Photos: An Afro-Colombian Photojournalist Documents the Coronavirus Crisis in Chocó

Woman on the Quibdó Market Place, on the Atrato River, where people sell the local products.

Photo by "El Murcy " — Jeison Riascos

Photos: An Afro-Colombian Photojournalist Documents the Coronavirus Crisis in Chocó

Photographer Jeison Riascos is capturing not just dramatic stories from the pandemic but also the solidarity shown by residents of his hometown, Quibdó.

For the Spanish version of this article head here .

A woman sits in front of her kiosk piled high with fresh fish in a market along the Atrato River. Even in a mask, her face reveals her despair and expectation—common feelings right now for those battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, a region home to many of Colombia's Black and indigenous people.

Photojournalist Jeison Riascos captured this image while documenting the outbreak in his hometown in the west of the country. A freelancer for El Espectador, one of Colombia's main newspapers, his work has appeared in The New York Times , AFP and many local media outlets. He is also the co-creator of Talento Chocoano , a webpage that tells outstanding stories from the Chocó region.

Riascos is known as "Murcy", short for murciélago , or "bat" in Spanish. While he has not come into contact with bats recently, he has definitely been very close to COVID-19. With more than a million infections at this point, Latin America is emerging as the new global epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak and in Colombia more than 1350 people have died and more than 42,000 were infected according to the National Institute of Health, INS.

So far, in Chocó numbers are relatively low with 488 reported infections and 11 deaths, according to data released on June 9th. But though the numbers are not high here, the pandemic arrived at a very critical moment, says Yoseth Ariza , an epidemiologist from the Afro-Diasporic Studies Center, CEAF.

"There is a huge disadvantage in Chocó, compared to the country's main urban centers," says Ariza. "And because there is a lack of health services, there is an increase in vulnerability and as in other Latin American countries, it will end up generating more inequality."

Murcy´s work as a photojournalist has been crucial in a region with some of the worst medical infrastructure in the country. According to the Minister of Health there are only 20 Intensive Care Units (ICU), while Martín Emilio Sánchez , Quibdó´s mayor, said there are 27 hospital beds for its more than 500,000 inhabitants. In addition, there is no guaranteed food security, and the drinking water supply is very scarce and precarious.

Beyond that, in 2019, the average unemployment rate in Colombia was 10.3 percent, and in Quibdó it was more than 20 percent. In other words in the Chocó capital, the unemployment rate was double the national average, even before the pandemic, according to official data.

"In the Quibdó market, on the boardwalk by the river bank, I had to report a very painful image," Murcy remembers. "There was a big crowd of vendors without security measures, they had to be there because that's where the fish arrive, but they didn't have any safety equipment."

Street vendors on Quibdó selling their fruit. Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos

"It is difficult sometimes to photograph people in the middle of this pandemic," says Murcy. "I have taken photos of people who have to go out to work, they live from day to day and cannot afford to stay at home."

This reality is not only happening in Chocó but around the country. "It is very complex to socially distance when people make their living from informal jobs, when there is no basic income and if you don't go out to work you do not have something to eat," says Ariza, the epidemiologist. "This is the situation of big inequality in the department of Chocó, but also in the entire Pacific Coast region."

Work conditions for health workers are also very precarious. "When the first case of COVID-19 arrived in Colombia," says Ariza, "the government owed health personnel 4 to 6 months of last year's salaries. And they have to be on the front line and comply with protocols."

To date, there are 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases of medical personnel in Chocó, and Murcy has been the one to tell this story. He recalls the moment when he documented a healthcare worker who needed to enter the COVID-19 area in the hospital.

Health worker in San Francisco Hospital in Quibdó entering into the "COVID-19" area. Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos

Murcy thought at that moment that "to get there you need a lot of morale, not just anyone could enter knowing that we are in this emergency. It was very cool to see the nurse and I feel that these guys are the ones who need to be empowered, those who are giving it all to work in this situation."

Murcy is not the kind of photographer who takes a picture and then walks away. He really likes to talk to the people he is photographing, gain their trust, take honest images of them when he is telling stories about them.

But during the pandemic, things have changed. "I have been taking photos in areas where there are big crowds and I always try to not touch anything and to be with myself. Also, I used to greet people a lot, and now we cannot have contact, so it has been a difficult transition."

A health worker in San Francisco Hospital in Quibdó putting their PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) to enter into the "COVID-19" area. Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos

The stories reported from Chocó tend to be negative, so there is rarely something on the good side of things, and Murcy allows a handful of positive narratives to thrive. This makes his work on what he is doing to tell the story of Covid-19 even more important.

Murcy knows that it is very hard for Afro-Colombians to achieve an accurate representation of their communities in the media. While most of the time he is covering a lot of breaking news within the COVID-19 emergency, he is also highlighting good deeds from people who bring solidarity and hope in this pandemic.

Quibdó´s Fireman cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus. Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos

That's why his lengths "always try to find those moments which could build," like the firefighter team volunteering to clean-up days in Quibdó to support the community and advice on cleaning habits and measures in town.

That's why he developed Talento Chocoano , a website that spotlights positive stories from Chocó. For him, there is no point in documenting only those who have nothing to give. He doesn't shy away from the bad, but his photographs always aim to empower.

"I have portrayed the strikes in Chocó from a regional perspective, but also from one perspective: making the community visible, and appropriating it, the community that is in the fight."

Over the last years he has gained a reputation as an anchor for peers and aspiring photographers. He also started to teach photo workshops so young people could acquire the tools to tell their stories of their region through photography.

Now, Murcy defines himself as a "reference point, who keeps the idea of telling stories and creating memories. That strengthens my story when I talk about photography with the young people who want to be photojournalists." He has become a leader who is using his camera to tell other stories beyond poverty and inequality in Chocó.

As Murcy's photos show us, it is a good time to reflect — what are the good things that make our world more human and with more solidarity.

Quibdó´s Fireman cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus. Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos


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