The Darien Gap at the border between Central and South America, is a thickly covered jungle area, which countless numbers of refugees battle through every day. Many of them come from war and conflict zones: they have left their old life behind and struggle for days through the thick vegetation – always hoping to see light at the end of the tunnel. Photographer Federico Rios Escobar decided to undertake this same trek – and not just once. His haunting images document what humans are capable of, when striving to reach a life of dignity.

What made you decide to undertake this extensive and challenging project?
In 2021, over 130,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, most of them Haitian. In 2022, the number reached almost 250,000, nearly 20 times the yearly average between 2010 and 2020. The people crossing the Darien in 2022 were mostly Venezuelan, many of them worn down by years of economic calamity, but they are just part of a diverse movement of migrants through the jungle. Today, dozens nationalities attempt the perilous passage on their way to the United States, risking all in the hope of a better future for themselves and their families. What made them decide to leave everything behind? If the reader of these words is able to imagine such a thing, he will understand that migration is not a crime, that no human being is illegal and that no matter what’s the barrier, humanity will always prevail and people will do whatever they need to for their loved ones. For me, as a photographer, it is impossible not to be moved by the avalanche of people who risk their lives in search of an opportunity, because they cannot lead a life in their countries. For us at The New York Times, this has been an important situation for several years and we have been working on it and documenting migrations across all the world; my work in Latin America has an extensive support of my editors and all the team at the newspaper.

How did you gain the trust of the refugees and get them to open up to you?
It is important to listen, to understand, not to judge, to spend time and shake hands. I’m lucky to work with Julie Turkewitz, a colleague who know how to open hearts, when to listen and when a hug is urgently needed. She helps me in creating human bridges with other people. As a photographer I do my best to be open and listen to what people say. And that means being open even when migrants tell me they don’t want to be photographed. It’s key for all of us to remember that not everyone wants to be photographed in their most vulnerable moments.

This journey was already your third one. Did these trips differ from each other in any way?
Every trip is different: the experience, the stories of the people walking and the knowledge of the terrain. But migration is the same here or everywhere: poor people risking their lives, walking full of hope that a new destination will offer them a better future.

What photographic equipment did you take with you?
Among others, I took a Leica M10 with a Summilux-M 35 lens and a Summilux-M 50. The camera performed well, given the excruciatingly difficult conditions; but the humidity of the jungle in lenses and camera bodies is always a nightmare. You don’t want to take the lens off the body, but there’s humidity in the sensor, in the viewfinder, in the lens, everywhere. There’s mud on your hands and rain most of the time. If you’re lucky enough not to have rain, you’re crossing rivers with the water above your waist. It is not easy to carry an electronic device in that part of the world, but, all in all, the camera performed very well.

What were some of the biggest photographic challenges you faced during the project?
There are many really difficult challenges in a situation like this: when photographing people I always look for their agreement. I like them to know where their photos are going to be published. It’s important for me that they understand why I’m there and why I think the story and their own image is important. As journalists, we see the horror of thousands of migrants, desperate in the jungle, without water or food, walking by dead bodies of other migrants who didn’t make it. But it will never be as hard for a journalist as it is for a migrant. They have nothing left: for them migration is an all or nothing game. In the end, the biggest challenge is to believe in journalism and do what you have to do.

How has this project changed your perspective on refugees and their experiences?
Most of the migrants are fleeing poverty, violence, and a lack of opportunities. The world is turning its back on them, telling them that they are second-class citizens and don’t deserve the same opportunities as others. The more I know about migrants, the more unfair their situation is for me.

How did you deal with the emotional toll of witnessing the difficult conditions and experiences of the refugees?
My wife and kids are the pillars of my strength. Journalists often don’t speak out loud about their own emotional situations: I’m very aware of the need for external help for mental stability. Mental health care for a journalist is as important as physical preparation for a sports athlete. I get mine from a professional back home, and I also have my family and friends to back me up. Then there are my editors and colleagues at The New York Times, a full network of people surrounding me that helps me to keep working on topics like this.

Federico Rios Escobar is a freelance photographer based in Colombia, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Throughout his career he has focussed on themes such as armed conflict, migrants, the environment and its relationship with society. His photographs have been published in international media such as National Geographic, Stern, Geo and Times Magazine, and have been recognized with several international awards. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.

Find a comprehensive portfolio of the photographer in LFI magazine 4.2023.

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