Valentina Oropeza


The Quarantines of Leo

The Quarantines of Leo was originally published in Prodavinci on Sunday, March 23, 2020.

Image by Leonardo Ramírez

Leo saw the news on the phone and wrote to his boss. There were several cases of pneumonia from an unknown virus in a city called Wuhan, in central China. No one had died, but Leo proposed to follow the story. He was concerned that a new virus was spreading through a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. It was three weeks before the Chinese New Year, the holiday that causes the largest migratory movement in the world annually. The chief replied that they would wait. They agreed to monitor the information from the office where they worked in Beijing.

Leonardo Ramírez and western expatriates in China were celebrating the arrival of 2020. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported, on December 31, 2019, that there were 27 cases of viral pneumonia; seven of them were serious. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province and the most populous city in central China, with 11 million inhabitants.

The statement said that “many of the pneumonia cases received were related to the South China seafood market in Wuhan.” They assumed that the contagion had started there. The patients had fever, shortness of breath, and some chest x-rays showed lesions in the lungs. So far, “no obvious person-to-person transmission and no infection from medical personnel” had been found. They were working to identify the pathogen, which could be an influenza or parainfluenza virus, a cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, or rhinovirus. The last family of viruses listed in that count was the coronavirus.

Viruses are infectious agents that reproduce within the cells of other organisms. Among the infectious agents that can make a person sick, such as bacteria, protozoa, or parasites, viruses are the most primitive.

Leo moved to Beijing in May 2018, to coordinate the China and Mongolia television team of the Agence France-Presse. He began working at AFP eight years earlier, in the Caracas office, first as a photographer and then as a videographer.

He discovered that he liked to take photos at the age of nineteen, thanks to an analog photography course that his father gave him as a gift in Roberto Mata’s workshop. He was studying Sociology at the Andrés Bello Catholic University without much enthusiasm. Among the options available, it was the career that he disliked the least.

Leo felt lost. His grandmother Yolanda had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After living with her all her life, she couldn’t imagine that she would forget him. While taking pictures of Yolanda when she got lost in her room, Grandpa José intervened to protect her from the camera. Despite the fights with José, Leo discovered that it was easier to cope with the sadness hidden behind the viewer.

Following Grandma every day became a documentary photography project. José protested and Leo understood. He had to take responsibility for his presence in painful moments, for insisting on photographing them. With his Andean intransigence, José used to take him out and Leo used to find a way to return. When he remembered that his intentions were good, he felt strong. He learned to speak and to be silent as appropriate. On the day Yolanda was buried, seven years after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, José stood in front of the open grave with a flower in his hand. “And you’re not going to take a picture of this?.” Leo took out the camera and José threw the flower over the urn.

His second documentary project came about by chance. An activist had an organization to help former inmates to reintegrate into society. He invited Leo to photograph a Christian salsa concert in the El Rodeo prison, 52 kilometers from Caracas. Prison guards rarely went through women’s bags, so Leo passed the camera inside a Christian woman’s bag. They sealed his arm and gave him a number. When he entered the jail, the smell of shit, stale urine and dried blood enveloped him. He couldn’t discriminate, he stunk of everything together.

They first visited the “pran” (the leader of the prison) in his room. There was a large fish tank, a glass table with many perfumes, a double bed, and air conditioning. Blessed with permission to roam the prison, they stepped out into the hall and encountered some boys fighting with a knife. Leo looked around cautiously to not challenge anyone, and he spotted a group of prisoners crouched in a corner. They sold candy and had their mouths sewn up. A pastor approached them and Leo followed behind. The corners of their lips had been sewn together, a prison code that protect them from being killed. They ate and spoke through the free space in the center of their mouths. They were called “los anegados”. Leo asked if he could photograph them and they refused.

—Why do you want to take photos of us?— The group leader asked.
—To show this. A lot of people outside have no idea that you sew your mouths, —Leo replied.
—If you want to take the picture, fine. But it has to be from far away so that my face is not recognized, —the prisoner told him.
—It’s no use to me by far.

Then Leo found the angle.

—What do you think if I rather make a portrait of your mouth? Can I take a test photo?

Leo took out the camera and got very close to the talking prisoner. He took the photo and showed him the screen. When he saw that only his lips, thread, and whiskers appeared, the man agreed. Four more anegados posed. Aware that he had valuable material, Leo wondered how he would get out of jail without having his memory card erased. Surrounded by prisoners, shepherds, and flooded, he pulled out the card and stuck it in a broken sole of one of the Converse he was wearing that day. The rest of the day he walked sideways, as if he had a cramp, without completely stepping on the corner that housed the images.

With Yolanda’s pictures, Leo won a grant to show his work to veteran photographers of the Photo España festival. For the series of portraits of Los Anegados, he came in third place in the Photo of the Year award for Latin America in 2011. A couple of years earlier he began to cover news at six in the morning for the newspaper Últimas Noticias, but they didn’t hire him.

He covered Hugo Chávez for the Associated Press between 2009 and 2010. Photographing Chávez got him thinking about how to get the best photo, one that would differ from those taken by other agency colleagues. AP did not have a permanent position for him either.

Covering a temporary position at the newspaper Líder en Deportes woke up an adrenaline rush that he hadn’t experienced before. He photographed the Venezuelan football team La Vinotinto when they beat Argentina in Puerto La Cruz, during the 2011 play off for the World Cup in Brazil. He understood that there were no second chances to portray a goal. He wanted to do photojournalism. That’s why he was excited when he was called by AFP in May 2010.

To continue reading The Quarantines of Leo in Spanish, click here