A Portrait of Unrest in Venezuela • Emin Özmen • Magnum Photos

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Politics

Photographing Only the Masses is Not Enough: A Portrait of Unrest in Venezuela

Magnum photographer Emin Özmen has documented the growing protests and disorder in the Venezuelan capital, as well as social factors driving the nation’s crisis

Emin Özmen

Emin Özmen People show their support to Venezuela's National Assembly head and self-proclaimed "acting president" Juan Guaido's when he attends the mass at the San Jose church in Caracas. Caracas, Venezuela. (...)

Venezuela’s incumbent leader, Nicolás Maduro’s six years in power continue to teeter on the brink as he faces growing opposition and international scrutiny. Since the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, a member of the Popular Will party, laid claim to the nation’s leadership earlier this year, Venezuela has been racked by ongoing protest and civil unrest, captured by Magnum photographer Emin Özmen.

Maduro’s predecessor – Hugo Chavez – was elected to power in 1998, promoting social revolution and promising the reestablishment of the nation’s economic independence. In spite of Venezuela at the time being the richest nation in Latin America, largely due to its major oil reserves, it also suffered from a massive disparity in wealth. Chavez, who rose to leadership from a background of poverty, endeared himself to the country’s poor by criticising the moneyed classes, the United States and its aspirations in Latin America, and nationalising some of the nation’s assets.

While Chavez was the popular face of anti-US Latin American socialist nationalism, he also changed Venezuelan laws to facilitate his ongoing rule and purged political opponents. Under the latter years of his rule Venezuela experienced an exodus of skilled workers and the middle classes unsettled by soaring crime rates and stagnating investment in a country increasingly seen as a high-risk for investment. Chavez remained in power until his death, in 2013, when Maduro – his named successor – took power.

Emin Özmen 'Eyes of Chavez' seen on government housing in 23 de Enero neighbourhood in Caracas.Chávez is a legendary figure in Venezuela as he served as president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2 (...)

Maduro’s time in power has seen Venezuela weathering ongoing crises in its economy, and in humanitarian terms, with a widespread scarcity of food leaving many living in hunger. This has led to millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country. Maduro has been attacked for his authoritarian tendencies, and for presiding over his country’s economic implosion, yet still commands a large base of support.

As dissent around his rule has grown, and the humanitarian crisis has deepened, it was Maduro’s re-election in 2018, that proved too much for his opposition. With the election’s results called into question by many, public protests, marches and rallies grew in number. At one, on January 23, 2019, the now-opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself president.

While Maduro remains in power refusing to step down, the two leaders’ respective supporters continue to march and protest around the nation, and Venezuela remains in limbo.

Emin Özmen Protestors burn and tear apart a Maduro's flag near Las Mercedes in Caracas, during the gathering in support of the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.On Saturday 2nd of February, hundreds (...)

"I think the photos are a reflection of Venezuelan society. A divided society"

- Emin Özmen
Emin Özmen People protest against Maduro government, at Los Palos Grandes avenue in Caracas. People protest against poverty, violence and authoritarianism that slide into Venezuela since Maduro serves as Pre (...)
Emin Özmen Security forces block the entrance of the Universidad Central as students protest against Maduro government inside the campus.Poverty, violence and authoritarianism slided into Venezuela since M (...)
Emin Özmen Protestors look at a flag of Maduro burning near Las Mercedes in Caracas, during the gathering in support of the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.On Saturday 2nd of February, hundreds of (...)

Numerous international leaders have opted to support one or other of the men, with Russia and China notably backing Maduro while a number of EU nations and the United States have endorsed Guaidó, perhaps unsurprisingly given Maduro’s continuing Chavez-esque anti-American sentiment and nationalism. This internationalisation of the situation has led to concerns that external influence may exacerbate an already tense, if not potentially explosive, situation. Most recently, on Monday February 4, Maduro made what many saw as veiled threats about imprisoning Guaidó while addressing his supporters, accompanied by a tirade directed as US President Donald Trump.

Emin Özmen Masked protestor stands on the highway during clashes with police at Las Mercedes in Caracas, after the gathering in support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.On Saturday 2nd of Februa (...)
Emin Özmen A member of the National Police reads a copy of amnesty measures approved by the opposition-controlled National Assembly to anyone in the military who disavows President Nicolas Maduro, distributed (...)

"A complex situation cannot, in my opinion, be understood if it is only considered from a general point of view. For me, history would not make sense without peoples’ stories"

- Emin Özmen
Emin Özmen A soldier stands near Hugo Chavez portrait on the wall in his mausoleum in Caracas.Chávez is a legendary figure in Venezuela as he served as president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 20 (...)

