In the icy tunnels of Catedral station on Buenos Aires subway Line D, 15-year-old Daiana begs for change as she nurses her four-week-old baby, Santino. The girl is from the southeast town of Wilde in Greater Buenos Aires, where her mother is a paco, a cocaine paste addict. Here in the grubby, litter-strewn underground— somewhere between nihilism, invisibility and the rest of Argentine society—she sits and hopes that someone, anyone, will help her out with a few pesos.
“I tell the stories of people [through] pictures,” photographer Adrian Markis says of his work, “Mujeres En La Sombras” [Women in the Shadows] a set of powerful images featuring impoverished and vulnerable women living on the streets of Buenos Aires. “I think people judge without knowing, based on inadequate information and culturally ingrained, negative views about poverty and unemployment. Hopefully, these…stories will supply a visual context that evokes the cold, hard reality of their situations.”
Markis is right: poverty and unemployment are often attributed to a flaw in the individual. But as he shows with his work, this is a myopic, snap judgment. We don’t live in an existential vacuum, and we fail our fellow human beings when we judge without knowing or understanding their stories. Markis presents a visual, textual and circumstantial narrative that reinstates the human realities denied to many of the poor. His work undermines common (but erroneous) theories about poverty.
“A homeless woman is not in that position because she likes it,” Markis explains, “but because of a series of previous causes: death of a husband, gender-based violence, physical or mental illness, lack of a home, etc.”
These images are powerful, poignant, angst-ridden portraits of those who are marginalized and living on the edge of Buenos Aires society: Paulina, Lola, Daiana, Silvia, Zulema, Johnana, Angela et al. The capital of Argentina has a reputation for well-heeled academic institutions, fabulous theaters and magnificent museums. It is a city renowned for its warm and friendly people. But, as Markis points out, it is also a city that has become “crime-ridden, expensive and overpopulated.”
Markis’ work takes us on a nightmare journey through the city’s underbelly, the dark mirror of consumer society; the images reflect grinding poverty, entrapment and vulnerability.
“I tend to gravitate to the more subterranean aspects of city life,” the 37-year-old admits. “It’s where my lens seems to be most at home. I especially enjoy taking pictures at night in dimly-lit conditions. To me, the city has many intriguing places and things, particularly the trains, the subways, the waterfront and their surroundings, the impoverished neighborhoods, the people living in the streets…”
He continues: “These images are obviously elements of society that society itself does not like to see and cares little about. The women in these pictures live in situations of abject vulnerability, without any meaningful protection. That is why we need to expose their stories and pull them out from the shadows.”
For example, Silvia, an emaciated 41-year-old homeless mother, sits with three of her young, malnourished children on cardboard outside a McDonald’s in Buenos Aires. Behind them, as if coming through the plate glass of the restaurant, we see the face of a man about to bite into food. The juxtaposition between the act of eating and the homeless, hungry mother with her starving children is grotesque.
Also reflected in the large glass window of the restaurant is a ritzy office block in the Argentine city, an ironic symbol of free market capitalism. This mother has chosen to situate herself outside one of the great success stories of late capitalism: the wildly successful McDonald’s corporation. Also reflected in the window—above the glass and concrete office block representation of capitalism—are the white, puffy clouds and blue sky of the heavens. These same heavens hold Christ the Savior, an icon in Catholic Argentina. Rich or poor, hungry or well-fed, there will always be people who believe in a better life beyond the grave.
“[These women] live in the shadows cast by a society that builds its values upon consumerism,” Markis says candidly about the women. “They are the system’s trash, the forgotten, the people who deserve to live like this because they are poor. My goal is to raise awareness about the fact that a woman living in the streets in a state of vulnerability is not at fault. She is the victim of a failing system that abandons the weak in order to empower the strong.”
Sergio Burns is a writer and journalist based in Glasgow. He writes for Ayrshire Magazine and also Business Review Europe but holds a particular affinity for photography. You can find more of his writing and thinking on his active Twitter feed, @sergiobx.