Federico Estol, an Uruguayan photographer, first heard about the shoe shiners of El Alto, Bolivia—a city adjacent to the capital La Paz with an indigenous-majority population—from his brother-in-law. He has learned that the workers are forced to hide their faces behind balaclavas or ski masks to conceal the fact that they work as shoe shiners from their family and friends who are convinced they have other jobs. Shining shoes is considered to be socially degrading work in Bolivia. The photographer was intrigued and contacted Hormigón Armado (literally, reinforced concrete), an NGO founded to protect shoe shiners from the precarious working conditions and severe discrimination.
A social project with the feel of a fanzine
A three-year-long collaboration between Federico Estol and sixty shoe shiners resulted in the release of the book Héroes del brillo (Shine Heroes). The publication has garnered a host of awards since it came out in 2018. On sale at the most prestigious contemporary photography fairs and festivals around the world, it can also be purchased directly from the shoe shiners in the streets of El Alto.
More than a book, Héroes del brillo, which has the feel of a fanzine and adopts many comic-book and superhero conventions, is above all a social project. It was initially released as a special issue of a newspaper distributed for years by the lustrabotas—as shoe-shiners are known in Bolivia—in an effort to fight discrimination. Of the 6000 copies of the first edition of the book, 5000 went to the workers who sold them in the street, thus working to build a more positive image of their trade.
From victims of discrimination to superheroes
The power of Héroes del brillo lies first of all in its ability to subvert ingrained images. An uncommon picture of shoe shiners emerges from these collectively created images and stories.
Troughout this project, the artist thought of himself as “a simple go-between, meant to produce images intended to combat discrimination”; the idea of a world of superheroes came from the lustrabotas themselves. “To start with, I was making more classical portraits, until the day a shoe shiner wearing Superman’s logo and cape appeared on the cover of one newspaper issue. This propelled the project onto a new course, and we decided to switch from documentary form to fiction,” recalls Estol. From victims of discrimination in the culturally constructed imagination, the shoe shiners turned into super heroes in the book—superheroes with the superpower of making the shoes of La Paz residents shine like supernovas.
Page after page, this urban tribe wearing balaclavas pulled over their baseball caps wage battles and win victories, as if they stepped out of an adventure book. Shoe brushes are wielded like swords and the shoe shiner’s toolbox (dusted with gold and covered with Simpsons stickers) brings to mind a treasure chest. Using popular slogans or simply deploying their superpower-endowed work tools, the lustrabotas make shoes appear and disappear in halos of bright light and clouds of colored smoke.
This epic is set against a backdrop of typical, multicolored bungalows of the Indigenous middle class of El Alto and the more modest redbrick homes hugging the side of a mountain. In the eye of a viewer unfamiliar with the Andean region, these quintessential urban landscapes, which serve as the setting for the project, add a touch of surreal fiction.
A standard bearer
Federico Estol, who stresses that he wanted to do “an artistic project that would be socially meaningful,” succeeded across the board. Héroes des brillo blurs the boundary between art and social action—perhaps because when art is just it is necessarily social, and vice versa. From outcasts and undesirables, the shoe shiners have become visible—shining, brilliant superheroes. The book is a standard bearer for this discriminated community and a step toward empowerment and dignity.
By Elsa Leydier
Editions El Ministerio et Hormigón Armado, 2018