This year saw the situation in Venezuela deteriorate to breaking point with an economy on the verge of collapse, severe shortages of food and medical supplies, and accusations of human rights abuses carried out by the country’s embattled Socialist government. Opponents to Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, failed in attempts to remove him from power during months of street protests that turned violent, killing more than 125 people. Australian photographer, Luke Cody, traveled to Caracas, putting his own safety at risk to report on the protests. He managed to capture a series of incredibly powerful images with his Leica Q, shedding light on the volatile and violent events, which unfolded as the Venezuelan people exercised their right to revolt.
How did you first get into photography and what influenced your decision to become a photojournalist?
My path to photography began with a love of documentary film making. When I moved to London in 2003 I bought a video camera, documenting my travels in the Middle East, Russia, everywhere I went. After a while I realized the video I captured would work better as still images so I bought a DSLR camera and completed a weekend long course to learn the basics. The streets of London were the perfect practice ground, with clashes between old and new, rich and poor, individualism and collectivism. The process of taking photographs engaged my innate fascination with contrast and the duality of human nature, which eventually led to me perusing a career as a photographer, with a focus on places in conflict.
What made you first pick up a Leica camera?
Like many photographers starting out, I found a great way to cover the theory and draw out inspiration was by browsing through photobooks. The work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Robert Frank really struck a chord, so naturally this led to an inquiry into their weapons of choice. In 2011 a colleague introduced me to the M8, and although it was a challenge to use initially, I loved the feel, and as I was shooting mostly street at that time I saw an immediate benefit in its relatively small size.
What was it that made you want to cover this story?
My trip to Venezuela was spur of the moment. I was actually in Lima looking into the visa requirements for traveling to Brazil in order to document life in Rio’s favelas one year after the Olympics. However, I saw shocking video footage from the protests in Caracas, which showed protesters being driven over by a National Guard armored vehicle and I decided to change my plans.
What is the significance of the title of this series?
The title, “Article 350”, refers to the last article in the Venezuelan Constitution which states, “The people of Venezuela, faithful to their republican tradition, its struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that runs counter to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermines human rights”. It was common to see Article 350 plastered on banners and placards at most demonstrations. Many opposition activists interpreted it as a right to revolt.
According to the 2016 Global Misery Index, Venezuela was ranked by far the worst country with the highest score of 573.4 (Argentina was 2nd and Brazil came 3rd with scores of 83.8 and 75, respectively). How would you describe the feeling amongst the Venezuelans you met in Caracas?
During the three months I spent in Caracas I mostly came into contact with middle-class Venezuelans but met people from every economic background. Many people had stories of being robbed, carjacked or had suffered the consequences of living in a city with the highest crime rate in the world, in a country with an economy on the brink of collapse. There was a palpable tension and a heightened awareness required to perform the simplest day-to-day tasks, like driving to work or going food shopping, which as a visitor I found exhausting, but most people seemed to have adapted to it.
I had the privilege of visiting two barrios – El Calvario and the largest slum in South America, Petare, which is regarded as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world. I was welcomed into people’s homes and offered gifts from families who were obviously struggling to make ends meet. It was incredibly humbling to experience this warmth and generosity from people living in such harsh conditions.
Your images are testament to your intrepidness. How did you cope, working in such a hostile environment?
I was fortunate to attend most demonstrations with local photographers but it was hard to stick together, especially when things got chaotic.
Away from the protests I tried to maintain some sense of normality in my everyday routine but it was tough. I couldn’t leave my apartment complex to go for a run and I wasn’t able to go out in the evenings for a drink or to socialize due to the risks of traveling at night.
The truth is that I was scared all the time but the paradox is that I love what I do. The sense of purpose I feel from documenting stories of marginalized people and groups drives me to continue doing this work.
The role of the government-backed, militant civilian groups known as Collectivos is a contentious issue of the unrest in Venezuela. Did you have any contact with these groups?
I didn’t have any direct contact with Collectivos. However, on two occasions I did see masked gunmen on motorbikes fire into a crowd of protesters during demonstrations I attended, who witnesses claimed were Collectivos.
The series shows a mix of both peaceful and violent protesters, as well as the emergency services. How important was it for you to cover all different sides to this story? And do you think you managed to present an objective report?
My intention was to cover the demonstrations and to document the reasons why people were taking to the streets i.e. failing public services, food and medicine shortages. Unfortunately, the latter proved too difficult so I was mostly limited to attending the protests where I could put on a gas mask and work anonymously. In this sense, my coverage wasn’t as complete as I would have liked.
I don’t believe I presented an objective report and given the circumstances I think it would have been almost impossible to do so. At the time, there was a crackdown on foreign journalists entering the country with many being detained, deported or denied entry. As a photographer, I was seen by the government as a threat and was likely to face the same fate as dissidents or enemies of the state. All I could present was my personal subjective truth as I saw it through my lens.
What do you see as the role of photojournalism in general and how much importance do you place on the objectivity of photojournalistic work?
In my view, the role of photojournalism should be to tell stories through photos and to trigger an emotional response and engage viewers in a way that prompts them to want to know more about a given subject.
In terms of objectivity, I think it’s important for any journalist to apply a strong sense of fairness to their reporting but authenticity and truth should be paramount. Personally, I find it difficult to remain impartial and dispassionate. The key ingredient to my work is empathy. If I were completely detached, photographing as an aloof observer, the feeling would be lost and my images wouldn’t have as much of an impact.
The incredibly candid nature of several of your images shows your willingness to shoot up close, where others would rather look away. Was there ever a moment during your time in Venezuela when you chose not to press the shutter? Is there a line you have drawn for yourself, in terms of what you are and are not willing to shoot?
There were plenty of times I didn’t press the shutter in scenes I felt were too personal to intrude upon. When you’re up close there’s often an exchange between yourself and the people you shoot. I pay close attention to this and try to be as respectful as possible, especially in the more volatile, heated moments where the control you have over the situation can disappear instantly. I was in several situations where groups of protesters thought I was spying for the government, which could have ended badly.
The Leica Q is not known for its use by photojournalists. What was it that influenced your decision to shot with the Q? And what do you see as the advantages of shooting with this particular camera?
The reason I took my Leica Q was primarily to keep a low profile. If I had arrived with my main camera system and all my equipment I would have drawn immediate attention to myself, which I wanted to avoid.
The Q served me well given the conditions. It was compact and silent enough to allow me to shoot scenes without disturbing them and the autofocus was sharp and responsive. For me the main advantages of shooting with a Q is its ease of use, crisp autofocus and striking image quality all bundled into an incredibly small, robust camera.
What advice would you offer to any fellow photojournalists or those wishing to start out in this field of work?
Shoot everything until you find the themes you really connect with. It’s crucial to take the time to explore and hone in on what it is that you want to say through your work. And when you’re out in the field don’t forget you’re a human first, photographer second.
What do you plan on covering next? And what can we expect to see from you in the future?
I haven’t spent much time at home in the last fifteen years so I will return in January to explore some story ideas and see where this takes me.
I have a photobook coming out next month, “Conflicting Interests”. It includes a decade of work from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe and will be available to purchase from my website. If you’re interested in pre-ordering a copy of the book or to discuss an assignment please get in touch.