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Work / Photography

José Castrellón documents the workers smuggling fuel from Venezuela into Colombia

The Guajira province of Colombia lies to the north of the country. A desert landscape, it’s bordered by Venezuela and is home to the Wayuu people. It’s an area where trafficking has historically taken roots; from drugs to humans, but also liquor and in recent times, gasoline, largely in part to Venezuela’s heavily subsidised fuel prices in comparison to the highly taxed Colombian ones. As a result, men, women and children fill makeshift containers called pimpinas – plastic bottles, water gallons and whatever they can get their hands on – with fuel to smuggle across the border in cars with modified tanks, designed to carry more than a regular tank would. These people are known as the Pimpineros, and they are the subject of photographer José Castrellón’s latest documentary series.

Originally from Panama, José has been based in New York City for the past year but found himself spending a week in Colombia after chancing across an article on a visit to the South American country. “I travel to Colombia often to print and mount my work, and during one of those trips I was reading a popular Bogotá newspaper and there was an article about the contraband of goods and merchandise in La Guajira,” he recalls of the start of the project.

Fascinated by the subject, José kept investigating until, last year, he “was meant to be at an artist residency in Solentiname, Nicaragua after being given a grant but the uprisings came and I had to reschedule”. With several free weeks now stretching out in front of him, he thought, “now’s the time to go to La Guajira and photograph the Pimpineros, an idea that had been lingering in my mind for so long”.

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

José spent a week travelling around the region and although not expecting to come away with any concrete opinion, “when I found myself there it was hard not to think of their resourcefulness and determination,” he explains. Because of the work Pimpineros continue to do, fuel stations in the area have become obsolete; driven out of business. “At only $1.50 per tank in Venezuela, and with the local police in on the scheme, Pimpineros have taken over trading their labour for not only money but also for food and other necessities,” José adds.

The resourcefulness and grit of the workers is at the heart of José’s images. “Everyone was on edge as I was taking the photos because, obviously, what they do is illegal, so I had to work quickly and I even had to shoot from a car several times,” he tells us. As a result, there is an energy to the series: “You get the sense of tension and urgency one feels when in this place.” As Pimpineros must improvise in order to carry out their work José also had to do so, imbuing his work with authenticity, telling their stories in an altogether fitting manner.

This kind of work is indicative of José’s practice which, although flitting between conceptual and documentary realms, always takes history “as a point of departure to inquire into and express anthropological and sociological concerns”. Always using his craft to build narratives, his process is one of investigation and research, driven by historical, sociopolitical and cultural events.

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros

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José Castrellón: Pimpineros