of houses in a jungle clearing. I immediately recognized that nothing would be the same for them ever again. There was going to be something irreversible about this meeting.

Hugo Chavez: One year battling cancer

By Jorge Silva

About a year ago, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez surprised us during a routine coverage at his Miraflores palace in Caracas. He appeared with a walking cane.

That was the first time he had ever shown any hint of a physical problem, or indeed any notion of fragility. A few days after that, he left on a tour of Ecuador, Brazil and Cuba where he was hospitalized and received emergency surgery in Havana. Weeks later, Chavez confirmed that a malignant, baseball-sized tumor had been removed from his pelvis, and the saga began.

I’ve been covering Chavez for the last eight years – a long, grueling but utterly fascinating assignment for a photojournalist.