Carmen Benito, Revolcandonos entre las calderas

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Club del Prado (here). Softcover (16 x 23 cm), 52 pages, with 34 black and white photographs. In an edition of 200 copies. Design and editing by Carmen Benito and Mateo Barbuzzi. Hand-bound by Azeta Guí. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2019, civil protests in Chile turned into a nationwide revolt for change. The suddenness of the protests, their scale (the largest in decades), and their deep anger, in a country seen as one of Latin America’s economic success stories, shocked the world. The protests began over a 3% hike in subway fares – the cost of public transportation in Chile is one of the highest in Latin America, and low income families (depending on how one calculates) spend between 13% and 28% of their budget on transportation. Students began protesting by refusing to pay metro fares, flooding metro stations, and jumping turnstiles. But the protests quickly escalated, revealing deeper rooted economic inequality and injustice. In an attempt to prevent chaos, President Sebastián Piñera responded by deploying the Chilean Army forces for the first time since Chile’s transition to democracy, which led to more violence. On October 25th, 2019, over a million people marched in the streets in Santiago, while multiple simultaneous protests happened throughout the rest of the country. Over the period of just a few months, 36 people died and thousands were injured and arrested. 

Carmen Benito was in Santiago from October to December last year documenting the unrest with her 35 mm camera. Almost immediately after her time there, in January of 2020, she published a photobook that brought together her images from the protests, a book that now serves as a stirring reminder of the events. She titled it Revolcandonos entre las calderas – a direct translation from Spanish means “rolling between the boilers”. It is a softcover publication with black and white images printed full bleed on matte paper, and the open binding is a thoughtful design element.

The first image in the book appears on its end paper – shot from above, it captures dense crowds of people outside on the street. The tiny figures blend together into one seething mass, and while we can’t see any particular details, it shows the scale of the protests and the energy of the people taking it to the streets. This opening image sets a tense, confrontational atmosphere and the vitality of the visual narrative that follows. 

Benito’s black and white photographs are slightly grainy and muted. The first spread pairs a photo of a damaged building and a closer in view of people on the street, many of them wearing black masks covering their faces or heads. The following image is a full spread showing a burning pile of what looks like wooden panels and debris right in the middle of the street. From this first sequence, it is clear that the protests turned violent, spilling anger and frustration onto the street.

Protestors are shown taking over the streets, kicking, running, throwing objects, and helping the wounded. Benito’s photographs don’t show the faces of protesters, perhaps protecting their identity but also emphasizing the large masses of people – everyone was a part of the uprising. Her lens often captures legs, focusing on movement and action. An image of a small group of well equipped police officers with riot shields, helmets, and batons is paired with a shot of pavement covered with broken tiles, with the legs of protesters seen in the far background. This is followed by a pairing of protesters’ legs as they run with an image of two men helping a wounded man on the ground.

Throughout the book, there are a number of shots of damaged buildings, destroyed buses, burning debris, and streets covered with broken bricks. Benito also shows some telling dramatic details: a pile of rocks on a skateboard, ready to be thrown; a plastic canister, likely with gasoline; the taxidermy deer head held by one of the protesters in the crowd. Several spreads in the publication open to striking full bleed images showing the endless crowds of people on the streets. In one of the shots, we can see a giant banner reading “aqui se tortura” (meaning “here is torture”), highlighting the serious human rights abuses taking place against protesters. Tellingly, the same wording was used at the protests during the Pinochet dictatorship. The last spread in the book shows again the damaged building from the beginning of the book, this time at night and on fire. The image on its right is also shot at night, showing a wall covered with graffiti reading “no + Sename”.  The slogan criticizes the National Youth Service (Sename), which runs juvenile detention centres. Many minors were detained during the social unrest and widespread reports indicated their physical or sexual abuse and mistreatment. Benito’s pairing of these photographs reminds us that the bursting anger of the protests was related to ongoing injustice and cruelty unrelated to subway fares. 

Revolcandonos entre las calderas is a small and straightforward project, yet it successfully captures the on-the-ground feelings of the moment and the energy of the protests. Its images are an immediate reaction to the unfolding events and the power of civil protests. It is a strong example of a contemporary protest photobook, beautifully printed and well executed. It is a valuable contribution to the wide range of protest photobooks published in Chile in the previous decades. 

Collector’s POV: Carmen Benito does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her Instagram page (linked above).

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