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Venezuelan photojournalist in Mexico wins international contest for pictures of migrants

Under the blazing midday sun, I watched the migrant caravan advance towards Mexico. The sunlight reflected off the river, almost blinding me. When I turned my head to widen my vision, I saw more people continuously arriving. Thousands upon thousands of migrants all sought the same goal. I felt very small standing before that scene.

  • 2 weeks ago
  • July 10, 2024
8 min read
One of the award winning photos from The Two Walls project | Photo courtesy of Alejandro Cegarra One of the award winning photos from The Two Walls project | Photo courtesy of Alejandro Cegarra
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Alejandro Cegarra is a Venezuelan photographer living in Mexico City since 2017. His work explores the essence of belonging, the search for a home, and the denunciation of human rights violations in Venezuela and Mexico. Cegarra began his photojournalism career at Venezuela’s most important newspaper Últimas Noticias. Since then, he has worked as a freelancer, collaborating with publications such as The New York Times, Bloomberg, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Associated Press, and The Washington Post. His work has gained international recognition and has been featured in TIME, L’Express, and LFI. Cegarra has twice been honored by World Press Photo for his outstanding contributions to photography, including his project featured in the 2024 World Press Photo Contest and his collection in the 2024 Photo Contest.
background information
Social, economic, and political conflicts, poverty, food crises, extreme violence, and other serious socio-structural problems prevent many people from building dignified and secure lives in their countries of origin. Seeking better living conditions, many migrants aim for the United States, often undertaking long and dangerous journeys with limited access to basic necessities. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that the land route between Central America, Mexico, and the United States is one of the most dangerous in the world, with 686 migrants dead or missing along the US-Mexico border in 2022. Most migrants enter the US clandestinely, often via trucks, on foot, by rail, or through special tunnels. This year, illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border have reached alarming levels, with 210,000 irregular migrants arrested since the beginning of the year. For more information, read the full report on CBS News.

SAMALAYUCA, Mexico — My experience as a migrant and photographer compelled me to capture the stories of those leaving their homes in search of a better future. Through my award-winning project The Two Walls, I witnessed extreme fear, dehydration, distrust, illusion, and love. Every emotion imaginable mixed together in these people’s hostile journey. For some time, I kept my feelings bottled up. I saw myself as a tool.

Click here to see the full photo gallery provided to Orato World Media of Alejandro Cegarra’s migrant photos.

This year, World Press Photo informed me that my project won the 67th annual contest. The news felt bittersweet. Receiving such a recognition feels wonderful, but I earned it by telling the stories of people who suffered greatly, many of whom are my fellow countrymen.

Read more immigration stories at Orato World Media.

The economic crisis pushed me to leave Caracas

In 2017, Venezuela’s economic crisis compelled me to leave my home in Caracas. Surrounded by scarcity and a lack of opportunities, the time came to try my luck elsewhere. With the scholarship money I received, I bought airline tickets and headed to Mexico. While I felt distressed leaving my home behind, my social class gave me privilege. Some people leaving Venezuela travel comfortably and safely by plane, while others faced harsh, life-threatening journeys.

In Mexico, I quickly found work as a photographer with different agencies. Almost from the start, I convinced my editors to send me to cover immigration-related stories. I began shaping a personal project called The Two Walls, which reflects what immigrants endure in a foreign country. My ultimate goal was to save others from these dehumanizing conditions.

One of the most striking moments of this journey took place on the banks of the Suchiate River between Mexico and Guatemala. Under the blazing midday sun, I watched the migrant caravan advance towards Mexico. The sunlight reflected off the river, almost blinding me. When I turned my head to widen my vision, I saw more people continuously arriving. Thousands upon thousands of migrants all sought the same goal. I felt very small standing before that scene.

Shouts and excitement filled the air. The border marker appeared to be an important checkpoint in their journey. Yet, tension also simmered. On the other side of the river, the Mexican National Guard stood firm, ready to prevent the migrants from entering. Euphoria gradually gave way to indignation at the guard’s refusal to allow them in. The officers and the migrants looked the same. They had similar physical builds, spoke the same language, and used almost the same expressions. The only thing that set them apart was the officers’ uniforms. Some migrants saw these similarities and felt betrayed. A confrontation broke out.

