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Venezolana Verónica Sanchis Bencomo Started Foto Féminas To Promote Women Photographers In Latin America And The Caribbean

Latin America is in the news again. Today, it’s Venezuela. For the first time in its history, the South American country has two presidents, and each one has fierce support on the country’s streets and in neighboring and distant governments. Images capturing local unrest are once again captivating a global audience, but most of the photos broadcast and published in mainstream media, not unlike coverage of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean, are being taken by foreign male photographers, not locals or women, whose critical and varied perspectives during crises like this rarely attract international attention. For five years, Foto Féminas, a platform promoting the work of female photographers from the region, has been fighting to change that, and its efforts are increasingly important.

Created in 2014 by Venezuelan photographer Verónica Sanchis Bencomo, Foto Féminas is elevating a long-overlooked demographic. Through its website, Bencomo features a different Latin American or Caribbean female photographer, sharing their work and story through monthly interviews. On Instagram, these visual artists also have the opportunity to engage with Foto Féminas’ nearly 10 thousand global followers through takeovers that expand their audience beyond the confines of their home countries. The founder also uses this platform to help emerging Latin American women photographers, those who might not yet have the experience or acclaim as her monthly features, but whose talent, too, deserve to be recognized.

“We are all of different ages, backgrounds and come from different countries, but we all share photography and feel that’s what’s most valuable, that we are a community and know about each other and discovered each other’s work,” Bencomo, 32, told FIERCE.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

In recent years, the digital space Bencomo has cultivated, which is now 50 members large, has also expanded into the material world, with Foto Féminas hosting several international exhibitions, photography festivals and gallery speaking events, collaborating with art and photography institutions and creating the first-ever library of photobooks by Latin American female photographers, Biblioteca Foto Féminas – María Cristina Orive.

After working in the industry for about five years, as a photographer, editor, writer and archivist, in cities across England and New York, Bencomo was hungry to discover women photographers in Latin America and interested in seeing the way these locals were covering the stories she was reading about overseas.

“Maybe it’s because I felt slightly or somehow isolated because I was in the UK and New York, and most of the people around me were of other backgrounds. The works I saw were interesting and great, but I wanted to know about our women. That’s why I was always searching,” Bencomo, who now lives in Hong Kong, said.

The photographer, it seems, has been seeking this representation since she first fell in love with the art as a teenager in Caracas. An avid reader of National Geographic, she was drawn to the way photography could be used to inform communities and provide them access to different parts of the world. But in the region she resided in, photography jobs were limited to weddings and events, not the journalism she enjoyed. After graduating high school, her father, urging her to learn English, encouraged her to move to Brighton, England. There, her English teacher, who also spent some time living in Venezuela, suggested that she stay in the country, where she could take courses and even earn a degree in photography. She heeded his advice, first getting a bachelor of technology for photography and later a degree in photojournalism.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

During her time in university and in the industry, Bencomo was introduced to numerous esteemed photographers. Some of them even told her about visual artists in Latin America. Her interest was piqued, and she felt an urgency to discover more. During a three-year gig at Ventana Latina, the art and culture magazine of the oldest Latin American NGO in the United Kingdom, Latin American House, she was given the opportunity to highlight the works of Latin American photographers with monthly interviews for the publication. But soon she realized her features were overwhelmingly of men.

“I researched a lot, but I realized while I was doing this that it was so hard to find women photographers. I was more mature and understanding gender issues, so I began to be more conscious about that,” she said.

Bencomo eventually left England for New York, where she began working as a library assistant at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography, a museum for photography and visual culture and a photography school. While sifting through countless intriguing archives on the job, Bencomo had an idea that could bring all of her interests — gender, Latin America and photography — together.

“I wanted to do something about this, a project, a website, where I could archive and share the content of Latin American women photographers. Everything slowly came together,” she said.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

That’s when Foto Féminas was born. Knowing the barriers that exist for female photographers in Latin America, from being overlooked for assignments that are deemed too dangerous for women or not having the funds to take trips where they can show their portfolio or apply for international awards, Bencomo wanted to create a platform that recognized these women’s work. Additionally, she wanted to use this space to highlight the way local female photographers were telling stories that the world usually sees through the lens of foreign, white men.

