Tariq Zaidi’s new book documents the impact of two notorious rival gangs in El Salvador
In Sin Salida, the photographer sheds light on the violence and grief the two gangs – MS-13 and Barrio 18 – have caused in Salvadoran society.
- Ayla Angelos
- 28 October 2021
Anyone can do great things with the right amount of encouragement and support. Tariq Zaidi, a photographer working from London, experienced this when he made a leap into the creative industry in January 2014. Previously working as an English teacher and in executive management, he decided to switch it up and pursue his passion for photography and “capturing the dignity, purity and soul of people within their environment,” he tells It’s Nice That. It was after applying to a few photography competitions that he finally started to believe in himself; he was awarded first, second and third place on numerous occasions. “It’s always good to get family support, but the only way to really get a judgement call on your photographs is through other photographers and by entering competitions. When you do well, you have something nobody can take away from you and that gave me tremendous confidence to the extent that I quit my job.”
Tariq has now built an impressive portfolio replete with visual excursions into social issues, inequality, endangered communities and traditions around the globe. He’s worked in 22 countries across four contents, has shown work in over 80 international exhibitions and has been published in The Guardian, BBC, CNN, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel Newsweek, GEO and many more. Not to mention National Geographic, which he’s wanted to work with since childhood. His most recent accomplishment, however, is a new book entitled Sin Salida, published by Gost, detailing the impact of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) and its rival gang Barrio 18 in El Salvador.
In the imagery, Tariq has snapped candid moments in prisons, at funerals and wakes, and shots of gang members, police, paramilitary officials and government officials. It’s a merging of panoramic landscapes with photos of life in the country. “These photographs document the control that gangs have over society, the violence through which they operate, and the grief that violence causes,” he adds. “They reveal how El Salvador has become a uniquely dystopian society, forcing thousands to migrate in the hope of a safer life elsewhere.” In the country specifically, gangs have power over communities and the murder rate is among the world’s highest. “The savage nature of the violence has shocked and paralysed El Salvadoran society,” continues Tariq. “In many cities, it is impossible to cross the street due to differing gang territory control, entirely cordoning off neighbourhoods and streets.”
After learning about the harsh realities currently gripping the country of El Salvador, Tariq wanted to show how dangerous the country had become, with violence greater than nowhere else he’d lived (from Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina plus North, Central and South America). Hoping to shed light on these issues, his work, therefore, stands as a testament to the difficulties its civilians endure each day. “When entering a new neighbourhood, visitors often have to use flashlights or roll windows down to indicate allegiance to the gang that controls it, or fear violence,” he adds. “This breakdown of social norms exasperates the situation: young people grow up in war-like conditions and are often socialised through and into the gang, beginning for MS-13 with a 13-second beating.”
Sin Salida began in 2018 and it took the photographer around eight months to gain trust from locals – which is understandable considering the risks. Visiting each year, a trip in 2020 saw him gain greater access to crime scenes and police work to finish off the project. When attending events such as funerals, Tariq would wait outside to meet those grieving, which included a meeting with a subject named Suzy (their name has been changed for protection). She’d just identified the body of her 25-year old son Brian (again with a name change). “She told me her son had been strangled by members of Barrio 18 for not fulfilling the missions they’d asked of him,” he recalls. “She was understandably distraught and we talked for a while and stayed in touch. A few days later she invited me to the wake.”
One of the greatest challenges with making this book is how Tariq had to keep the subjects’ anonymous, for revealing their identities would put them in grave danger. He bore witness to many events and heard many things that he cannot discuss – “this is simply to protect the people who had the confidence of sharing their intimate stories and experiences with me, and are still very much in danger of some sort.” So besides the responsibility to protect them as much as he can, what is Tariq’s hopes for the work? “After meeting many murder, kidnapping and extortion victims and their families (all who showed tremendous courage in sharing their stories with me), they all asked me to tell the world outside El Salvador what is happening in their lives.” So with Tariq and his work a catalyst for voicing these experiences, we can all take Sin Salida as a harsh awakening. “These visitors have no voice – most come from humble backgrounds and very poor communities,” he adds. “My hope with this work is to amplify their voices to a wider audience – especially those outside El Salvador.”
Tariq Zaidi: Sin Salida. A member of MS-13, Chalatenango Penal Center (Copyright © Tariq Zaidi, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.