Location: Montevideo, Uruguay
There are 3000 shoe shiners who go out into the streets of La Paz and El Alto suburbs each day in search of clients. They are from all ages and in recent years have become a social phenomenon in the Bolivian capital.
What characterizes this tribe is the use of ski masks so they will not be recognized by those around them. They confront the discrimination they face through these masks; in their neighbourhoods no one knows that they work as shoe shiners, at school they hide this fact, and even their own families believe they have a different job when they head down to the center of the city from El Alto.
The mask is their strongest identity, what makes them invisible while at the same time unites them. This collective anonymity makes them tougher when facing the rest of society and is their resistance against the exclusion they suffer because they carry out this work.
Over the last three years, Uruguayan artist Federico Estol collaborated extensively with a group of shoe-shiners associated with the social organisation Hormigón Armado, which itself was founded with a view to supporting this workforce. Hormigón Armado launched a newspaper some 16 years ago, with the proceeds from each sale providing additional income to nearly 60 families of shoe-shiners. Estol’s idea was to build a special edition of this newspaper through a participatory workshop-based process, which invited the shoe-shiners to imagine a creative new version of their story. Borrowing from the visual language of comic books and graphic novels, and incorporating elements of day-to-day life in El Alto, the narrative that emerged saw the shoe-shiners portray themselves not as outcasts, but as urban superhéroes tending to the unwavering local demand for polished footwear.
When a co-authored edit of images was agreed, the special edition of the newspaper hit the streets. In just three months, a staggering 6000 copies were sold across La Paz, with the revenues shared between all the participants