Spotlight: Returning to Colombia, and Returning to Street Photography

By David Schonauer   Wednesday September 25, 2019

The year was 2017.

After a decade of living as an expatriate in Canada, Oscar LaVerde had returned to Colombia. The country had just held a referendum on whether the government should sign a peace treaty with FARC rebels, ending a half century of civil war. “The ‘NO’ vote won by a tiny margin, and my heart was torn apart,” recalls LaVerde. He consoled himself by heading out with his camera to do what he had learned from his own father, who, he says, was "an old-school Colombian street photographer.”

“When my father was young, he used to take pictures of random people and their loved ones for a small fee,” says LeVerde. “It was the kind of street photography you used to find in every town in Latin America. He taught me all the basics of how to take a picture with an old Zenit camera from the USSR, and I fell in love with the art.”

Later, while studying biology during his university years, LaVerde began using his old film camera as a tool, taking pictures of frogs, lizards and snakes in the tropical forests of South America. “This type of photography taught me patience and the importance of knowing my equipment very well,” he says. After graduating in the mid-2000s, he and his wife moved to Canada, “a country,” LaVerde notes, “known for its friendly people and cold weather, but not particularly for its repipes and amphibians.” Leaving biology behind, he changed careers and began working for a company specializing in commercial product photography. He also began studying web design.

“That was my real introduction to digital photography and all its potential,” he says. “Later I started getting into street photography. I bought a Fujifilm X70. I was a little nervous about having a fixed 28mm (full-frame equivalent) fixed lens, but that fear went away right after my first photo walk. It's been three years; I still own the X70, but most of my shooting is done with a Fujifilm X100F and an X-T3.”

Returning to his native country to visit in 2017, LaVerde found himself looking to people on the streets for inspiration. A photograph he made (at top), was later named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 7 competition. LaVerde titled the picture “Begging for Peace.”

“This photo is important to me. It reminds me of what my dad used to do when he was young — the man in the picture is a street photographer himself,” says LaVerde. “Later, the picture became the beginning of a series of images on something I've been very interested in for a long time — people in the informal economy. In Latin America, the informal economy takes more than 50 percent of the working population. I try to explore this survival way of life in all the shapes it takes for women, immigrants, the elderly, black and brown people … any visible minority I can find.”

Below are images from the series, which LaVerde has been working on during travels to Colombia and elsewhere around the world.

Peddlers, Colombia

Street Artist, Porto, Portugal

Balloon Seller, Colombia

Tombstone Cleaners, Colombia

“I call the series ‘The Nonstandards.’ I took this term from the idea of nonstandard words, which are words that are commonly used but are not necessarily correct. That also seems to describe the people in these images and the conditions they must live under,” LaVerde says. “These ‘nonstandard’ people are human beings who are commonly used by all of us, but their living conditions are not necessarily correct.”

See more of the series at LaVerde’s website.


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Dispatches from Latin America