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Watching my nation implode: A Venezuelan photographer’s story

I don’t talk much with my wife Eva Marie about what I photograph. She doesn’t probe too deeply. It’s better that way so she’s not worried. During the most difficult days, Eva Marie says that while she knows it’s hard, I should try to send a message or call to let her know I'm ok.

I’m a photographer for Reuters in Venezuela. In recent years, I have documented my country’s sad and draining decline into chaos and poverty.

Mounting Violence

2017 was really tough. Venezuela’s opposition took to the streets for four months between April and July in spiraling protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling Socialists that became ever more violent. Security forces and demonstrators fought on the streets nearly every day, particularly in the capital Caracas where I’m based. Over that period, at least 125 people died, thousands were injured and thousands were jailed.

Journalists often got caught up in the chaos. The first time I was attacked I forgot to tell Eva Marie immediately. She found out when friends called her and asked how I was. News on Twitter travels fast. It was March 31, 2017. Students had called for a protest outside the Supreme Court. They met a few streets from the court building. When they began to march, National Guard soldiers blocked their access. Within seconds, the students were shouting and pushing against the soldiers’ shields. The security line broke. Soldiers began chasing students, beating them with batons. I took pictures.

Suddenly, a soldier grabbed my backpack while another stood on my right foot. I was surrounded. Batons rained down on my backpack and helmet. I don't know how, but I got away without a scratch. The rush of adrenaline lasted hours.

I spoke with Eva Marie an hour later when she called. I never thought to call her since I wasn't the news. The news was the protest. I was wrong. 

Images of me being attacked that day were used time and again by local and foreign media to illustrate the violent crackdown on journalists. Whenever my picture was published, Eva Marie received phone calls or messages from people asking for me. Sometimes I did get hurt. Our daughter Emma, four years old at the time, saw me limping and bruised some days. We didn’t tell her I was covering street protests. Then one day, coming home from school, she asked Eva Marie: "Is daddy taking photos of the bad guys who beat him?"

Training and protection

I am fully security-trained and last year routinely used a gas-mask, helmet, bullet-proof jacket and motorbike driver to watch my back and get me away from trouble quickly. We have a full-time Venezuelan security guy in the office, Jackson Gomez, an ex-cop, who would join us on the streets. He was draconian about ensuring we followed strict protocol such as never being out after dark and clearing out when things got too hairy. My bosses Carlos Rawlins and Claudia Daut talked to me constantly. They were always there for me when things got rough.

I don’t talk to many people about what I have seen and lived through this past 12 months. At least not the details.

Scenes I won't forget

On May 20, 2017, I spotted protesters chasing a man through the streets. They caught and surrounded him. I went through the circle of people to take pictures. Someone had already poured gasoline over the man and set him on fire. The mob called him a thief. I photographed the entire incident. With flames on his back, the man ran through the crowd and tore off his shirt. Some people chased him and threw rocks. Others tried to calm the aggressors and formed a protective ring as the fire abated. The man survived, though with severe burns. I called the CiC helpline after this incident. It was helpful to talk about what I witnessed. 

Two weeks later, the man, Orlando Figuera, died.

That same month, young protesters were fighting National Guard soldiers and knocked over one of their motorbikes. Spotting their colleagues in trouble, a National Guard armored vehicle reversed quickly to help them. It knocked down several protesters and ran one over. I assumed he was dead. The protester survived but was badly hurt.

Away from the violence, I photographed what years of recession have done to my once prosperous country: A mother weeping after her daughter died from diphtheria because there was no vaccine. A young girl lying in a hospital bed, her legs wasted away by malnutrition.

For several years, we have experienced long lines outside shops, like images of the old Soviet Union. One day I was on my way home when I saw a crowd at a street corner. People told me a man had collapsed and died while waiting to buy food. That saddened me.

The effects at home

Eva Marie has seen my photographs. But I can't describe to her the smell of burned flesh or what it feels like when a mother runs out of a tear gas cloud clutching her screaming baby. Photographing students lying dead on the street. Going to their funerals. Or the fear when a National Guard soldier pointed his rifle inches from my chest and I thought “that’s it”. How hard it is sometimes just to raise my camera.

The worst part for Eva Marie and myself is trying to raise a child in such a mad country. Emma goes to one of the best schools in Venezuela. We are lucky to live a middle-class life given the situation here. But I've seen hate, discrimination, indifference, revenge and fellow citizens who don't care about each other, who talk about killing each other.

Learning to cope

Swimming helped me cope. When the protests began, I didn't have time, but I realized I had to swim. I even trained for a 3 km open water competition to give me a goal. Concentrating on breathing in the pool calmed me. Swimming helped me sleep. It stopped my mind buzzing.

Writing this blog has also been therapeutic. It helped me put many of the things going on inside my head in order. What I thought had been overwhelming I can now see in black and white. Reading these words over and over have made me realize how fortunate I am. Also, having to think and write in English, which is not my native language, forced me to find appropriate words to express myself. I was more conscious of what I was trying to say.

About Marco Bello

Originally a computer technician, Marco Bello started taking photos as a hobby about a decade ago. He turned professional in 2013 when former leader Hugo Chavez died.

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