(Over)living beyond the outskirts
Juan Pablo Barrientos has spent over two decades documenting the major upheavals in Argentine society: strikes, protests, clashes between peasant unions and law enforcement. In “Conurbano,” a project he developed during the pandemic, he shifted his focus to a less visible issue: the extreme poverty that an increasing number of people are experiencing in the Buenos Aires conurbation.
By Alonso Almenara
Juan Pablo Barrientos began making a name for himself in journalistic photography thanks to his robust coverage of the social outbreak in December 2001 in Argentina. At that time, he was part of the art department of Billiken magazine, and even though he wasn’t yet working as a photographer, he had the habit of capturing street snapshots. He had learned the craft from his father, a photographer, who gifted him his first camera, a Nikon FM.
When Juan Pablo learned about what was happening around the Plaza de Mayo, he left his house on a bicycle, carrying his camera and a film bag. Ultimately, he could only use one photo roll amid the police repression. But the result was enough to convince the newspaper “Argentina Arde” to publish a series of special issues dedicated exclusively to photography in an unfolding format, something rarely seen in the local press in those years.
That experience shaped the way Juan Pablo understands photography: he has consistently portrayed the struggles of peasants, the working class, and indigenous peoples, which have shaken the recent history of Argentina. He has also documented humanitarian crises like the Avellaneda Massacre, in which Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán were killed. It’s never an easy job: In 2019, the Argentine photographer was beaten and detained by the police alongside his colleague Bernardino Ávila while covering a protest by the workers of the Madygraf printing house, who were denouncing the crisis in the sector and irregularities in contracts from the Ministry of Education.
The following year, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the country’s healthcare system collapsed. The impact was especially felt in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Greater Buenos Aires, where social services have been disappearing and poverty is on the rise. For three years, Juan Pablo turned his gaze to these neighborhoods he has known since childhood—he was born in the Agüero neighborhood of Morón—in a photographic series that captures the drama of families left to their fate on the darkest days of the pandemic. The result is a photo book titled “Conurbano,” which was accompanied by an exhibition inaugurated at the end of March at the Museum of Hunger.
Juan Pablo’s black-and-white photos vividly depict the precarious living conditions of these individuals. Yet, they also serve as a call to action, as they reveal how normalized social inequality is in Argentina. According to the photographer, this is something that his work cannot change, but he has a duty to showcase.
He recently stated in an interview with the newspaper La Izquierda: “Today, when I take a photo (…) I try to respect the people I am photographing a lot. It’s essential because I don’t want to promise or create false expectations with anything. I know there are things that can be addressed through photography and things that cannot.”