Faces of Peru’s protests
In the context of the social turmoil that has been occurring in Peru since last December, the audiovisual project marcha_pe offers a powerful counter-narrative to the demonization of the protests by traditional media. Raúl Lescano and Augusto Escribens, its creators, record testimonies of protesters and share them on social media, seeking to humanize their demands and present an alternative image of politics made from the bottom up.
By Alonso Almenara
“Why do people march in Peru? What can we understand if we listen instead of repressing?” These are the questions that Raúl Lescano, a journalist, and freelance editor, and his colleague Augusto Escribens, a photographer and documentarian, ask themselves. Together, they created the marcha_pe project, a repository of recorded video testimonies from people who have participated in the protests that have taken place in the Andean country since last December. This material is available on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
Although the political crisis in Peru has been ongoing since 2018 – when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from his post due to corruption allegations – the situation worsened on December 7, 2022, when Pedro Castillo unsuccessfully attempted to dissolve the Congress of the Republic. The Constitutional Court, the Armed Forces, and Congress rejected this decision, and Castillo was arrested the same day. Within hours, Vice President Dina Boluarte was wearing the presidential sash.
This event triggered a wave of protests against a discredited Congress and a new government, especially in the southern Andean regions of the country, which are demanding, among other things, the resignation of Boluarte, the closure of Parliament, and the advancement of elections. Meanwhile, the repressive response of the Peruvian government has resulted in at least sixty deaths to date. That, in turn, has intensified citizen indignation and elicited the rejection of organizations that advocate for the respect of human rights, including Amnesty International, which has expressed its “concern about the excessive use of force against protesters” and has called for “victims to have access to justice and reparations.”
An especially concerning aspect of the crisis is that the violence has been partly condoned by traditional media, which in Peru are highly concentrated by a single media group. In this context, independent media activity is vital, something that Lescano and Escribens know well, as do many of their followers on social media. “We are very grateful for the support and displays of solidarity that our project has received,” says Raúl. “For example, some people have spontaneously offered to translate testimonies from Quechua to Spanish. And many people are outraged by the situation and want to help make known why they are marching.”
What led you to create the marcha_pe project?
Augusto: It was more or less spontaneous. Last December, I met Raúl at a vigil in front of the Palace of Justice; we talked and agreed to meet at the next demonstration and do something around that. We had a previous experience: four or five years ago, we worked together covering marches for the Lamula.pe media outlet. We did something similar to what we are doing now: going to the protests and asking people why they were marching and their motivation. The result was portraits that consisted of a still photo and a testimony. In marcha_pe, we transformed that into a video and had the recorded testimony appear as a voiceover.
Raúl: Our previous experience led us to cover marches such as “Ni una menos,” against macho violence, or the LGBT Pride march. And we looked for colorful characters with signs that caught our attention and collected their testimonies. It was something straightforward, and in fact, we sometimes joked about it because it was almost like a social section of a magazine dedicated to marches. For people to go to the march and be seen is very important. The march is that it is one’s physical presence to say something. Beyond whether you have a sign or not, the fact that participating in a march is a mighty symbolic act is a message in itself. So what interested us was giving people the possibility of showing it in another way.
That said before we started documenting marches, Augusto and I worked together as part of the staff of a luxury lifestyle magazine aimed at the upper class. It is a type of publication with great resources and elaborate visual content. What has always caught our attention is that this kind of look is usually not present when political issues are covered. There doesn’t seem to be an aesthetic need for serious things. And that’s what we set out to do, give marches an aesthetic, provide them with a place and importance, and add that look to the political aspect.
Because marches are constantly questioned, solutions are demanded of them, specific proposals, and clarity in demands. And in reality, there is nothing more concrete than a person marching and shouting something. What we try to rescue is that image that says a lot in itself.
Something that society reproached to Peruvian media is that they tend to have a biased coverage of the marches: they seek to delegitimize them. Is this project also a way of countering this type of information treatment?
Augusto: Something we have noticed is that different media outlets send reporters to the marches and sometimes ask the same questions we do, seeking to decontextualize, humiliate, or fragment people’s discourse to delegitimize the protest. So, although our initial objective was not to confront this but to look for the human side of the mobilization, our work can be a diminutive form of resistance against this disgusting and terrible coverage by traditional media.
Raúl: As Augusto says, many media outlets can ask the same question as we do, but the important thing is how you present that statement. One can do a report and insert the words so that what was said can be interpreted differently. The particular thing about what we do is that we don’t insert the statements into any discourse: there’s no message before or after. It’s just the interviewee’s statement. Because we don’t want to say anything: we just want to help certain voices be heard. And the visual context is the image of the moment when the person is at the march: the face, the position, the clothing, and what their sign says. All of that adds to the statement, but it’s not something we’re adding. I think that’s the main difference between what traditional media outlets do.
