IWAN BAAN ON CARACAS: Romanticizing poverty?
In his recent TED talk, photographer Iwan Baan focused on the ingenious ways that people in poor communities appropriate and adapt spaces. He showed communities humming with human activities, despite seemingly unbearable poverty: Chandigarh, India; Lagos, Nigeria; Cairo, Egypt; and Caracas, Venezuela. While Baan’s photography is spectacular, he should remember that appearances can be deceptive. Unfortunately, his TED talk romanticizes lives of the urban poor, along with the causes and remedies of urban poverty.
In the Venezuelan case, for example, Baan interprets the lives of squatters now living in the Torre David, an abandoned 45-story building in Caracas, as an uplifting saga of the human spirit. He may be right in some ways, but according to my Venezuelan colleagues, Baan fails to provide a holistic picture of life in the tower. After all, he was just there for a day or two when he was taking photographs. The place-making dynamics behind the tower are much more complicated than he suggests, responding to the multi-layered crisis in Venezuela today.
Baan seems to confuse the situation when he states that he is interested in what happens to spaces “after the planners leave.” The fact is that planners were probably never very involved with the tower. Since the developers abandoned the building, it has been run by one of the city’s largest armed collectives, so statements like “every home in the tower is designed with love” seem naive. Residents may not be as communal and collectively minded as Baan suggests. When he says that the tower provides space for people to craft a space for themselves, Baan simplifies or even ignores the socioeconomic and political realities.
Perhaps the tower is as much a testament to empty governmental promises and failed plans as it is to the people’s ingenuity. With the highest oil revenues in Venezuela’s history, and multiple affordable housing projects now udnerway (many if not most of which will never be completed, due to corruption), it seems unacceptable that Baan never discusses the state’s role and possible negligence. Of course, this omission might have been one of the conditions by which he was granted entry to the country and the tower in the first place.
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