According to Bencomo, if this is the only perspective people have access to, they will never have the whole truth. “I left home and there’s a lot of negative news about Venezuela. There’s a lot of truth to that, in Venezuela and elsewhere, but I also come from a family that, despite the struggles and the problems happening in the country, have made things work. There are other more positive and inspiring stories or moving stories,” she said.

In addition to images that highlight state violence and civil unrest, she wants to see photojournalism that captures the spirit of mothers who work two jobs or leave their homelands to provide for their children or that show what it’s like for women to carry a nonviable fetus to term because of stringent abortion laws.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

“The photos we see, the stories we hear, that is one side of the truth, but it’s not the entire picture of Latin America. There can also be other stories to tell,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing variety. I want to see variety. I grew up knowing Caracas is dangerous, but there are other sides as well, and I believe it has to be the same in other countries, too.”

In Hong Kong, thousands of miles away from Latin America, continuing the work of Foto Féminas isn’t always easy. Funding this project with her own pocketbook, she doesn’t always have the means to take flights to the Americas for exhibitions and events. But it’s her passion to break barriers, create opportunities, establish community, shift narratives — including those around the ongoing upheaval in her own nation — and leave a legacy for Latin American and Caribbean women photographers that keep the work afloat.

“It’s all motivation. It’s really motivation that’s the drive,” she said.

Read: In Atlanta, Peruana Curator Monica Campana Is Creating Space For Public Art

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Black Water That Looks Like Crude Oil And Smells Like Sewer Is Pouring Out Of Taps In Venezuela

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Black Water That Looks Like Crude Oil And Smells Like Sewer Is Pouring Out Of Taps In Venezuela

On Wednesday, in San Diego, Venezuela, a country with one of the largest oil supplies in the world and the poorest, hungriest populations, woke up to black water pouring out of their taps. After weeks of power outages and months of water supply problems, residents are reporting a thick, dark liquid that reporting looks like oil, or black water coming out of their sinks and showers. There are also reports that the water smells like sewage, and some believe that the water lines are damaged and have been contaminated.

Black water running from taps in a country in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis and political upheaval is another major blow to every day citizens where food, medical supplies, and practically all other basic needs are scarce. Thirteen thousand doctors have left Venezuela in the past four years, jobs are scarce, and the country has one of the world’s highest crime rates. More than three million Venezuelan’s have left the country since 2015.Many have fled to nearby Columbia and many to the United States.

President Nicolas Maduro blames the US backed opposition leader Juan Guadio for launching cyber attacks on the country’s power and water systems, while Guadio blames Maduro, who has been the country’s leader since 2013, of neglecting its infrastructure. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, cites Maduro’s socialism which he says has resulted in years and years of neglect to Venezuela’s energy system, saying, in a speech on March 11  that “socialism is a recipe for economic ruin.”

Meanwhile residents of San Diego are unable to bath or find clean water, and citizens all over Venezuela have had to resort to searching local drains and sewers for water to drink.

Many in the US are turning to Twitter for Venezuelan citizen news on the conditions in their country.

While the black water streaming from taps is a new development, people have been unable to get the needs met in hospitals for months. Sarita Cancion couldn’t help pointing out yesterday’s American concerns over the Instagram outage while people have been dying in hospitals during the most recent energy blackout.

Twitter

Is U.S.-backed Guaidó sabotaging Venezuela and the Maduro government, or has Maduro neglected the country and its people?

Many suffering in Venezuela are optimistic about Guaidó and what he could bring as the leader of the country. Some are concerned that Guaidó is only being supported by the Trump administration because of US interests in the countries vast oil reserves. Guaidó has vowed to open the reserves after Chavez and Maduro have kept them nationalized.

Twitter

Carlos Lasek, who recorded a video of black water coming from a tap in San Diego, Venezuela, blames Chavismo, or Chavez-style governance adopted by Maduro, for the situation there.

Twitter

“You ask for water, they give you bullets.”

Widespread protests have been reported in Venezuelan cities and reports of Venezuelan police forces attempting to block protesters. The man in this video accuses armed Maduro supporters and the National Bolivarian Police of trying to stop protesters for exercising their constitutional rights, saying “While we have not power; we have no water; we don’t have the basic public services of any normal country in this world, and we are here raising our voices to ask them to stop, to demand them to stop, to give us minimal conditions. And here they are armed to the teeth with weapons and with a anti-riot gear and everything that they shouldn’t answer the people with. Let everyone in this world know, that you ask them for water, they give you bullets.”

