Felipe Jacome comes from a documentary background. Yet, he often turns to alternative processes – he has done cyanotypes; experimented with vegetal pigments (chlorophyll) to print portraits of Amazonian indigenous tribes onto giant leaves of the jungle; and, recently, transferred his photographs of Venezuelan migrants onto the defunct Bolivar currency by using a silver gelatin process.
“Due to the tremendous number of images that are available, we are quite desensitized to them. We need to give an additional dimension to an image so people can't ignore it. By using other processes I’m hoping to get people to think more”, Jacome explains.
On the road
Back in Ecuador, where he was born and still spends extended periods of time, he had made friends with Venezuelans who had fled the crisis. “I met them when they were sleeping in the parks or in bus stations, selling candies or working in construction”, Jacome recalls. Having heard stories about their experience, he wanted to do the trip, to see by himself. “Everybody was talking about a particular part of the route, which stretches 200 km from Cucuta to Bucaramanga, as being very tough, and I knew I wanted to do it.”
He hired as fixers two Venezuelan friends who knew the road because they had done it 6 months earlier and together they joined a group of “Caminantes” - loosely translated as Walkers or Wayfarers. “You meet all kinds of people along the road, young men - a lot of young men -, but also women, families, families with babies, older people”, Jacome recounts. He even met a blind man who asked him whether he should head to Chile or Peru.
“It's very fluid. Sometimes you hop on a car that gives you a lift for an hour or so, some people join while some other stay.”
Aware that he could not hold people up for too long because they all had to cover 30 to 40 kilometers every day to reach the next shelter, he took portraits while walking, occasionally recording their story with his phone. Over the past few years, Jacome became interested in the relationship that people have with the material world and he found one of its most extreme expression in the economic crisis in Venezuela, where a monthly salary barely buys a couple pounds of rice or flour and bank notes are worth a piece of paper. « On the first day, a little girl gave me an origami made out of a bank note. For me that was it; there are things that we're not understanding. It's very hard for anybody to fathom the crisis, its implications and what it does to people when the entire economic system collapses in such a spectacular way - we're talking about a 10 000 000 % inflation”, Jacome says.
Not only has the currency lost its value, it’s also lost its symbolic power. “Venezuelans have always been very proud of their money. It used to be one of the strongest currencies in Latin America and the bills are actually extremely beautiful and well designed”, he continues. On one side, they feature Venezuela’s natural wonders – a giant armadillo (with the plains of Los Llanos in the background; the American harpy eagle flying over the Ucaima Falls; the Hawksbill turtle in front of the Macanao Mountain -, on the other, national heroes. They’re also conceived to reveal different motives when combined or folded. “And now they're worth nothing”, Jacome says.
Back home, a chunk of worthless bills in the pocket and a camera full of portraits of Caminantes in the other, he improvised a dark room in his bathroom and started to print his photographs on bolivar bills. It results in unique prints, each one very much imperfect, occasionally revealing the brushstrokes from the gelatin layering. And we can’t help but see a metaphor of Venezuelans’ trajectories.
By Laurence Cornet