Federico Estol
Bolivia -
March 07, 2023

For photography that transforms the system

We spoke with Uruguayan photographer Federico Estol, member of the jury for World Press Photo 2023 and co-author of the photobook Héroes del brillo, in which he collaborated with 60 shoeshine boys in the city of El Alto, Bolivia. Trained in popular education, Estol is confident that photography is a powerful tool for social change: as long as photographers abandon purism and adapt to the change experienced by audiences.

By Alonso Almenara

Federico Estol began to think seriously about the social function of photography while studying popular education with Jesuit teachers in convents in Montevideo. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire created this form of alternative pedagogy in the mid-20th century, who believed that “to teach is not to transfer knowledge, but to create the possibilities for its production or construction.” Estol has taken these principles to heart. “We photographers need to get down a little bit,” he says. “And remember that the neatness of the image is not the most important thing in photography, but the ability to communicate. That’s why I’m interested in incorporating languages not from the art world but from the street.”

Héroes del brillo (El Ministerio Ediciones, 2018), his fourth photobook, is probably the best example of the kind of social orientation Estol has sought to give his works. “The project was born when I discovered that shoeshine boys cover their faces in Bolivia. My brother-in-law, who was there, told me about it. When I went to investigate, I could see discrimination behind the use of balaclavas”. Every day, three thousand shoeshine workers flood the streets of La Paz; most come from the suburb of El Alto. These workers wear balaclavas to be not recognized because society looks down on their trade, and the police persecute them. But they have found ways to make themselves respected. In El Alto, Estol learned about the work of the NGO El Hormigón Armado, which brings together a group of 60 shoeshine workers in the area. Together they publish a newspaper that has been in existence for 16 years.

It is with this group that Estol collaborated for three years to produce a fictional story that combines photography with the language of comics, presenting the shoeshine boys as superheroes. “The photobook is essentially a full-color street diary,” he explains. “Some people call it a fanzine, but I call it a photobook because it adapts to where the message has to go.”

In Héroes del brillo, shoeshine boys come to the rescue whenever a shoe gets dirty: as soon as the sun’s reflection summons them in their mirrors, they grab their gear and spring into action. The balaclava becomes a symbol of the fight against discrimination and the support of a new collective identity.

Estol has received numerous distinctions, including the IILA Photography Rome 2016 Award and the FELIFA international award for the best photobook of 2018, Héroes del Brillo. He is also the artistic director of the San José Foto international festival and editor at El Ministerio Ediciones.

He was recently invited to be part of the jury for World Press Photo 2023. Taking advantage of the occasion, we sat down to chat with him about his vision of photography and the potential he sees in this discipline to promote social change.


Héroes del Brillo has been a phenomenon; it has won many awards. How does this project fit in with your previous work?

I am a photographer who has worked more on the social side of photography. I was trained in popular education by Franciscan priests of the Movement of Priests of the Third World in Montevideo. In addition, I worked for sixteen years in rural communities in Uruguay, using participatory photography to make visible identities that overlapped. 

I have also worked in urban spaces where housing plans were implemented that brought together many people who did not know each other and did not know the history of those places. We were a team with a photographer, an anthropologist, and a sociologist; we stayed six months in each village and worked on a common identity, always to create sustainable and easily replicable dynamics.

“The documentary tradition no longer has the same impact because the audience has changed. It’s an audience that watches Netflix daily and no longer trusts newscasts. It’s more used to fiction than reality. So I think using fictional languages to talk about real problems makes sense.”

Héroes del brillo has a similar logic, but it is the first project in which I could put all my knowledge of community engineering to work within the photography framework. When I came across the story of the shoeshine boys of El Alto, my first reflection was that documentary photography has a limit. When there are stereotypes, when there are stigmas, it is not enough to work on the surface. It is necessary to show a renewed vision that gives pride to the communities and has a practical outlet for the context.
Because publishing a note often does not transform any reality, it could have happened before: Doctors Without Borders, for example, was created by a photo of famine in Biafra. But if a similar image were published today, I am sure it would not have the same effect. The documentary tradition has a different impact because the audience has changed. It’s an audience that watches Netflix daily and no longer trusts the news. It’s more used to fiction than reality.
It makes sense to use fictional language to talk about real problems. Also, to promote mental values, confrontation is sometimes not the way to create a more poetic and open shared space.

An exciting aspect of Héroes del brillo is that it is a fiction created in a participatory way. How was that work experience?