Some on Twitter are not trying to get involved in the politics. Some are just trying to send help.

Twitter

Due to the confusing rhetoric on both sides, it’s easy to get confused when trying to figure out if Maduro is failing his people because he’s greedy or because he’s a socialist. And it’s difficult to fully understand whether Guaidó can bring about positive economic change for the country by opening its oil reserves for profits, or if the US only supports him because they could make profits too. What is true is that is that the majority of people in Venezuela need help now.


Read:The Tragic Reality of Latinas Part Of The Migrant Caravan: “At least I know where my daughter is buried”

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Meet Michelle Poler, The Venezolana Inspiring Women To Face Their Fears

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Meet Michelle Poler, The Venezolana Inspiring Women To Face Their Fears

According to Michelle Poler’s checklist, her life was close to perfect. After graduating high school in Caracas, Venezuela, she moved to Savannah, Georgia to study advertising. While there, she said “I do” to her then-boyfriend. Once she received her bachelor’s degree, she relocated with her husband to Miami, where she swiftly landed an ideal industry gig. But as she fulfilled each life goal, many of them feats for immigrant women of color in the US, she didn’t feel as gratified as she’d been told she would her whole life.

In fact, Poler, who had always lived life according to the safe and secure to-do list society created for her, didn’t start feeling happy until she ditched the rule book entirely and started uncomfortably facing her biggest trepidations through Hello Fears.

A social movement, Hello Fears empowers people to step outside of their comfort zone, engaging in activities that make them a little uneasy, so that they’re able to tap into their full potential. The project, started in 2015 when Poler was a graduate student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, uses storytelling and media content to help people embrace fear and realize the joyous life they fantasize about.

“The core of this project is to inspire people to tackle daily fears,” Poler, 30, told FIERCE. “We discovered that courage is contagious, so by me sharing my story and other people’s stories, others reading are more willing to face their own fears.”

But before the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur started encouraging her more than 30 thousand followers to be courageous, she had to confront her own terrors. While earning her master’s degree in branding, she had a class assignment that required her to do something, anything, for 100 days. The self-described scaredy cat used the opportunity to help her confront the anxieties that were limiting her from success and pleasure. From there, “100 Days Without Fear” was born.

For the next 100 days, Poler tackled a new fear each day. Starting small, the New York transplant, who at the time was scared to ride the subway alone or be out late at night, found herself conquering those apprehensions. She also ate foods that freaked her out. She experienced the torture of a Brazilian wax. She faced rejection passing out flyers on city street corners. And she dined at a bar alone.

“I started getting confidence as I was facing my fears,” she said. “Achieving those small things and gaining that confidence helped me move to more complicated fears.”

Soon, Poler was tackling horrors that few brave individuals would even dare to think about, from holding a tarantula, to skydiving, to posing nude in front of an arts class. Once she completed the physical tasks she thought she was never capable of doing, she moved on to a bigger feat: facing the fears that were getting in the way of her leading her most fulfilled life. That meant quitting her secure but unsatisfying job in advertising and confronting problems in her familial relationships.

“One of my biggest fears was losing my parents, but I wasn’t going to kill them for this purpose,” Poler jokes. “So I decided to write a letter, a very honest letter as if they were dead, telling them all the things I love and appreciate about them and also things I would like to change in our relationship so we can enjoy life together on this planet.”

The experience was emotional, both for her and the now thousands of followers she had as her project went viral. But the tough and tearful conversation, which Poler shared in a video, were worth it. When it was time for her to face her 100th fear, speaking publicly about her experience at a TEDx Talk, her Panama-based parents were in the crowd, being more present and expressive, just as she had asked of them in her letter.

With her class assignment complete, and now jobless because of it, Poler was inspired to turn her personal journey into a business and movement, one that could inspire others to lead their best lives just as she was starting to. Through Hello Fears, the Latina now helps thousands of people take the first step of welcoming the things that make them uneasy and provides them with the tools to conquer those trepidations. She does this primarily through storytelling, from original, empowering Instagram content, a digital course, a blog where people share their own fear-defeating stories and through keynote speaking engagements. Poler averages about 70 conferences a year, bringing her powerful message of triumph to teenage girls as well as big corporations like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft.

