Alicia Vera is a Mexico City-based photographer who recently returned from El Salvador where she completed an International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) reporting fellowship. The foundation works to empower women journalists, and Alicia participated in the Adelante program, which seeks to reduce the gender gap in journalism within Latin America. She spent ten days taking photographs in El Salvador, along with five other fellows.
Initially, Alicia was working on a story about migrants fleeing violence in El Salvador that was published in The Intercept. But while researching for that story, Alicia, together with her reporting partner Emily, stumbled upon a story about how the only way to get out of joining a gang in El Salvador was to join the evangelical church, which was published on NPR last month.
How did you go about applying for the fellowship and what sort of project proposals did you give?
I applied with reporter Emily Green where we pitched two stories: the effects of climate change on the coffee industry and following up on the success/failure of the historic mining ban. We ditched the latter idea because when we got to El Salvador, the news of the separation of children / Session’s announcement to end asylum for domestic and gang violence broke. We switched gears and began working on the migration story that was published in The Intercept.
What was the application process for the fellowship like?
For the application process, we had to pitch stories, show our portfolio, gather support letters from our editors, and show that we were experienced journalists. After passing the first round, there was an interview in which questions were asked such as why you wanted to report in Latin America and how the fellowship would help advance your career.
What was your answer to why you wanted to report in Latin America?
I wanted to report from Latin America because it is an area of the world that is often stigmatized and misrepresented. I wanted to tell stories that are often missed but are equally as important as the violence that is often reported. I explained that the fellowship would support my professional development by creating an opportunity for me to pursue stories important to me but that have always been out of my comfort zone due to safety and accessibility. It would give me a chance to learn from my colleagues and make my work stronger by diversifying the type of stories I am able to tell and the way that I tell them.
How did the first story lead to the second?
We were trying to find characters that would fit our pitch for The Intercept when the writer and I noticed that the evangelical church plays a big role in the communities in El Salvador. While we were at church with Iris – our main character for The Intercept, we noticed an ex-gang member who attended with his wife and son. She explained to us that the only way out of the gang was to join the church so when we had our nightly meetings with our fixers, we asked them to expand on that. They suggested we go to the Eben-Ezer church featured in the NPR piece.
How did you contact publications such as The Intercept and NPR for coverage of these stories?
As for contacts, we already had The Intercept and NPR’s info before going to El Salvador. Emily, my reporting partner, works for the latter frequently and I had always wanted to work for The Intercept so I reached out to the photo editor, Ariel Zambelich. We pitched them a handful of stories and those were the ones they greenlit. Also, when applying to the fellowship, you have to submit a letter of interest by editor(s) who may be interested in the stories that you are pitching. The IWMF fellowship did not provide us with editor contacts. From my understanding, they want to support journalists who have a proven track record of publishing.
What was your overall experience with the fellowship?
The fellowship itself was incredible. I made a lot of new friends and connections. We had 4 days of HEFAT training where we learned first aid and what to do in a hostile environment. In El Salvador, we had the support of amazing coordinators, fixers, security. I can’t speak highly enough about IWMF.
Is there any specific photo you took throughout this time that really stands out as one of your favorites?
My favorite image that I shot is of Iris and the parrot (the header image for The Intercept story.) It is such a sweet and tender moment that contradicts everything that Trump says about Central Americans. I believe that images like that are important to push the narrative along and show who the people looking to migrate north actually are. And in general, the image is special to me because I’m grateful to have had the access that she and her family gave us.
See more of Alicia’s work on her website.