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The Story Behind a Photo Project: ‘State of Decay’ by Alejandro Cegarra


It’s Martin Kaninsky from the All About Street Photography YouTube channel, and today I would like to talk about a series of photographs that placed 3rd for Long-Term Projects, Stories in the 2019 World Press Photo competition. It’s State of Decay by Alejandro Cegarra.

Alejandro Cegarra was born in 1989 in Venezuela, where he lives in the capital city Caracas. He began studying photography in a Roberto Mata Photography Workshop while studying Publicity at Alejandro Humboldt University. In early 2012, he started filling in for other photographers at the largest newspaper in Venezuela as well as at two other newspapers. To this day, Cegarra continues to work for multiple newspapers and news outlets.

In addition to the World Press Photo award, he also received the Leica Oscar Barnack Newcomer Award, received third place in the Sony World Photography Awards in the Contemporary Issues category, and was chosen by the Magnum Photo Agency as part of their 30 Under 30 contest. You can find a full list of accomplishments and accolades on his website.

I had the fortune of interviewing Cegarra about his photographs and how he was able to capture the moments that earned him the World Press Photo award.

State of Decay is a photo project that was created during anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela from March 2013 to March 2018. You might have probably heard about the problems in Venezuela and the economic crisis the country is in right now, but let’s take a look at the history of the problems.

Venezuela experienced its biggest economic growth from 1999 to 2013 during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, mostly thanks to oil prices as Venezuela has the highest proven oil reserves in the world. As oil prices consistently grew from $25 per barrel to over $160 per barrel, Venezuela was able to finance welfare programs and building houses for the poor.

However, this time of prosperity ended when the global recession throttled demand for energy and sent oil and gas prices into a precipitous free fall. By the end of 2008, the price had dropped to $53 per barrel. The price started to recover the following year and reached $125 per barrel by 2014, at which time it experienced another drop.

President Nicolás Maduro came into office in 2013 and continued the welfare programs, which resulted in overspending and ultimately hyperinflation. This, coupled with US sanctions, caused the collapse of the Venezuelan economy.

Manufacturers were forced to close down and in 2015, Venezuela had over 100% inflation — the highest in the world and the highest in the country’s history at that time. As the situation escalated, Venezuela spiraled further and further into hyperinflation, causing the poverty level to rise to nearly 90% of the population. There has been a shortage of food, medicine, and other essential items.

Cegarra’s work tells the story of the country slowly falling apart. He felt it was his duty to document the issue as the situation worsened day by day.

The photographs were taken with a Nikon D300, Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 5D Mark IV, and Leica M (Typ 240). Cegarra generally uses his 5D Mark IV for assignments and his Leica for personal projects.

The final selection of 29 pictures was made from roughly 25,000 pictures. My favorite photograph is a demonstrator that puts a rosary over his head before clashing with the Bolivarian National Guard during anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela.

Cegarra says his favorite shot is a woman trying to halt National Guard anti-riot officers during protests against the Venezuelan government on the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas. For him, it represents how the common citizen feels against the government, it has a powerful message as well as composition.

Some of the moments probably happened pretty fast, but for his portraits, Cegarra tries to build close relationships. The project, for him, was a documentation of losing the place he and the people living in Venezuela call home.

“This project took a lot from me, physically and mentally, I was living what I was photographing, so the experience during the project is a constant struggle trying to put some ground between me and the photographs, which wasn’t always possible,” Cegarra says.

Cegarra was photographing as part of a group during police raids and protests and alone when taking portraits. This particular project is completely in black and white, but a look at Cegarra’s Instagram shows that he also shoots color.

“Black and white is drawing, which is my first language as a photographer, and color is painting,” says Cegarra, “so it depends on what I want to do, how I want to address the issue, but lately I just do black and white on demand, color has caught me entirely.”

I think this project is a great example of using photography for documentary purposes. I often find myself treating photography mostly as fine art, but projects like this remind me of how important photography is for telling the stories in a way that other mediums can’t.

I would like to thank Alejandro for the opportunity to talk about his project. Make sure to check out his website and social media to find more incredible stories.

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.