Photo by "El Murcy" — Jeison Riascos

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

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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Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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