Suddenly, the sky filled with stones flying over our heads. Each rock expressed the anger and impotence of the migrants, whose journey was interrupted. Stones clattered on the ground and on the guards’ shields. In time, that anger faded as the migrants resigned themselves to their fate. Around the river, they pondered their next step. They discussed how they would cross the border, and where they would go.

While all this unfolded, I focused on taking photos. I could not afford to be distracted. In front of me, an almost biblical scene played out. I saw the crowd and the river. I saw despair, but I had to keep my cool and choose my shots carefully. At that moment, the magnitude of the scene felt crucial. Only when I got home could I decompress, think about what I witnessed, reflect on what happened, and release the tension.

The scene revealed the fatigue, suffering, and anger of the migrants, but they also made room for beauty. As a photographer, I aspire to achieve visual excellence, to capture a photo that strikes the eye and draws people in. I want my photos to make you yearn to know more about the story. When a photo perfectly combines composition, reporting, and content, you have a great photo on your hands.

Before starting such work, I draw ethical lines I cannot cross. I cannot intervene in the stories, only photograph them. As soon as I approach these groups, I encounter looks of mistrust. These are people with thousands of kilometers on their backs, fighting against nations that reject them. They face corrupt and violent authorities, and organized crime. This struggle shows in their initial attitude towards me. They have every right to be suspicious, and it is my job to let them know they can trust me.

The Two Walls: a photography project sharing the emigrant story

I defuse their guardedness by talking to them, sharing my migrant story, and listening to theirs. I explain the purpose of my photos. In this way, I get them to see me not as an external agent, and they stop paying attention to my presence. I need to become almost invisible.

It feels difficult photographing, knowing many of these people will not achieve their goal. They will face rejection and return to the country they fled, or they will die trying. I remain with them, but I face a different situation. I can stay. For a long time, I felt guilty about this, but now I feel empathy. I realized these events will happen with or without me photographing them. I can do little, except to send a message to the world through my images.

As a photographer, I am allowed to feel, but those feelings cannot paralyze me. I cannot waste the time and energy of the people I work with. I go there to carry a message about what the migrants endure. If I return without the photos, it becomes an insult to everyone. In Samalayuca, northern Mexico, I experienced more key moments for The Two Walls project. There, I boarded the dreaded train that transports migrants, known as La Bestia [The Beast]. It is extremely dangerous, and terrible things happen on its long journey.

Capturing humanity and hope on La Bestia

For stretches throughout the train ride on La Bestia, it stops, and organized criminals take advantage of the passengers. They commit abuses of all kinds. I typically encounter La Bestia at the end of its journey and do so in a safe area. Prior research and hard work allowed me to find the right time and place to get on board. I have no intention of putting myself at risk any more than necessary.

As adrenaline pumps through my veins, I climb into a wagon full of migrants. They appear dehydrated, hungry, tired, and sunburned. The things they experienced and witnessed leave their spirits hardened, struggling with a complicated mental state. Yet, as soon as they see me, many start cheering and talking in an animated way.

Some stay away, making it clear they do not want to be photographed. When that happens, I show them respect. The least I owe these people is to honor their wishes not to be exposed. Consent is key in my work. Sometimes it is explicit and other times it comes in the form of a gesture, look, or nod. Amidst all of this, I witness love, no matter the context.

I recall encountering two young people, a Venezuelan and a Honduran. As if they belonged to another universe – a separate plane of existence – they gazed at each other sweetly, certain of a better future. Even in terrible conditions, the present moment seemed to smile at them. With my camera, I sought to capture that universal feeling of love, which humanizes migrants. These human beings live, feel, and fall in love like anyone else.

World Press Photo announces my award-winning project

After dedicating significant time to my project, a few months ago, I woke up to an email from World Press Photo. Their team informed me that my project won the 67th annual World Press Photo contest. The feeling of winning was bittersweet.

It felt nice to receive recognition at such an important level. Yet, I understand my recognition came through telling the stories of people who are in pain. In the process of migration, these human beings – many of whom share my nationality – suffer intensely. My connection to them deepens in me a sense of dispossession.

Now that I completed The Two Walls project, I intend to explore other themes. However, the narratives derived from migration will certainly continue to arise in my work. I imagine examining ideas like belonging and the search for home.

These themes and ideas certainly resonate with me. Today, living far away from my home country, I found that home becomes any place I exist with family, regardless of city. I also came to believe, throughout this process, once you become a migrant, you will always be a migrant.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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