The heart of the drug problem
Valerio Bispuri’s exhibition ‘Paco - A Drug Story’ is an intimate look at the lives of young users of paco - commonly known as 'poor man's cocaine' - with a focus on slums surrounding Buenos Aires, Argentina. The exhibition is the outcome of Bispuri’s long-term commitment to covering the effects of the lethal drug in South America, which he has been photographing since 2003. Bispuri tells CPN Web Editor Deniz Dirim why he took the time to cover all aspects of paco use - from production to tragic aftermath – and the importance of exhibiting work out of its original context.
The exhibition shows harrowing images of paco-addicted adolescents (from as young as 12 years) on the streets and in their homes, with high-strung eyes and weathered faces. Looking at Bispuri's images it is clear that the long-term project captures the transformation in paco users. “I have seen more than one person die from paco so I photographed them through a long dramatic transformation until the point of death. And during the lives of the addicts, I have seen many effects which affect both the nervous system and the internal organs, as well as the expression and the features of the face.”
Building relationships over years, Bispuri was allowed into the homes and lives of addicts’ parents, even being invited by the mother of one addict to photograph her paco-addicted son’s funeral. He tells me: “Focusing not only on victims helps prevent your story from being superficial or merely aesthetic. You get to the very heart of the problem through the investigation of what happens behind and around the person who suffers from addiction.”
Bispuri’s 13-year photographic investigation of the highly addictive drug was finalised in May 2015 when he was finally allowed into a lab where the lethal drug is produced by combining cocaine waste with toxic chemicals. To visit the secretive 'kitchens', Bispuri was blindfolded and had to instill trust in his subjects which they had placed in him over the years. “I was strongly moved by the fact that it was my first time being blindfolded ever because I have done much work in dangerous places but always knowing where I am and where I'm going. This was the first time in my career that I had to be ignorant and totally trust the people I was giving my life to in a way,” he shares.
Bispuri tells me that photographing the labs, dangerous as it may be, was quintessential to his story. “It was a way to close the circle because I ended the work in the point in which the narrative of paco begins - which is production. It was compulsory to have that part of the story, even if was dangerous.”
After spending over a decade on the project, finally showing to the audience at Visa pour l'Image is an emotional experience. “There's a very deep link within the exposé aspect of my work and the anthropological study. So in order to transmit the denunciation of the tragic condition like that of the addicts, I need to communicate the anthropological context of the drug culture. So that is what I try to do: to do the two things together, because only understanding out of context can bring change.”