In conversation with Sara Urbaez
Edited for length and clarity

Adriana Loureiro Fernández:
Paraíso Perdido

Where are you right now? Where are you from?

I'm Venezuelan, which is where I'm based. I've lived here most of my life but I went to New York for postgraduate studies in 2017. I was born and raised in Caracas.

How does being from Venezuela inform the work that you do? How does that impact your photography?

I was always seeing my country from an outsider’s eye on the news. I was always asking myself if I could identify my culture with all these things that I saw being put out into the world. Most of the time I did see my culture there. But then at some point, I think the circumstances were so overwhelming, that I had to become a part of it.

When I was in college, I wanted to do advertising photography, but my reality became so overwhelming. Politics got in the way of everyone's life. Part of growing up in Venezuela means that you will eventually be in some form of protest — that was my generation's case. I didn't really see much of an option other than me actually being there and seeing things for myself. That's how it all began.

At some point, I think a friend told me, "Ariana you're always photographing everything, why aren't you photographing this?" My first protest was over democracy and freedom of speech. I went there the next day with my camera and then I never stopped. That day, everything clicked — this is what I'm going to do now.

What do you think some of the narratives about Venezuela — especially in the news cycle — are missing?

That's a tough question for me to answer. Before, I would say the subculture — the things that weren’t news but were a really strong part of our identity and our current affairs.

Then the crisis became so bad that it dried out all of our culture. You need money for culture and arts — even if it's just a little bit, you need it. I had a lot of friends who were musicians and most of their instruments were eventually stolen. The music started to die out and artists who were friends of mine couldn't find jobs or couldn't afford instruments.

Now the media is more interested in the in-between of the conflict and there's more space for that.

It’s challenging — I know that sometimes my work is redundant, but it's a matter of persistently denouncing the really harsh realities that most people here live in until it stops, until it gets better.

What's so moving about your work to me — what adds a whole other layer to it — is that you're rooted there. You know your country, you know your place, you've seen it in all its different forms. Whereas that's really different than just a one-off photo in the newspaper — your whole body of work is a powerful homage to Venezuela.

I think the value of life and our idea of what life is worth has been so transformed. Dying here is so easy and an everyday matter. With the years it's been really embedded in people's minds if they're here or not, no one cares. That's especially true for very poor people. They just get killed and the idea of justice is disappearing, if not completely gone.

This is me trying to tell them that at least I'm here for them. As long as they want to talk to all of us and show all of us the really harsh realities that they're going through, I'm going to be there for them. That weighs on me — I need to do this, I can't be shy about it.

At the end of last year, I put out a story with The New York Times about how Caracas is having this crazy uptick in spending money and wealth. When that story came out, a lot of subjects I have visited for years told me, "You can't keep doing this. Don't get distracted, this is still happening. We're dying here." Literally, people telling me, "We're dying here.” They're seeing their children die. That was very sobering — the entire experience refocused me to get back to the really critical stuff.

You were talking about your subjects. What kind of relationship do you have with some of the people you photograph? How have you built that over time?

At the beginning, in “Paradise Lost,” which is my ongoing project here, a lot of them were my friends or friends of friends, people who I grew up with. But all of those people in images from 2014 and 2015 have left — they're not here anymore. When they left, I started to reach out more to my network and people I knew.

I like to listen a lot and people find comfort in that. Most of the people in “Paradise Lost” are yearslong relationships, people I continue to visit monthly. Well, now, it's a little bit tougher because of the quarantine, but I'm still talking to them at least weekly just to check on them and see how they're doing. I think it's important here in countries like this because we do have a history of a lot of foreigners coming in and taking.

I can imagine, how your country’s suffering could be turned in an exploitiative opportunity for foreign photographers. 

Yes. I do think we all take as photographers and then have struggled with that, but I've had to come to terms with the idea and be honest with myself about it. My way of dealing, and maybe this is just me trying to make myself feel better. I don't know if it's working. I hope it is, but just letting them know that I genuinely care. I'm not there for photos, I care. I really care about their stories coming out. I really care that some of the things I witness don't go unnoticed. I think it's important that even though there's no justice here, it's important to build memory for the future, kind of a what-not-to-do guide for us.

The way people are photographed and shown, there's a real depth to it. For me, I'm so excited and just relieved to know that you have relationships with some of the people you photograph and you talk with them.

I keep meeting people that remind me of my family. Just this week, I was photographing an extremely malnourished old woman. She reminded me of my grandmother so much. This kind of idea has taught me to be really respectful, but it's a thin line because you're photographing these extreme conditions and just horrible things. How do you touch upon those topics because you have to, they're important? How do you do that, respecting the humanity of the people in front of you, even though this is probably the worst time in their life?

I have that reminder with me all the time. Even when I photograph outside of Venezuela, this could be your mom, your dad, your brother. Do it respectfully. Do it in a way that if it happened to your mother, you would feel okay with that. You empathize with them on a next-level — a lot of what they're suffering is what we're all suffering.

Of course, there's levels to it. I'm super privileged, I know that, but there's some things that you can't escape, no matter the privilege. I still have issues with running water, but I need to be grateful. I have running water every day for at least a couple of hours, whereas I know communities that haven't had running water for literally years. In some of my work, it's almost like a self-portrait in many ways. Only that I'm not there, I'm just doing it to others, but it's I think a shared feeling and a shared experience in many ways.

It gives me chills. It's not separate. You're not removed from it. It's affecting every person. 

That's why I haven't ended that project — my idea is that the end to it is going to be the time when I can re-photograph all of these people in a better condition, one that's a little bit more normal. When that moment comes, I'll think my work is probably going to be done.

So this a mission-based project. You're not giving up on it until these people are in a better place and you can show that.

It's exactly it.

Having grown up there, do you feel nostalgia informs your work? Because I feel so immersed when I'm looking at your images and it feels so in the present moment. When you're creating the work, do you have nostalgia about different time periods in your country?

That's a huge part. That's where the name came from. My generation grew up hearing, "This used to be a paradise, and we used to do this, and we used to do that." This is the image of our country that our parents chose to remember and hold onto, yet when I started to grow up, I couldn't find that place anywhere.

I think my generation has a feeling we were robbed, like this place was stolen from us. With Paradise Lost, it's exactly that. It's trying to parallel our beauty, which is always here.

We don't even have a winter. It's summer here all year round. We're in the Caribbean essentially. Food is still wonderful. I try to incorporate all these things that could make a perfect country and then juxtapose them with what we're actually living in, which is heartbreaking and very somber. I think the entire project is based on the idea of, “When is it that we get the opportunity to go back to this place? How do we earn it back?

Visit Adrianna’s website and Instagram

LISTO / 2020 / OAK, CA