I first decided to become a journalist back when I was a student activist in my home country of Venezuela. I went from recording protest videos with my beat-up cellphone camera to traveling around the world as a journalist for Fusion, telling stories of young people who don’t have a mic or camera.
Every time I’m in the field as a correspondent, whether it’s in Ferguson or Hong Kong, I see a reflection of my younger self in the students who are putting themselves at risk by standing up to power and shouting “enough already!”
After seeing the front lines of protests around the world, I'm convinced that our generation will change the world. Tear gas smells the same everywhere, but so does hope.
Here is my photo diary of my journey from activist to reporter.
College, Venezuelan student movement - May, 2007.
I took this photo behind the fence of my college parking lot as the Government sent in police forces in full riot gear to impede us from protesting. I felt indignant, trapped. But my determination to raise my voice was even stronger than my frustration.
To me, this marked the beginning of the Venezuelan student movement in 2007, after the Government of Hugo Chávez shut down the oldest television station in the country, Radio Caracas Television. I was part of the group of students who rose up and started protesting for free speech. After we had been protesting for a couple of weeks, the police wouldn’t even let us leave the university's campus.
We had managed to do what the opposition couldn’t: gain the support of everyday people who were exasperated with politicians of all stripes.
A couple of weeks into the student movement we gained the courage to push past the police lines. A protest pattern started to emerge. We went to school with our backpacks filled with handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar to cover our faces from tear gas.
We organized during class. A lot of our teachers supported us. You could see the pride in their eyes when they asked, “So guys, what’s the plan for today?” The teachers knew that their generation hadn’t had the courage to rise up; we were standing up for them, too.
My brother, sister and I were all in college at the same time; the three of us marched together.
In this photo I took outside the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, you can see a banner that reads: “Universities for freedom.” You can also see students with their hands painted white in the air. As we marched beyond police lines, we raised up our hands and yelled: “We are students!”
It was our way of letting authorities know that we came in peace. Years later, when I covered the protests in Ferguson after the shooting death of Michael Brown, the chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” brought me back to this rally on the outskirts of Caracas in 2007.
Back to the Venezuelan protests, this time as a reporter - Sept. 2011
In 2008 I left my country and classmates with a scholarship to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After the Venezuelan Government closed the television network where I hoped to work, there was very little independent journalism left in Venezuela. But when I left, I promised myself I would use whatever platform I had in the U.S. to shed light on to what was happening back home.
This photo from a 2011 Univision interview I did with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez represents the first time I was able to make good on that promise.
When mass student protests erupted in Caracas again in February, 2014, the Venezuelan government was relentless in its effort to squelch the uprising. At least 41 people died and thousands of students were detained and tortured. I was there as Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader I interviewed years before, was arrested. I was one of the first foreign journalists to on the ground filing reports for Fusion and ABC News. When I returned from my reporting trip, the story of the Venezuelan protests made the cover of the New York Times. I had finally fulfilled my promise.
Michael Brown shooting, Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 2014
Months later, I found myself in a similar protest scenario. Young people were marching against injustice as anti-riot police repressed them with tear gas. Only this time it wasn’t in a “third-world” country, it was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Every night, young protesters came out in large numbers demanding justice for Michael Brown. Tensions rose as police force became increasingly excessive.
As I was reporting from a rally held by Rev Jesse Jackson in Ferguson, I realized many of the young protesters I had become acquainted with weren’t participating. When I asked them why, they said older civil rights activists were appropriating the movement but weren’t empowering new leaders within the community.
The void in leadership was being filled with emerging voices on social media.
Hong Kong protests, Sept.-Oct. 2014
The next youth movement I covered took me half way around the world. The “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong was by far the most peaceful and technologically advanced protest I’d come across. I never saw any armed protesters, and everyone was on their phones. In this photo, I was reporting from the working-class neighborhood of Mon Kok, which became a flashpoint for tensions between the younger protesters, too young to remember Tiananmen Square, and the older generation of Hong Kongers who wanted to maintain status quo on the island.
Mexico protests, Ayotzinapa, Oct. 2014
My next trip would take me to Iguala, a poor Mexican city in the state of Guerrero, where 43 students disappeared at the hands of cartel members working in conjunction with corrupt local authorities. The students were activists taught in radical leftist ideology. Their school in Ayotzinapa was filled with images of Che Guevara.
The disappearance of their 43 classmates sparked protests across the country. Young people were fed up with narcos colluding with local officials. The students burnt the municipal building and called for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s resignation.
Since the 43 students went missing, local search efforts led authorities to dozens of mass graves sites around Iguala. In this photo, my team and I were reporting on a recently discovered mass grave.
After having covered four major youth-protest movements around the globe this year, my faith in this generation is stronger than ever. We can change the world; but we’ll have to fight for it. The defiant act of rising up will be indispensable to the future we all want to see.
I think the message to take away from my journey is that each of us is powerful…no matter where we live, or the color of our skin. But we have to want to act.
We have to choose to take a stand, to speak up, to step forward, even when it means giving up certain comforts. Even when we think we’re alone, I’ve seen that one brave person is all it takes to raise an issue, to send a tweet, to spark a protest, to launch a movement for change.
Mariana Atencio is a globetrotting host and correspondent at Fusion. She is a Peabody, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gracie award-winning journalist covering stories that matter to real people.