Patrick Tombola is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as voted by the eight-member international jury for the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2015. Here is his winning entry and artist’s statement. View his profile to learn more about him and to see more of his great work.

This reportage, called “Not free to be young,” was shot throughout El Salvador between March and May 2015.

It depicts the Salvadorian youth as they try to carve out spaces of normalcy for themselves amidst a rising tide of gang-related violence. But the pictures also depict the young gangsters themselves, who are trapped in a life that will either lead to being jailed—or killed.

El Salvador is dominated by two gangs—Mara Salvatrucha and 18 Street. Since a long-time truce between the two ended, the country has quickly slid towards becoming the most murderous nation in the world (outside a war zone). There are an average of 25-30 homicides per day (in a country of just 6 million). The overwhelming majority of those killed are youths between the ages of 12-25. The insecurity that results from such violence has rocked every section of society, causing widespread distrust amongst its citizens as well as a collective sense of fear and trauma.


It is indisputable that to be anywhere between 12 and 25 years old in El Salvador is to live in constant fear of kidnapping, rape, torture, murder and forced recruitment by either of the two mortally opposed gangs that rule every square inch of the country. Mothers and fathers are scared their children will walk to school one morning and never come back, joining the long list of thousands of “desaparecidos” or missing people.

Yet, amidst this mayhem, there lies a generation of young Salvadorians that are gradually becoming adults. In doing so, they are pursuing the same things as other young people around the world: falling in love, playing football, having a laugh amongst themselves…

While most national and international media has been focusing increasingly on murder statistics, pitching one section of society against the other, my reportage documents the co-existence of polar opposite feelings within a society: from love to pain, from hope to an utter sense of defeat. Far from interpreting reality into clear-cut, simplistic terms, the reportage seeks to grasp the shades of gray that necessarily constitute the complexity of everyday life in El Salvador.

—Patrick Tombola