Venezuela has fallen silent, ostensibly desolate.
“It seems empty,” the photographer Mariana Vincenti said. “Everywhere you go — in the streets, in the classrooms, everywhere.”
It was this stark quiet that drew her to explore the great migration out of Venezuela. The country’s political chaos and economic collapse have turned some cities into ghost towns. Stores are empty; homes are left fully furnished as if someone had just run out to pick up milk.
Since September 2017, Ms. Vincenti has photographed the rooms left behind by her countrymen looking for a better life. It is estimated that 1.5 million Venezuelans have already left, but that number is expected to grow. We’re accustomed to seeing images of streams of desperate migrants at the borders, Ms. Vincenti said, but she wanted to turn the camera the other way.
“What happens to that space, to a country that is getting silent?” she said.
Ms. Vincenti started the project when she returned home to Caracas after studying photography in New York. She called her friend Valeria Pedicini, a journalist in Venezuela, to catch up and ask about their friends.
“She said, ‘Everyone is gone,’” Ms. Vincenti recalled. “You feel like a fighter in your own country because everyone has left. ‘He left’ or ‘She left’ is the most common phrase lately I’ve heard of people from Venezuela.”
Ms. Vincenti was once one of them. On a recent visit to her parents’ home in Caracas, Ms. Vincenti found her childhood room largely intact: the to-do list on her mirror, concert tickets, a cigarette from her smoking days, and more.
“My room is particular, I made it my own, but the things that make it my space are not the things you would take with you if you’re moving to another country,” she said. “You only have 23 pounds. What do you decide to take with you? What are the things you’re going to need?”
In Venezuela, most young people live with their parents until they are married, so the rooms she visited were packed with memories.
“Your room holds what you are, and what you don’t take away when you leave,” Ms. Vincenti said. “I’m still there. It was a reminder that, like me, there were millions of rooms in Venezuela that people left. Families are still living in those houses and have to see that empty space every day.”
Together with Ms. Pedicini, the two set out to find different types of rooms and stories across Caracas, with Ms. Vincenti photographing and Ms. Pedicini interviewing families.
“We saw how they coped with loss, how they were navigating this,” Ms. Vincenti said. One mother they met was Elisa Martinez, whose son Jorge Badra left Venezuela for Madrid. She was an immigrant from Cuba who fled the dictatorship there. She and her husband built a big, beautiful house for their sons, Ms. Vincenti recounted, with the idea that the house could be a home for future generations of the family.
“And then she is the one who encouraged her older son to leave,” Ms. Vincenti said. As a lawyer, he had better opportunities elsewhere. “She was a heart divided.”
In composing her photographs, Ms. Vincenti aimed to make a portrait of the person through his or her space.
“I tried to find the essence of who the migrant was, find their story and their reasons for living, through the things they chose to leave behind,” she said.
Sometimes Ms. Vincenti would revisit a subject’s room to follow up with the family, only to find that the entire family had left.
“They lock the door and give the key to the neighbor,” Ms. Vincenti said.
The latest round of elections hasn’t helped the situation, either. President Nicolás Maduro was re-elected to a second term in office in May, leaving many Venezuelans frustrated, hopeless and powerless, Ms. Vincenti said.
“This election represented a scenario that no matter what happened,” she said, “that things are not going to start getting better.”