Since 2014, faced with an increasingly dim economic and political situation, Venezuelans have been leaving their country in droves. In fact, the UNHCR estimates that there's been an 8000% increase in Venezuelans seeking refugee status in the past 5 years, which has led to 4 million people now living abroad. It's in this context that photographer Gregg Segal raised his lens to capture some of the faces that have been affected by these changes.
Undaily Bread is the follow up to Segal's successful Daily Bread series, which saw him photographing children around the world surrounded by items from their daily diet. This time, in collaboration with the UNHCR, Segal is telling the story of the women and children who have been forced to flee their homes, many traveling over 600 miles to safety. All of them now live as refugees in Bogotá, Colombia and are attempting to construct a life that is better than what they left behind.
Items from their daily meals are strewn about them, accompanied by the few precious possessions they were able to bring from home. Viewing these items is a stark reminder of the conditions these families are facing, have fled economic hardship and now working to create a new future for themselves. With job opportunities scarce, many of these families are struggling to make ends meet. To this end, the UNHCR used Segal's photographic series as a way to raise funds to cover medical care for Venezuelan refugees.
We had a chance to speak with Segal about how the collaboration came about and what he hopes people take away from the stories of these families. Read on for our exclusive interview.
How did the concept for Undaily Bread come about?
I was contacted by Jose Racioppi, a copywriter at Publicis in Bogotá. Jose had seen Daily Bread and approached me about doing a series in the same vein, but one focused on the Venezuelan immigrants who’ve sought refuge in Columbia.
How did the partnership with UNHCR develop and how did they help you move forward with the project?
Jose set up the partnership with UNHCR and together we worked through the details and discussed how we would use the pictures to raise funds for a UNHCR campaign. Donors would receive photographic prints as rewards for their contribution and money raised would help cover the cost of essential medical care for mothers and children who’d fled to Bogotá.
How did working on this series challenge your preconceived notions of what these families go through?
I think the process supported what I knew about the plight of the refugees. I suspected that they'd had very little to eat during their journeys from Venezuela and this was the case. I’d heard about the collapse of the Venezuelan economy. With inflation spiraling out of control, money in Venezuela is virtually worthless. One of the kids I photographed, Nathalia, hadn’t eaten an apple in more than three years because of skyrocketing prices. A single apple cost more than 5,000 Bolivias—about $12. We had apples in the studio during the shoot and it was so great to see Nathalia munching on one!
How did this experience contrast or compare to working on Daily Bread?
With this project, I looked not only at what kids and mothers ate during their journeys but also at what they carried with them from home. It was important to underscore how little refugees are able to keep from their lives in Venezuela. It’s as if your house were on fire and you only had time to grab a few cherished keepsakes and the barest of necessities. One mother took her son’s last homework assignment from school, a simple but meaningful detail of his childhood that would otherwise be lost.
Why do you think it's important for artists to become involved with social issues?
Artists can illuminate social issues by framing them in a way that hadn’t been considered or by visualizing problems in ways that hadn’t been clearly seen or felt. I think artists can help us feel and can ignite compassion with their work. Images connect with audiences on a gut level. We live in a visual age and pictures convey social problems with immediacy. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words has never been truer.
Is there any family in particular that stuck with you?
They all stuck with me—from the little boy who carried bread around after the shoot, tucked securely under his arm, because he didn’t want to feel hunger again to the mother who fled alone with her youngest son, leaving behind her adult sons, because she knew it was the only way to give him a chance in life. She’d been determined to get out and on to a more hopeful life before it was too late, before this child’s optimism was ground down.
What do you hope that people take away from the series?
When we look at photographs we often see ourselves in others. It is one of the most vital capacities a human being can have—empathy. I would hope that the simple, direct presentation of refugees opens this well of empathy in viewers and they ask, what if it were me?