Another aspect that sets us apart is avoiding asking very direct questions. The only question we ask is: What is the main reason why you’re here today? It’s not: What do you think about the Constitution? Or What do you think about Castillo’s detention? Or What do you think about Dina Boluarte? We look for the most open question possible.
Augusto Escribens: “If, as a photojournalist from Lima, they intervene me, try to intimidate me, hinder my work, I ask myself: what happens in much more remote areas of the country, where the authorities also exercise evident racism? Because there is the violence that we see, and there is the violence that one cannot even imagine, the violence that happens when there is no cell phone recording.”
Have some responses been particularly surprising to you?
Raúl: Yes, there usually are. But we are cautious to avoid spreading misinformation or information we cannot verify. And when it comes to political opinions, I admit that it can be challenging to deal with the material we gather because there are things that we don’t agree with. Many people, for example, advocate for the reinstatement of Pedro Castillo. It’s a solid exercise for accepting that opinions that we disagree with are also legitimate.
Earlier, I was told that traditional media in Peru generally have a reasonably homogeneous position regarding protests. What has been the role of social media in this context?
Augusto: Basically, I get my news about the current situation through social media. But I try to consume traditional media as well, at least to see what they’re doing. It’s an instructive exercise, especially when they present the same story you’ve been covering but with a different interpretation.
In that sense, social media fills a void, a demand for plurality in how information is presented. And also, many times, it allows for direct help to people. For example, the other day, I was at a protest, and I saw a policeman take a woman’s phone. For what reason, I don’t know, but he didn’t want to give it back. Fortunately, a few meters away, there were independent journalists from non-traditional media who had recorded the event. The policeman tried to intervene or intimidate them, but he couldn’t, and finally, he had to return the phone. Minutes later, those images were already on social media.
On the one hand, today, we must have the possibility of immediately spreading images documenting all kinds of abuses. But at the same time, it’s disturbing that, with all the information available about the violent repression of demonstrations, things haven’t changed, and we’re still in this regime. And then I think: what was it like 30 years ago? And if I, as a Lima photojournalist, am being intervened, intimidated, and obstructed in my work, I wonder: what happens in much more remote areas of the country, where authorities also exercise apparent racism? Because there is the violence we see, and there is the violence that we can’t even imagine, the one that happens when there is no phone recording.
One of the main ideas in the coverage of the protests by the major Lima media is that the demands are entirely heterogeneous: a thousand different things are being asked for, and there are no reliable leaders or spokespersons. Is this what you have found?
Augusto: I think there is a list of demands that has perhaps been extended and blurred but includes some main slogans. The priority is for Dina Boluarte to resign and for Congress to leave. Then there is a large segment that demands a Constituent Assembly. Many people are demanding the reinstatement of Pedro Castillo. Those are the four main demands, in that order.
Raúl: But I think there is an essential factor that is not always taken into account and that has been growing as time goes by, which is the demand of “they are killing us.” When the marches began, the slogans that Augusto mentioned were much more potent, but now the central issue is the anger, the grief, and the pain of the deaths. And the indignation that politicians come out on television to insult the protesters, to say that they are beasts. The rejection that these attitudes provoke now transcends the situational political context ultimately.
Raúl Lescano: “There is an important factor that has been growing as time goes by, which is the demand of ‘they are killing us.’ When the marches began, the slogans were much stronger, but now the central issue is the anger, grief, and pain for the deaths. And the indignation that politicians come out on television to insult the protesters, to say that they are beasts. The rejection that these attitudes provoke now transcends situational political context ultimately.”
However, I have the impression that the protests have decreased significantly in intensity in recent weeks. Is this the case? And if the marches fail, is there no danger that the accumulated indignation will ultimately be expressed more violently?
Raúl: There is exhaustion. On the one hand, the police have often been effective in breaking up the marches. But also, many people who came to Lima to march have had to withdraw. In one of the marches, we asked a man who had come from Puno how long he had been marching, and he told us six weeks. And clearly, six weeks living in super difficult conditions, away from his family. We asked him: what do you expect to happen? “That the north will come down,” he replied. And the north never came down. So there is exhaustion and extreme frustration, and it is difficult to know what this will turn into. What is clear is that actors of another type are needed beyond the marches: political actors who, unfortunately, do not exist for now.
What will happen to marcha_pe from this point on?
Raúl: The project will continue. It was not explicitly created to respond to this conjuncture, nor is it an initiative against the government of Dina Boluarte. It is a project that we have been thinking about for a long time because we are interested in showing what motivates people to march in general. And this is something we will continue to do.