Obscura Journal Contributor Danielle Ezzo recently interviewed Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak about his recent Obscura Magnum Commission, « Bitcoin Nation » - El Salvador. They discuss the current economic and political complexities of El Salvador as it relates to cryptocurrency, the divide between Bitcoin enthusiasts and the NFT community, and the challenges that failure can bring when developing a project.
DE: In 2021, the President of El Salvador suddenly declared Bitcoin the official currency of the country, the operative word here being ‘suddenly’. Can you give us a little bit of context about that event and some of the after-effects?
TD: The important thing to understand is I have no experience in Central America and have not been following El Salvador politics. I didn't really know what the context was in the lead-up to this. He was sort of this young, hopeful, dashing President who had lots of crazy ideas, so it didn't totally come out of the blue. What his real connections were, who got him hooked on this, I have no idea. There was criticism from the US and the Central Bank, and everybody went a little bit crazy.
What I do understand is that it comes out of a history where El Salvador doesn't have its own currency anymore. They've been using the dollar for nearly a decade. Also, there's a lot of the economy in remittances because they have a huge export community in the US. They are sending back money and losing lots of money on transfers, so that's part of this. It has become this political thing where he’s playing between China, the US, and now Bitcoin.
DE: How did you end up discovering what was going on in El Salvador? I'm curious as someone who's not native to the crypto space, how did this get onto your radar?
TD: I almost naively thought that the NFT project should be somehow related to that world and would be the right thing to do. I was searching for different themes that would make sense for this project. I toyed with photographing the metaverse before, but it felt very distant and seemed like an ignorant point of view. I think I heard about it on the news one day, so I thought okay–this is what makes sense, whatever comes out of this could be interesting. Then I found out, of course, that the President has been really inaccessible to foreign media. I figured since I'm doing an NFT project that's an entry point. I wrote a very nice letter to him and his advisors, and we actually got started on it. Then suddenly, everything was blocked.
DE: That’s so interesting. In reading your artist statement and trying to understand why that would be the case, that makes sense on his part, you know, to exert control on his narrative.
TD: I have no idea how far this went to him. I could still do little things where I show up, take pictures, and everything is fine. But there was this moment where I realized that I was sort of “swinging around” my NFT project. They would have all the reason in the world to not want me because I'm a foreign journalist. That would have been a straightforward answer, which maybe has played a big role in this too. But then there was this outcome where I was becoming this weirdo with the NFT project and at some point, I overheard people talking about me like, “Oh my god, is that the NFT guy?”.
Then there was this one event where one of these cryptos czars expresses how bad NFTs are and how bad other coins are that aren’t Bitcoin, which then culminated in this quote where he said, “If I want to gamble, I go to Vegas and party with beautiful hookers, instead of being a loser, sitting around in my basement, frustrated, minting NFTs. Shitcoins.” I asked, “Am I like a total dick?” And he said, “Well, we don't really like it.” It definitely wasn't the right thing to help me in any way.
DE: Your past experience has been in conflict zones, and there’s some overlap with your experience as a photojournalist being adjacent to what’s happening in El Salvador right now, outside of the constraints of this particular project. Can you just walk me through what your process is like when you begin something new? How do you ingratiate yourself and find your bearings?
TD: In this case, I had a contact and I expected that they were going to do the dog and pony show for me, they're going to show me all these fancy models they have of their future volcano city. Then I thought: I want to lean into this. I'm going to play a tug-of-war with the propaganda machine. How can I show what’s being presented and what’s not being presented simultaneously? That could be an interesting world if I could get the balance right.
On top of all of this, in the middle of my stay, they declared a state of emergency because this peace deal apparently didn't happen between the government and two gangs, and they had like 100 dead from gang-related violence. Suddenly, it's a state of emergency, martial law, etc. But now there were things to take pictures of a little bit. It didn’t change the fact that I had no privileged access, and I really hadn't come with the intention to cover that. So I didn't really get what I came to get. But funnily enough, it was much easier to take pictures of sort of the cliche of the fucked up image of El Salvador and much harder getting a nice picture of a plastic volcano. The whole Bitcoin thing comes out of the history of El Salvador, and there is a link.
DE: It seems like there's a very specific persona that the country and the President are trying to exude. I'm curious if there's a disparity between what that image is and what the El Salvadorian people feel about Bitcoin?
TD: I think it's a split reality. There are certain things that are strange, like ATM Bitcoin machines in certain places, but at the same time, if you hadn't known about them you wouldn’t just stumble onto them. Maybe you'd come across some bitcoin signage somewhere, but it's not ubiquitous. For better or worse, maybe it helps bring investment in, but the whole idea of a golden Bitcoin city where there’s a forest and houses? Nothing has been built yet. It’s very speculative.
DE: It’s really interesting because in El Salvador, as I understand it, 40% of the population is under the poverty line. I can imagine a scenario where the people are really enthused about the prospects of what Bitcoin can bring either through tourism, venue, or just excitement in general. It's interesting to think that there's that element, but it doesn't seem to be implemented in any way that it could be useful for anybody. Not to mention the volatility of cryptocurrency.
TD: Last year, there were a lot of oppositional protests. I mean, it's not a Bitcoin-related opposition specifically. I think it's nothing new that the Salvadorans are not happy with the government. It's not like the current one is an exception to the ones before. It's sort of an interesting twist, I guess the remittance helps because it really makes a difference. It's something people could really relate to because they live off this and they don't want to pay the banking fees. On the other hand, you're gonna pay your local fruit picker with crypto? That's not the thing. Look, there are a lot of people that don't want to be depending on the dollar. It's a very popular thought. It's a very sort of developing world thinking to be independent of this.
The people I saw at the events, however, are definitely on the affluent side. It's rich people who were in this or who are sort of being brought into this and then, of course, there are foreigners who are there who find salvation.
DE: Right, so you also went to a conference in Miami. I'm assuming that’s a reaction to having the access you wanted?
TD: Actually, I planned it because the President was the guest of honor at the Bitcoin conference I was attending, so I scheduled my trip around that. This is the world's biggest Bitcoin conference in Miami. It turned out that he couldn’t attend because of other obligations within the country. There’s a strange link between how far this whole experience bounces between the extremes of the gangs, economic issues, and then the idealistic Bitcoin world in Miami.
DE: So there's an image in the project, Bitcoin Nation » #8. There’s a tear through an open book. Can you tell me about this image?
TD: Oh, my God. That's like digging in history! It's a Bible or prayer book in the Museum of the Tenements. I don't know exactly what happened in the Civil War which led to the killing of 11 Jesuit priests. Right-Wing death squads came in to kill the Jesuits, they shot through there, or they cut through the Bible.
DE: Knowing what you know about Ethereum and Bitcoin and the two different worlds that those cryptocurrencies exist in, how do you feel about having put this project out on the blockchain? Has it inspired you, influenced you, or complicated things for you?
TD: It feels a bit like an interesting failure because it didn't turn out how I thought it should have. If I had given up on all of that I could have dug more intensely in another direction instead of getting stuck somewhere in midair. I could have done it differently. I keep hanging on to the idea that I was in the “wrong church”.
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