Horacio Siciliano, the photographer behind some of the most emblematic photos of the Venezuelan crisis, never planned to leave Venezuela. Before Venezuela’s crisis exploded into the global news, Siciliano briefly lived and studied in Canada—but he always knew he wanted to come back and do something productive in his home country. Upon his return, he grew active on social media and became involved with organizations working on freedom of expression issues, human rights violations against women, and children’s access to hospital care, all while finishing his engineering degree. Siciliano’s situation today is dramatically different.
Siciliano became a recognized photographer a bit by chance. In 2014, he bought a camera and taught himself how to use it while joining protests that criticized high levels of urban violence, inflation, and chronic shortages of basic goods. Siciliano recognized the lack of credible information available to Venezuelans and global audiences regarding the protests. Like many Venezuelans, he turned to social networks for an alternative source of information in the face of silence or inaccuracies propagated by official media networks. He began sharing his photographs on Twitter, Instagram and his website to show what the protests were like on the ground and to “make some noise” about the terrible conditions Venezuelans were living in. His work resonated with thousands of new followers, and he was interviewed on television regarding some of his most iconic shots.
Since then, Siciliano has become a representative of the current generation of photojournalists. His work serves as a visual memory bank of harrowing and impactful moments in history. His photographs are a remarkable balance of tenderness and professionalism; they document the reality of Venezuela without shying away from the bad, applying the same intense gaze to scenes of joy and scenes of despair. The frames never feel forced, but they show Siciliano’s compromise to go where many do not dare to go: the middle of protests, abandoned hospitals, sites of poverty and destitution.
From 2014 to the massive scale of the 2016 unrest, Siciliano has witnessed and documented the escalation of violence and threats against journalists, photographers, and protesters in the streets of Venezuela. Rather than avoiding conflict, Siciliano has bravely documented these tense and violent moments. Every time he has witnessed a group of police officers attacking single protesters, he has committed himself to stay, immovable, and document the entire episode for the world to see. Along with the size of protests, issues of repression also escalated dramatically between 2014 and 2016. Siciliano emphasized that freedom of the press violations are not a new phenomenon. Even in 2014, the government had a strong control over public channels of communication, while private television channels remained characteristically silent. As the visual testimony of photographers and activists became more prevalent in recording abuses by the government, those photographers and activists became targets.
Siciliano’s dedication has not come without repercussions. He has been followed, physically threatened by armed individuals, and government authorities have questioned his family. His presence on social media has led to threats from Venezuelan congressional representatives over Twitter. However, it was not until he was intentionally hit with a tear gas grenade that Siciliano worried for his safety. “They [Venezuelan police forces] fired directly at my chest when there was no one around and there was no conflict going on,” Siciliano recalled. The arrests and deaths of other journalists during protests cemented his decision to leave Venezuela. He has been residing in Spain since October 2017.
While media attention has focused mostly on his work around protests, Siciliano makes a point to photograph more than just conflicts. Other recent projects aim to inform people outside of Venezuela of the reasons behind the massive 2017 protests. To Siciliano, the distinction is important; 2014 protests were smaller and protestors were mostly young, while the protests in 2017 involved many civil organizations and civilians of all ages and backgrounds. The key difference? “The level of misery and poverty that people are experiencing now is extreme,” said Siciliano.
In 2016, Siciliano started volunteering his time and camera to Fundacion Colibri, a Caracas-based NGO working to provide basic medication and tools to children’s hospitals. His photographs of the hospitals are a damning indictment of the state of public services in Venezuela. He also produced a series of videos with Venezolanas en Accion that denounced human rights violations against women. “I wanted to document issues like hunger, poverty, and violence and show how they tie and feed into the protests.”
Siciliano’s experiences during the protests led him to get involved with Sin Mordaza, an NGO that defends freedom of expression and that has become a symbol of protests against the Venezuelan government. Sin Mordaza focuses on peaceful protest through art and organizes comedy productions, open calls for art, and political cartoon compilations, among other initiatives. Siciliano is collaborating with Sin Mordaza to put together an international photography exhibit titled “120 Days of Protest” that will not only focus on the protests, but also their causes, such as hunger, poverty, and violence. Even though he is currently safe in Spain, Siciliano admits that he chose to not publish some of these images in Venezuela out of fear that they may bring consequences to family and friends back home.
When asked about the future, Siciliano said that he hopes to use his civil engineering degree while continuing with photography. “I love my career and what I studied, and I love the power of communication that photography has. In terms of going back, who doesn’t want to go back home, however hurt and shaken it is? I don’t want to do it now and end up in a cell, but I do feel a responsibility to return and show things as they are.”
By Laura Kauer García, February 2018. Laura is the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) Coordinator.
UPDATE: TOO MANY FLASH, a school of photography in Madrid, has awarded Horacio Siciliano a 2018-2019 full scholarship to earn his Masters in Photography and Postproduction. The scholarship acknowledges Siciliano’s already impressive photographic work and commitment to highlight social issues, and will allow him to refine his technical skills even further.