Özmen’s recent work in the country, documenting the ongoing tensions and various groups involved captures some of the dichotomy in play, “I think the photos are a reflection of Venezuelan society. A divided society,” he explains, “The situation in Caracas is surreal:  there are people driving in jeeps and luxury cars in large avenues, enjoying their lunch or dinners in fancy restaurants, living an apparently comfortable life in their residences. And then there are the others, the larger part of the community. This majority is suffering the full brunt of the crisis and violence, and lives mostly in slums. Their life is all about trying to find food. They wait for long hours in queues at the supermarkets for a simple package of pasta. Empty markets, empty pharmacies, a lack of everything is their daily life. One day I saw a man who paid 10-20 dollars for his lunch. This represents the monthly salary of the waiter at this same restaurant.”

Emin Özmen A small market seen empty in Petare neighbourhood in Caracas.Despite their country's immense oil resources, millions of Venezuelans are suffering from hunger. The country suffered frequent shor (...)
Emin Özmen People carry 'Clap' boxes into community centre in Cotiza neighbourhood in Caracas. Each family receives one 'clap' box from the government in a month. for most of them, it represents the only food (...)

" My goal is to document and tell this complex situation as best as I can, from different sides and angles"

- Emin Özmen
Emin Özmen Children play near a wall where President Nicolas Maduro graffiti is seen in Saint Agustin neighbourhood. Caracas, Venezuela. 2019. © Emin Özmen | Magnum Photos

The photographer touches also on the crime and danger that feeds into a sense of unrest and the pains of many of the population, “There is extreme violence that forces [people] to protect their doors and windows with locked metal grids. Even during the day they fear the drug dealers, gangs or other civilian armed groups who control their district.”

Emin Özmen Carlos puts bullets into his gun in Pinto Salinas neighbourhood. He said ' I never killed people with this gun, but I feel more safe to carry it.' Caracas, Venezuela. 2019. © Emin Özmen | Magnum Photos
Emin Özmen Carlos, a drug seller, stands on a rooftop in Pinto Salinas neighbourhood. He said ' I never killed people with this gun, but I feel more safe to carry it.' Caracas, Venezuela. 2019. © Emin Özmen | Magnum Photos
Emin Özmen On Saturday 2nd of February, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan opposition supporters have taken to the streets after Juan Guaido call to stage another day of peaceful protests against President N (...)

Özmen has, many times in his career documented social unrest, conflict, and political turmoil – perhaps most notably in his native Turkey, where he photographed the Gezi Park protests and the ensuing government crack down. Such pivotal moments hold an enduring allure for the photographer, “History has shown us that popular revolts can weaken regimes, sometimes even overthrow them. That is why I am very attentive to demonstrations and popular uprisings, because they often represent the pulse of a country.” Özmen continues, “Venezuela is experiencing one of the most critical periods of its History. So my goal is to document and tell this complex situation as best as I can, from different sides and angles – as the rest of the world needs to understand it clearly.”

Emin Özmen People wait in a queue to be able to buy food in front of a small market in Catia neighbourhood in Caracas.Despite their country's immense oil resources, millions of Venezuelans are suffering fr (...)
Emin Özmen People wait in queue to get 'Clap' boxes near community center community centre in Cotiza neighbourhood in Caracas.Each family receives one 'clap' box from the government in a month. for most o (...)
Emin Özmen Protestors seen during clashes with police near Las Mercedes in Caracas, after the gathering in support of the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.On Saturday 2nd of February, hundreds of th (...)

"It’s important to understand and to see their living conditions to understand why they protest. Photographing only the masses is not enough"

- Emin Özmen
Emin Özmen Protestors burn Maduro flag near Las Mercedes in Caracas, during the gathering in support of the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.On Saturday 2nd of February, hundreds of thousands of Ven (...)

This effort to delve into the mechanisms behind the protests, the varying sections of Venezuelan society, the historical resentments and injustices is of central importance in Özmen’s approach to reporting such unrest, with his portraits and street scenes from Caracas’ slums and meagrely appointed stores sitting alongside images of Chavez’s mausoleum and massed protests. “A complex situation cannot, in my opinion, be understood if it is only considered from a general point of view. For me, history would not make sense without peoples’ stories. It’s important to understand and to see their living conditions to understand why they protest. Photographing only the masses is not enough.”

Emin Özmen A young man stands on a hill at El 23 de enero, a ghetto which has long history with political transitions of Venezuela.In the 1980s, it produced the powerful Revolutionary Tupamaros Movement, (...)