CARACAS, Venezuela – María Elena Delgado’s eyes look down upon pedestrians as they circulate the streets of the Venezuelan capital, a sprawling metropolis of six million.
The sad and suffering expression in Delgado’s eyes, captured in a giant portrait displayed on a wall in the center of the city, does not go unnoticed.
She experienced the death of three of her children, Erasmo, Norka and Wilmer, between 1999 and 2008 as the result of the relentless wave of violence plaguing Venezuela.
“I remember my children every day,” said Delgado, 57, a resident of Petare, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Venezuela’s capital city. “I make the same amount of arepas (traditional cornmeal patties) that I used to make when they were alive.”
Venezuelan journalists María Fernanda Pérez, 27, Mariana Cadenas, 28, and Carolina González, 28, launched Proyecto Esperanza (Project Hope), which uses images of the mothers of victims of violence, such as Delgado, to put a face on the tragedy.
“There are so many deaths per year and it seems that people have almost gotten used to it, perhaps as a matter of survival,” Pérez said. “But we can’t look at it as something frivolous. Those aren’t just numbers you see in the newspaper – they’re people with real dramas.”
The 52 pictures, printed in black and white on giant canvases that were put on display in November 2011, are scattered throughout the city – from violence-ridden neighborhoods such as Petare to middle-class areas like Las Mercedes and Los Palos Grandes.
Viewers are directed to the NGO’s website to learn more about the women in the photographs.
Proyecto Esperanza tackles the issue from a perspective that is often overlooked. The focus is not on the dead or the unusual events that fill the pages of newspapers.
Instead, it focuses on how people should get on with their lives after losing a loved one.
“Everyone has a mother, and we believe that [mothers] are an excellent representation of what we want to convey,” said Pérez, who added that for every death, there are between three and four secondary victims, most notably surviving family members, who often live without ever knowing any peace, as the majority of the homicides in Venezuela go unpunished.
The Public Safety Commission for the Metropolitan Region of Caracas’ first annual report, which was based on official and unofficial figures, registered 19,000 homicides in Venezuela in 2011, placing the homicide rate at 67 per 100,000 residents.
In Caracas, the homicide rate was 108 per 100,000 people, according to the report.
The report also pointed out that 93% of murder victims in Caracas were men between the ages of 15 and 24, and 90% of murders involved a firearm.
In total, there are 52 portraits of mothers between the ages of 30 and 70, none of whom is identified by name.
The project was inspired by the “Inside Out” movement of French artist JR, who used giant portraits to raise awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Similar exhibits took place in Ecatepec, Mexico, during the month of March, with billboards placed throughout the city as part of a campaign against violence, and in Medellín, Colombia, which featured the exhibit “Heroes without Borders.”
Pérez, Cadenas and González’s project involved seven months of research and numerous photo sessions throughout Venezuela, along with the talents of 20 renowned local photographers, such as Nelson Garrido, Luis Britto and Roberto Mata.
“A lot of people have contacted us because they want to participate, like relatives who want us to include their stories and people who offered us the walls of their homes to display the portraits,” Pérez said.
Roberto Briceño León, director of citizen security NGO Venezuela Violence Monitor (OVV) said that there have been “successive increases” in the lack of security since 1998, when 4,550 murders were recorded. Ninety-one percent of murders in the country of 29 million don’t end in an arrest, he added.
“Impunity, the more than 10 million illegal weapons circulating throughout the country and corrupt police departments are some of the causes of the insecurity in Venezuela,” Briceño León added.
Now, the creators of Esperanza Venezuela are supporting their street campaign with workshops and discussions at universities. They are contemplating extending the project’s scope to other parts of the country.
“This is not a problem that affects only Caracas,” Pérez said.
The trio also is working on a book featuring photographs and stories of 52 Venezuelan mothers, whose pictures will be featured in a Caracas gallery as well.
Meantime, the photographs will continue to be displayed around the city “indefinitely,” Pérez said.
“We want to show that there is hope for Venezuela,” she said.