Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis

Nicoló Filippo Rosso on documenting the migrants as they criss-cross Latin America

Last year, we published Nicoló Filippo Rosso’s photo series documenting the Venezuelan refugee crisis, “Exodus,” in Stranger’s Guide: Colombia. At the time, Colombia had just closed its border to Venezuela, fearing an outbreak of COVID-19, but Rosso continued his work documenting the migrants’ journeys across Latin America. We caught up with him this week to see how his project has evolved.

Stranger’s Guide: We first published your photo series, “Exodus,” in our Colombia guide last year. Can you tell us what’s happened with the project since then?

Nicoló Filippo Rosso: At the beginning of 2021, I traveled to Honduras to document the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. They hit very hard in Central America. I started following a migrant wave from Central America to the United States in Honduras. I had to travel through Guatemala along the Mexican routes, and it was in Texas that I really understood that I was working on this second story. Because I was photographing a group of migrants entering Texas through the Rio Grande, I thought that they were from Honduras or Central America. But then I realized they were Venezuelans. They were Venezuelans who had first migrated to Colombia, but finding that living conditions are still very hard in Colombia, they continued to move. Some of them traveled to Central America, others traveled directly to Mexico. In Mexico, they were walking the same routes of the Central American migrants that traditionally cross to enter the United States.

That was a very important moment for me and my work, because that proves that these migrations in Latin America have a unique characteristic, which is that the countries of destination are no better than the destiny of the country of origin. It forces people to move endlessly, basically until they reach the opposite poles in the continent. One is the United States, but others tried to go further south. Some tried to settle in Peru because the economy is stronger, and others in Chile, where the economy is also stronger than Colombia. Even though those countries are also very unstable socially, there are more chances to find a job.

SG: Can we go back to the very beginning? How did this project start? What motivated you?

NFR: This project started in 2018 with frustration. I am based in Colombia and I was working on assignments for magazines and newspapers, NGOs, and I was documenting the arrival of so many Venezuelans at the border. But every time, during the assignments, the discussion was very short. I always had this feeling that I could not explore a narrative, I could not spend enough time with the people I was photographing. I felt like I was not doing my work properly and I decided to stay on my own for longer periods. At the beginning, it was weeks and then months, and now almost four years. I’m working on the same project, expanding it, reframing it, but still, it’s the same project. I had the feeling that the protagonists of the story were left out, because when we worked on editorial facts and histories, we explored the political aspect of the economic failure of Venezuela, the geopolitical aspects in the Americas and the fight and the frictions between Colombians and Venezulans or between the United States and Venezuela. But then all these millions of people that are fleeing and telling the story of the border of Venezuela, we were not really digging into that, you know? So that’s why I decided to try to understand this story and translate what I was observing in photographs that could emotionally share the lives of these people. This is an epic journey: they cross Venezuela into Colombia, but then they are trying to reach the United States or Chile. So that means that these people walk the continent, and it’s something historically probably without precedent.

This is an epic journey: they cross Venezuela into Colombia, but then they are trying to reach the United States or Chile. So that means that these people walk the continent

There are no refugee camps and there is no destination either. They cross the border into Colombia, but Colombia is trying to overcome the trauma of 50 years of war. They signed a peace deal with the FARC rebels, but then Colombia is still a very, very violent country. And the pandemic arrived following a succession of hardships, both economically and socially. It’s a big weight on the shoulder of these migrants and they don’t know where to go. So during the pandemic, those who were in Colombia, rather than at an American camp, realized that they cannot keep surviving on a day-to-day basis and they decided to go back to Venezuela. So they had to face the same trauma again and also go back to living conditions that were so intolerable that they decided to leave the country in the first place. Now they go back. And then when the pandemic is mitigated and the countries announce an economic reactivation, they start walking again, so they walk back and forth and back again. Sometimes I have the feeling that they could just keep walking, as if the movement itself could give us a sense of hope when in fact the future is hard to imagine.

But Latin America is a very dangerous environment. These migrants are moving in places that are controlled by gangs, by rebel groups, by human traffickers, narco traffickers, smugglers. It’s an environment of violence that never leaves the migrants. Especially for the children, it is like a constant trauma.

SG: Could you talk a little bit about your artistic process? What were you considering as you were shooting the photos? And why did you choose to work in black and white?

NFR: On one end, there is a very practical reason. These are photos that are taken in different moments of the day across four years of time and in different geographical areas. If something is happening at midday, or at one o’clock when that light is very hard, I still have to take that photograph. I cannot just wait for sunset to take photos with beautiful light and colors. Using black and white, I can use that hard light of those hours midday, one o’clock, 11 AM to work more on contrast and shadows. This helps me gain consistency to do the whole body of work.

This is one reason, which is very technical, but the real process behind this decision is that when I document migrants in Latin America, I’m focusing on a very specific geographical area of the world region, but I’m thinking about all the migrants all over the world. I consider migration as a human condition and according to figures from the UN last year, I think it was between 80 and 90 million people all over the world were forced to leave their homes. That’s a huge figure. Using black and white, I get rid of many details that the color reveals. I love those details, I love color photography, but what I want to do is show the message through the emotions of the people. As I was mentioning before, I had this feeling that the protagonists were left out in the editorial approach to covering their migration. Getting rid of those distractions, the viewer of the photographs can go straight to the point and closer to the emotion that the protagonist is feeling. This is also a way to involve the reader in a story, as it is a universal condition. In black and white, you could not really say if we are in Venezuela, Rio Grande, Mexico, the United States’ border or another region of the world. It makes it more universal.

SG: You’re applying for grants right now to continue “Exodus.” Do you have any sense of what the next stage of this project will look like?

NFR: It’s now becoming an exploration of human mobility and migration more broadly. The difference is that the migrants’ walks are so huge and they take so long, these are journeys where people are born and grow and die while moving. I’m still working on the movement and the failure of those societies, but I’m trying to do so through the exploration of life and death almost as human categories. I also feel that they need to start working more on the causes of their migration. I want to work more on documenting the political instability of the countries the people are fleeing from. I also want to document the first step when a family arrives at a destination and it’s safer after a long journey. This destination may be different than what they were dreaming of but, still, it’s a start to a new chapter of their lives. In fact, I’m in touch with families that are now settled in the United States. They have no violence to flee from now, but feel the process of being integrated in a new society is hard because they have to learn a new language, new habits and that’s not easy. It’s another journey that may require months or years because then their children go to a school with other children that have a completely different background. They have to be integrated. For some of them, this is a very quick process. For others, it might be a longer process because of this constant trauma that they have experienced during the journey.


Nicolo Fillippo Rosso

Nicolo Fillippo Rosso is a documentary photographer based in Colombia. He focuses on the Venezuelan mass migration crisis. Rosso has been awarded a Getty Images Grant, the International Photography Award (IPA) and the Lucie Foundation’s Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year for 2020.

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