This week my testimony on covering the pandemic in Latin America with Covid Latam collective was published in Washington Post. Our new book RED FLAG was awarded the World Press Photo Book Award with Photo Evidence and it will soon be published featuring photographers Federico Ríos Escobar, Tamara Merino, Rodrigo Abd, Fabiola Ferrero, Fred Ramos, Glorianna Ximendaz, Pablo Piovano, Matilde Campodónico, Ale Cegarra, Ana Carolina Fernandes, Rafael Vilela, Andrea Hernández, Daniele Volpe, Johis Alarcón, Iván Valencia, Sara Aliaga, Sebastian Gil Miranda, Victor Moriyama y Eliana Aponte.
"I spent almost nine months covering the pandemic in the city of São Paulo, my hometown. This included covering the Vila Formosa Cemetery, documenting the life of the gravediggers, witnessing hundreds of burials and so much suffering. I also covered resistance stories such as the “street presidents” of Paraisópolis and the Guaranis Mbyá on the outskirts of the city.
It was a very painful experience in general. I was isolated during that time, alone in an apartment so as not put anyone at risk. Covering the pandemic didn’t allow me to “go back home,” to stop working and recover. The crisis was permanent, the fear of getting infected was always bigger and stronger.
The connection with the Covid Latam photo collective helped me cope. We would meet online every week, and I could exchange impressions, information and personal feelings with 17 other photographers who were covering the pandemic in 14 Latin American countries. In the beginning, I believe that’s what it was: a weekly meeting involving an exchange of common anguishes and an Instagram account on which photos and stories were published.
We did not expect it to gain so much visibility, but we ended up garnering a lot of attention in the local and international press, including winning several awards. Receiving the Book Award in the World Press Photo contest, with FotoEvidence, made it possible to create “Red Flag,” a photo book about the pandemic in Latin America with images from 18 photographers covering 14 countries.
The name of the book is significant. In Latin America, the coronavirus has laid bare the region’s extreme inequality, and one symbol of that inequality is the red flag in Colombia. Impoverished Colombians hang a piece of red fabric outside their homes when they no longer have any food — it is a call for help and a reminder that many people live off what they earn from one day to the next and have no safety net. While some families can quarantine safely, others risk hunger and eviction if they stop working even for a day. Those who hang the red flag outside their homes depend on the generosity of others for survival.
The collective and the “Red Flag” book are the gathering of these different realities, kept apart for so long by the colonization process, which distances us from our neighbors and makes Bogotá much more culturally distant from São Paulo than even Washington.
The future of the group is open, with the pandemic still raging in such countries as Brazil. When the pandemic becomes history, we can decide what our future holds. There is much power in our vision as Latin American photographers, and our collective viewpoint is crucial for storytelling around the world."
Rafael Vilela is an independent Brazilian photographer based in São Paulo, Brazil.