“Fear is so universal. Everyone can relate. I speak to people of all ages, backgrounds and genders, and all relate to fear and courage,” she said, noting that most of her talks are for girls and women.

In speaking with tens of thousands of people around the country, she has found the thing most people are afraid of is failing the people they love. Unhappy wives don’t leave toxic marriages because they’re worried about how divorce might impact their children. Talented artists don’t pursue their passions because they’re scared of disappointing their parents. Partners with academic dreams don’t apply for graduate school because they fear losing income could put their relationship in turmoil.

“The fear of failing others, that’s the thing people take into account the most before taking a risk. But when we think like that and stop taking risks because of our fears of failing others, we start failing ourselves,” she said.

According to Poler, there are two types of fears that keep people from realizing their dreams: personal and culture. The former, which also includes not wanting to fail loved ones, is avoiding hurting your ego. Rejection is painful, and trying and failing is a bitter death to the soul, so we protect ourselves from that hurt by refusing to face the fear. Similarly, cultural fears, the worry of what society might think of you for behaving outside of the status quo, also keeps people in unhappy situations.

But Poler says when we remain in our comfort zone, we risk never evolving into the people we have the potential of being. For her, we grow when we challenge ourselves and we accomplish our goals the quickest when we look fear straight in the eye. She would know. Before embarking on her “100 Days Without Fear” class project, she was tasked to write a ten-year plan for her life. A year later, by braving her fears, she made all the ambitions she thought were slightly unfeasible to complete even in a decade happen in 365 days, from being paid to speak publicly, to starting her own company to building a brand with her husband. Now, just four years later, she started a relationships podcast with her husband, is writing her first book and had her story picked up for a series on Fox.

“If you have any goal in mind, if you face your fears, the probability is you will get to your goal faster and you actually get there at all,” she said.

For those hoping to conquer their fears but are unsure where to start, Poler suggests making a list of the rewards that facing their fear could bring them, from tiny outcomes to possibilities that might at first seem unrealistic. “Ask yourself, what’s the best that can happen? Fill your mind with rewards and positive thoughts that take you back to the reason you wanted to do this in the first place,” she said. She also proposes keeping an accountability partner, someone who will remind you of what you stand to gain by overcoming your terrors and will inspire you when you feel like giving up.

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Yesterday I had the honor to speak to a group of 500 certified Emergency Nurses. And I thought: fearless! The things they see everyday ???? I could not be able to handle it. They have to deal with loss, tragedy, blood and pain (emotional and physical) day after day ???? . What can I teach them? I thought ???? . For some people it takes courage and intention to be at least 10% “selfish” and take care of themselves, for once. These people spend their lives caring for others, so much, that they forget to find the time for themselves. So THAT was my mission yesterday: to challenge them to do something for themselves and not feel guilty about it. . Same goes for entrepreneurs and their work. So many hours working to make it, saving all of our money and investing it back into the business. But, what about us? . When was the last time you got yourself a massage at a spa? Or took a night off to do something by yourself that you LOVE to do? Or splurged at a restaurant that you’ve always wanted to go? Or bought tickets to see a show or a concert? . It is OK to do these things once in a while. Spoil yourself, you deserve it. You worked for it. #noguilt . When we take care of ourselves we feel happy, we bring our best selves to the world and then we will be able to help others, because happiness is contagious ♥️???????? #selfcarefirst #courageis #hellofears #mentalhealth #behappy

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For Poler, facing her fears not only allowed her to live the joyous life that degrees, a career and marriage couldn’t do alone but it also showed her, for the first time, how mighty she is.

“One thing I learned is that I’m way stronger than I thought. I perceived myself as a fragile person who was going to break at any point and needed someone to rescue me. I’m way stronger than that. Maybe not physically — I should probably go to the gym for that — but mentally I’m way stronger than I thought. I can handle myself. I can survive on my own, if I wanted to,” she said.

Read: Venezolana Verónica Sanchis Bencomo Started Foto Féminas To Promote Women Photographers In Latin America And The Caribbean

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