You have to go, but will you get back?


Juan Barreto is an AFP photojournalist based in Caracas. For the last several weeks, he has been documenting the ongoing violent protests against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

A Molotov cocktail lands on National Guard members' shield in Caracas, February 28, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

A Molotov cocktail lands on National Guard members' shield in Caracas, February 28, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)/em>




By Juan Barreto


CARACAS, March 18, 2014 --- You wake up and get in touch with your colleagues, on Twitter or via Zello, a smartphone walkie-talkie app. You need to know where the day’s action is.

You take a deep breath. Since the demonstrations started more than a month ago, you know you need to go, but you’re not sure you’ll make it back again. You lug your equipment everywhere, dodging or going over barricades along the way. Cameras, bulletproof vest, gas mask.

You get there and start taking photos. It’s not war -- you’re covering one of Caracas’s many protests in the eastern suburbs -- but you need to take basic precautions and scout the quickest routes out in case you need to beat a hasty retreat.

Demonstrators use an improvised slingshot to hurl rocks during a demonstration in Caracas, March 2, 2014. (AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez)

Demonstrators use an improvised slingshot to hurl rocks during a demonstration in Caracas, March 2, 2014. (AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez)

The photojournalists band together. Like ants, we gather at the edges of the action. We protect each other and look out for each other. There’s no competition; we’re all seeing the same things, it’s just how we frame them that’s different.

From time to time, you jump into the melee and take some photos. It’s a bit like juggling – there’s all these objects being hurled through the air and you just have a few seconds to take some photos. You rely on your intuition and your reflexes.

A demonstrator throws a Molotov cocktail, March 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez)

A demonstrator throws a Molotov cocktail, March 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez)

You’re not part of the protest; you’re there to document it. You shelter behind trees. You need to know exactly when to jump into the action and when to leave. If you get hit, that’s it, you’re done.

You walk, you keep moving and you work non-stop. It goes on all day – you sweat, and your nostrils are burning from the teargas. Gas canisters strike your helmet. Sometimes, the gas gets inside your mask, and you wonder if you’re going crazy.

Police fire tear gas and water cannon at protesters, March 12, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Police fire tear gas and water cannon at protesters, March 12, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

I took the photo below on March 12. About 3,000 young people were mobilized in Caracas to keep up pressure on the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The clashes started around noon, when demonstrators ran into around 300 anti-riot police who’d blocked the road to the Plaza Venezuela in the center of town, where some pro-government protesters had assembled.

At one point, some of the young demonstrators had managed to get hold of several police shields and used these to protect themselves against teargas grenades. Then out came this guy, wearing the notorious mask used by members of the Anonymous activist group. A click at the right moment, that was all.

Students take cover behind a shield taken from national police officers, March 12, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Students take cover behind a shield taken from national police officers, March 12, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Once again, the situation in Venezuela is making headlines around the world. As for me, I’m tired, really tired. But it’s all good – I’m learning, I know that despite all the adrenaline, I mustn’t panic. A poor decision could be deadly.

I took lots of photos around the Plaza Altamira, the epicenter of the street protests that have turned this part of down into a real battlefield. But sometimes, within the space of just a few minutes, you need to switch gears and cover a different scenario, such as a pro-government neighborhood or march.

Public health workers clash with police in Caracas, March 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

Public health workers clash with police in Caracas, March 10, 2014. (AFP Photo/Juan Barreto)

In the beginning, demonstrators were all students. Now you also see old ladies and hotdog vendors. Some are demanding the government resigns; others are fed up with shortages of basic goods, lines in the supermarkets and expensive rents.

Where’s it all headed, and how will it end? I don’t know. But whatever happens, something’s going to change.

At an anti-Maduro protest in Caracas, February 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

At an anti-Maduro protest in Caracas, February 22, 2014. (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

Juan Barreto is an AFP photojournalist based in Caracas.