The process lasted three years. We didn’t take pictures the first year but concentrated on creating a storyboard. We discussed who would be the villain or what elements had to be highlighted; for example, love in bootblack couples. Those things only come out when there is a collective decision experience. We also had workshops with the help of teenagers who taught the shoeshine boys how to make comics. We only worked on Saturdays, which was the day they had free to get together to bind the newspaper. 

In the second year, the photo sessions began. Hormigón Armado lent us a minibus to go around the city with the shoeshine boys and do the scenes we had planned. For them, it was necessary, for example, to include more women in the narrative, even though it was not easy to balance schedules due to work and child-rearing issues, but we did it. They also wanted to show the new Bolivian architecture, which I know they have taken out of the soup in photography. Still, it was what they wanted because they are from El Alto, and that is the architecture they associate with people who have money, with the Aymara bourgeoisie. 

Then they said to me: Federico, we want to have superpowers. One remembered a newspaper cover from several years ago that showed a shoeshine boy in a Superman costume. We realized that, in reality, they have many similarities with superheroes: they hide their identity so as not to be discriminated against; they have special tools such as brushes, creams, boxes, and lairs where they keep their things and wash their hands to get rid of the polish so that they are not identified. And they have enemies in common, like the police. I believe they also do social good because in Bolivia, sometimes the public offices do not receive the peasants unless they have impeccable shoes without mud stains. Even the police polish their boots and then chase the shoeshine boys.

“What we did was a sort of circular economy system in which the shoeshine boys and I shared the profits. I was interested that they could benefit from my contact with the art world, as community artists hacking the system to have a return. That’s always important when you work with vulnerable people.”

I like the project’s aesthetic, which combines photography with the language of comics, magazine clippings, and other elements of popular culture. Was that something you agreed on together?

Absolutely. Héroes del brillo has photography, collages, and pieces of magazines we found in flea markets in El Alto. I believe that popular knowledge must enter into the photographer’s narrative. If we want to use photography as a communication tool, we cannot rely solely on aesthetic or conceptual parameters from the photographic world. The shoeshine boys told me: “we want Dragon Ball, Power Rangers, and superpowers.” My role was to be a kind of producer of the story. And I think the result works, partly because the popular design is the one that reaches people. They pass by if you put a minimalist design in a bus terminal. 

Let’s talk about the self-sustainability of the project: how did you manage that aspect? 

What we did was a circular economy system in which the shoeshine boys and I shared the profits. I was interested that they could benefit from my contact with the art world, as community artists hacking the system to have a return. That’s always important when you work with vulnerable people. 

Deep down, I think there is a responsibility to give visibility and generate direct help because those extractivist tactics have already been done. Sometimes just because there was no reflection on it. But today, ethically, if you are going to work with a community in the desert, for example, why not make that project help pay for a water pump. Something simple, concrete. Not that “I’m going to publish you,” because, in the end, photography magazine audiences are often people from the first world. People sitting comfortably on their couches will not do anything to help these people; they are just going to consume the story.

I want to finish talking about your role as a jury member in this year’s World Press Photo. It is a contest that is changing: for example, it now summons jurors who do not come from the world of photojournalism. How do you see this change?

What is changing is public. I was saying that the public no longer knows if something is true or fake news. Fiction has become part of everything; documentary photography has always been reluctant to open that door. Lately, there have been steps in that direction. World Press Photo had to do it. And what it did was to put together a regional strategy so that any photographer from Latin America would first go through a regional jury before an international jury sees his or her work. 

That is very wise because a regional jury knows what it means to exploit the Latin American cliché with its criteria of folklorization and understands the need to involve the communities and not to remain only in very aesthetic proposals but with little content. Things that an international jury is not necessarily going to take into account. So I think it is an opportunity. 

On the other hand, the composition of the jury has been diversified in terms of ethnicity and gender, which I think is very good, and the open format category has been opened up, which is what I do: videos, comics, web pages, intervened photos, alternative processes, etc., all enter there. This change expands the journalists’ toolbox and is also what people want. Because for an in-depth investigation to reach the public, you need to accompany it with an aesthetic that catches their attention that sounds different. 

One good thing about Latin America is that we don’t have big schools of photography or academic lines that homogenize photography. Spanish photography has a particular style, like Finnish or American landscape photography. Here we do not have a dominant style, and that kind of lack gives us a virtue: today, in the continent, projects are appearing that are disruptive and different from what is seen in other parts of the world.