From Venezuela to Ukraine: A window to the brutality of war
Venezuela's Miguel Gutiérrez portrays the Ukrainian war from the homes of ordinary people
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Photographing windows of ordinary people’s houses. This is how Colombian-Venezuelan photojournalist Miguel Gutiérrez decided to portray the war in Ukraine when the Spanish news agency EFE sent him to cover the conflict for a month in April last year. The result of those intense weeks in Ukraine was a series of photographs that not only made the front pages of major international newspapers at the time, but has also made him a finalist at the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards 2023, which will be exhibited at London’s Somerset House between April 14 and May 1.
“I decided to focus on the windows to show what is in front and behind them, what the viewer can feel inside a common space: a house. The house is the representation of effort and family, of goals achieved that have now been destroyed, like the homes where people from outside the war lived,” Gutiérrez explained from Caracas, where he lives.
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1983, Gutiérrez moved with his family to Venezuela as a teenager after his parents separated. It was in Venezuela that he finished high school and studied journalism at Universidad Católica Santa Rosa.
“Since I was little I had an inclination for speaking and for visual art, I guess I was indirectly disposed to this profession,” said the photojournalist, who currently works as EFE’s graphic coordinator in Venezuela. Living on the fringes of the news was difficult in Venezuela, “a country that has always been convulsed, politically and socially speaking,” and where news “rarely go under the table when it arouses international interest, since this nation served as a home to many migrants,” he added.
After 12 years working as a journalist in Venezuela, his professional life took a leap in April last year, when he was sent to cover the war between Russia and Ukraine.
“EFE announced that they were preparing teams to cover the events in Ukraine, that everyone could apply and that we would be notified of any decision made by the head office. What took me by surprise was the speed with which I was notified that I would be going on this assignment: from one day to the next,” he recalled.
The main challenge ahead of him was the language: “Ukrainian is distant to me, even though I had the help from the fixers in the field,” he said.
However, growing up in a country plagued by a permanent economic and political crisis like Venezuela helped him to empathize with certain situations.
“Although the violence in Venezuela is not comparable to a military conflict, I have lived through the traces of war: food shortages, lack of public services, lack of fuel, curfews... saving the distances, [the situation in Ukraine] is very little different from the Venezuelan reality,” he said.
The idea of photographing windows of ordinary people also has something to do with Gutiérrez's native Venezuela.
“When you live in a country in a constant crisis, you must learn to open your mind and eyes to tell what is happening. It is not only enough to show the obvious, which is necessary, but there are realities and details that are left aside by direct information,” he explained. The windows, therefore, allow “this look at two realities, at what is in front and what is behind.”
A clear example of this “double” perspective on the situation is the photograph showing the window of a children’s room covered with curtains decorated with motifs from Masha and the Bear, a popular cartoon series created in Russia, the invading country.
“The paradoxical thing about this is that in that cartoon series they teach about tolerance and living in harmony. Totally contrasted with what is shown in the photograph of that house,” he pointws out.
When it came to entering people’s homes, Gutiérrez said he met little resistance.
“On the contrary, they were very open and wanted us to leave testimony of what they had felt and experienced in their destroyed homes. They were very open and grateful that we could tell them what they had suffered,” he said.
As a photojournalist covering a war, his mission is to “portray as much as possible."
"And in a war there is a lot to show, starting from the basics: pain, rage, death, drama, anguish. “All this can be told in a non-direct way," he says. “But it is also possible to show kindness, brotherhood, work, hope. It’s something very personal to each person, how he or she decides to face reality and show it,” Gutiérrez explained.
On the other hand, the experience in Ukraine has helped him to put into perspective his own reality and daily life which, “without being the calmest, cannot be compared as equal to what millions of Ukrainians live.”