Monty Kaplan and Marisol Mendez’s multilayered response to the water crisis in La Guajira, Colombia

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 Commissioned by WaterAid and British Journal of Photography as part of the WaterAid Climate Commission, the storytelling duo blend their distinct styles to create a nuanced portrait of the situation


A coalescence of light and dark characterises Monty Kaplan and Marisol Mendez’s collaborative aesthetic – a lyrical approach using colour, form and composition to create something distinct. Theirs is not a style traditionally associated with documenting humanitarian issues. However, it brings something different to a photographic genre dominated by documentarians and photojournalists. “We’re aware that we’re not straightforward documentary photographers. But our style helps us create something more nuanced,” says Kaplan, referencing the storytelling duo’s latest series, exploring the water crisis in Colombia, a commission from WaterAid in collaboration with British Journal of Photography.  

In November 2021, Kaplan and Mendez arrived in Colombia’s sprawling La Guajira region – an arid peninsula in the country’s north-east, in the Caribbean Sea near Venezuela. The vast coastal desert, replete with rolling sand dunes and expansive salt flats, is home to the Wayuu people, Colombia’s biggest indigenous group, numbering at least 270,000. Collectively, the Wayuu spread across La Guajira have long struggled to access adequate water – along with food and other health services. 

“We wanted to build this complex, multifaceted story, so it helped that there were two of us – Kaplan, who looks at things more darkly, and me, with my focus on lightness and colour.”

– Marisol Mendez

A 2020 Human Rights Watch investigation found 96 per cent of people living in rural La Guajira lack reliable access to potable water, and prolonged droughts and rising temperatures in recent years due to climate change has only worsened water scarcity. The lack of nutritious food paired with the water crisis has also led to high malnutrition rates. Kaplan and Mendez spent a fortnight understanding and photographing water issues in the localities of Pesuapa and nearby Totopahana. They quickly realised the situation required a nuanced photographic approach to shed light on the arduous realities playing out. 

 

“We wanted to build this complex, multifaceted story,” continues Mendez, “so it helped that there were two of us – Kaplan, who looks at things more darkly, and me, with my focus on lightness and colour.” The duo’s contrasting aesthetics echoed the diverse and intricate realities of the communities they encountered: realities not wholly defined by suffering and crisis and which varied from community to community and between the individuals and families within those neighbourhoods themselves. “Although all the Wayuu are facing water shortages, it manifests differently in every community, for instance, because of variations in terrain — some places have easier access to well water than others,” continues Mendez, “and photographically we wanted to balance the harsh reality with the resilience of the people – they are beams of hope in this difficult situation.”

Kaplan and Mendez spent most of their time in Pesuapa, exploring issues around water and particularly how the water crisis impacts women – both directly and the knock-on effects. While living with the Wayuus, the pair learned that the society is widely regarded as matriarchal: a form of social organisation in which the mother is head of the family, and descent is reckoned in the female line. “However, many still face the oppression of machismo and patriarchal structures that force them to be the water providers of households they also run,” Kaplan and Mendez reflect.“Women in these communities gather the water, cook, clean, wash and take care of the children. Men usually produce the crafts they sell for income, but women travel outside the community to sell them.”

“It was always important for us to include a female perspective,” explains Kaplan. “Women have a difficult time managing the water situation for their families – undertaking the time-consuming process of gathering the water, filtering it, and then using it for daily tasks.” Many Wayuu travel hours on foot or bicycle to source water from wells or natural aquifers called jagüeyes. “In Totopana, for instance, sometimes women have to travel more than once a day just to get enough water to perform all their activities.”

The Wayuu community of Pesuapa comprises around 105 individuals, with many having returned from neighbouring Venezuela to escape the unfolding humanitarian crisis. A borehole provides water. However, it is not drinking quality, forcing people to buy water or endure resulting disease. Along with other interventions, WaterAid, working in harmony with the community, has installed a filtering system to ensure a safe water supply, handwashing and drinking facilities, and a shower, providing women and girls with a more private place for menstrual hygiene. With these facilities come dignity, health and safety. The Wayuu also integrated their sacred art onto school latrine blocks helping transform the community’s perception of such facilities and encouraging good hygiene practices.

“It was important to us from the beginning to talk about this problem without shying away from how harsh it is – sometimes our experience as Latin Americans is very sugar-coated. People portray it exotically.”

– Marisol Mendez

Kaplan and Mendez currently live in Argentina, where Kaplan is from originally while Mendez was born in Bolivia. The pair felt winning the commission was significant given their Latin American heritage. However, the Wayuu’s culture and customs were still new to them, and they were committed to photographing the community accurately and respectfully. “Humanity is at the core of our approach,” says Mendez. “It was important to us from the beginning to talk about this problem without shying away from how harsh it is – sometimes our experience as Latin Americans is very sugar-coated. People portray it exotically.”

Their gentle and observant images frame details and individuals. Many comprise diptychs, which accentuate the distinctiveness of each photographer’s style, while also emphasising the discord between the beauty and colour of the place with the underlying issues playing out. Indeed, the water crisis is referenced in a subtle and almost poetic way – cracked earth, an abandoned toilet bowl, a dead bird amid images punctuated by vivid colours and bathed in golden light. 

Ultimately, their distinct style lends itself to a multifaceted crisis, which may not be wholly encapsulated by a straightforward documentary approach. “The problem is complex and the more we learned about it, the more we realised how many layers it has,” says Mendez. “We have a more poetic way of approaching the situation,” continues Kaplan. 

The WaterAid Climate Commission is a collaboration between British Journal of Photography and WaterAid. 

Explore the full project here:

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.