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El Salvador, Bitcoin Nation

Thomas Dworzak explores the contrast between the gleaming, modern world of cryptocurrency and the harsh reality of everyday life in El Salvador. Interview by Danielle Ezzo

Earlier this year, Thomas Dworzak traveled to Central America to document life in El Salvador after president Nayib Bukele adopted bitcoin as a legal currency.

In addition to adopting a new legal currency last September, Bukele also announced plans to build a bitcoin city at the base of a volcano – funded entirely by cryptocurrency. The reaction from the El Salvador population was anything but smooth, with large-scale protests held regularly in response to fears of instability and inflation.

Six months later, the German photographer set out to explore the reality of this new ‘Bitcoin Nation’.

Dworzak’s final edit of 55 images is the latest collaboration between Magnum Photos and Obscura. The full collection is now available to purchase as NFTs on the blockchain and can be viewed here.

“Many photographers and journalists of my generation interested in war and conflict, would at some point read Richard Kapuscinsky’s all-time classic The Soccer War and watch Oliver Stone’s Salvador,” says Dworzak in a project outline explaining the motivation behind the work. “The latter now feels insanely cheesy. With the country’s troubled history in mind, and never having been to Central America, I found ‘Bitcoin Nation – El Salvador’ a challenging theme to explore for this NFT project.”

“I set out to straightforwardly document this alien and invisible world of bitcoin,” he recalls. Yet Dworzak soon realized that the task would not be plain sailing, with the international press largely blocked from the crypto inner circle.

“When official doors remained closed for me, I started digging for clues in the country’s troubled past and present, or anything even remotely related to the bitcoin world. Vignettes of the bloody civil war regularly popped up. The sudden spike of almost a hundred homicides in the course of one weekend in late March, due to what seemed to be a breakdown of a secret deal between the government and the two main gangs, had President Bukele declare a state of emergency, martial law, and intensify the war on the gangs.

“I could see the fringes of it, but nothing compared to the brutality of filmed government propaganda videos of mass arrests and more-than-rough prisoner handlings I watched on TV, Twitter, and Instagram.”

In the edited extract below, Danielle Ezzo, a contributor to Obscura Journal, interviews Dworzak on his experience in El Salvador and at a Bitcoin conference earlier this year in Miami.

Danielle Ezzo: How did you end up discovering what was going on in El Salvador?

Thomas Dworzak: 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 the idea of 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, ‘Ok, 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 that 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: Can you walk me through what your process is like when you begin a new project? How do you find your bearings?

TD: In this case, I had a contact in El Salvador and I expected they were going to do a sort of dog-and-pony show for me, that they were going to show me all these fancy models they have of their future volcano city, and so on. Then I thought: ‘I want to lean into this. I’m going to play 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 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 over a hundred deaths due to gang-related violence. Suddenly, it’s a state of emergency, martial law, and so on, so there was more to document.

It didn’t change the fact that I had no privileged access to the bitcoin world, and I hadn’t come to El Salvador with the intention of covering the violence, so I didn’t really get what I came to get. But, funnily enough, it was much easier to take pictures of the sort of cliché, messed up image of El Salvador, and much harder to get a good picture of a plastic volcano.

DE: I’m curious if there’s a disparity between what the 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 upon them. Maybe you’d come across some bitcoin signage somewhere, but it’s not ubiquitous. For better or worse, maybe it helps bring investment into the country, but the whole idea of a golden Bitcoin City? Nothing has been built yet. It’s very speculative.

DE: You also went to a conference in Miami. Was this because you got the access you needed for this event?

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 with the country. There’s a strange link between how far this whole experience bounces between the extremes of the gangs, economic issues, and the idealistic Bitcoin world in Miami.

DE: 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 that, I could have dug more intensely in another direction instead of getting stuck somewhere in mid-air. I could have done it differently. I keep hanging on to the idea that I was in the ‘wrong church’.

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