In El Hatillo, a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, there is a three-story building that looks as if it’s falling apart: The cream-colored paint is peeling off the walls and the garden is overgrown, wild, a place breeding critters of all kinds. In a room on the third floor, there is a large collection of supermarket cardboard boxes piled on top of one another. Inside each one of those boxes live many of my childhood memories. I sifted through them during my last visit home, in 2009—almost twenty years after I left Venezuela for the US with my mother.
I’d come on the eve of a constitutional referendum that would allow the indefinite reelection of all officials, including then president Hugo Chávez. Young protesters wearing white called the referendum illegal as they marched on freeways throughout Caracas. But you wouldn’t have noticed them from within my father’s crumbling house: The state TV channel stayed on all day, playing political jingles urging Venezuelans to vote “yes” on the referendum. We sat in his living room, looking through faded color photos of family vacations at the beach, propaganda blaring in the background.
Back then, supporters of the regime, like my father, could still look up at the wheat-pasted posters plastered all over town featuring Chávez’s iconic smile and pretend the socialist revolution had been a success; a “great victory for the Venezuelan people,” as the Comandante himself would say. But even in the quiet of their homes, away from the political upheaval and gun violence that have come to define Venezuelan society for more than twenty years, they suffered.
“All of my work is like a psychological portrait of Venezuelan society,” photographer Fabiola Ferrero told me over the phone recently. Unlike me, she still lives in Caracas; she and her younger brother are the only members of her extended family who’ve chosen to stay. But not for long: Her brother is planning to leave as soon as he’s done with high school, in the next few months. Ferrero was just seventeen years old herself when I last visited the capital and saw the white-clad protesters marching on Avenida Libertador.
“I remember all those protests so clearly,” she told me. “I remember the super-intense images of a young girl who was dying in front of the camera during the Altamira massacre. I lived through a lot of politics as a child.” Massacres of student protesters at the hands of security forces and of prisoners complaining about overcrowded and inhumane conditions have been a common occurrence for Ferrero’s generation.
As a photographer, she sought a way to document what Yorelis Acosta, a social psychologist from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, calls an “emotional map” dominated by feelings of fear, rage, and sadness. “I call it a collective depression,” Ferrero said. “But my work is a product of my very own sadness.”
Ferrero refers to 2017, when several of these images were taken, as the “year of rage.” By then, more than 3 million Venezuelans had fled the country since 2014, when this body of work began; when daily anti-government demonstrations, food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and reports of US efforts to overthrow president Nicolás Maduro, anointed by Chávez before his death, dominated the headlines. That same year, the US federal budget included $5 million for opposition activities inside Venezuela.
Ferrero doesn’t see an end to this photographic exploration anytime soon. “We’re now going through this crazy episode: We’re a country with two presidents,” she said. “And of course, we know that even if that gets resolved tomorrow, it won’t really end there, you know?” On January 23, thirty-five-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó invoked a constitutional provision and declared himself president, with explicit US support.
These days, Ferrero is searching for a new perspective: She’s starting to work with old family photos, journal entries, and color photographs. She’s calling the project I Can’t Hear the Birds. The feelings still linger, Ferrero told me, “but now it’s a sadness that longs for what once was.”
One of her images shows two young children, perhaps her siblings or cousins, smiling inside a cardboard box; another of an older man laying down on the grass, staring at the sky, and a baby looking up at a pair of red macaws. There’s something both haunting and comforting about them: I recognize myself, my family, and the Caracas of my youth, with its lush tropical vegetation, in each of these images. But mostly I recognize my own longing for what was, for what I’ve missed. On the top floor of my dad’s house in El Hatillo, there are boxes full of these records of another era. The only person watching over them now is my father, and he tells me he’ll take them with him when he, too, hopes to leave Venezuela—si dios quiere—later this year.
— Ruxandra Guidi