Jose Cabezas

Jose Cabezas

San Salvador, El Salvador
Los Angeles, United States
“Technical knowledge is useless if you lack the sensitivity to understand people and connect with them. It’s a privilege to record their lives.”


Breaking news, business, daily life.

One Shot

. San Salvador, El Salvador. Reuters/Jose Cabezas
A woman kisses a suspected gang member as he is arrested during an anti-gang operation in San Salvador, June 21, 2015. The Salvadoran police and army took part in the search following an attack in which gang members killed two soldiers, local media reported. El Salvador’s police blamed a spike in murders on gang violence, which included dozens of attacks on police officers as well as brutal assaults on bus drivers.
“Police started to load suspects onto a pick-up truck. A young woman suddenly jumped into the vehicle to sit right beside her boyfriend, a man that police were interrogating. She embraced and kissed him very tenderly even though policemen were yelling at her. She refused to part from her boyfriend and left with the group. I was taken aback at this great display of love amid a very violent situation. I found her expression of love and pain very shocking.”


My earliest memory of photography is of family slide shows. My father is an agricultural engineer and a very enthusiastic amateur photographer who loved to take pictures with slide film. He had a projector and when he had his film developed it was a family event. It was just magical watching our family pictures projected in our living room on a massive scale.

I learnt the basics of photography at journalism school in El Salvador and then in a photography school in the United States. I started my photojournalism career as an intern on a Salvadoran newspaper.

I wanted to be a photographer to witness how history is made. Photography is history and I wanted to be in the first row. I grew up in a country at war as during the 1980s El Salvador was in the middle of violent turmoil. News was scarce and my parents tried to protect us from the reality of the violence. History was in the making but we were not able to watch.

For my first assignment I teamed up with a writer on a story about a teacher who had stabbed a student. The children saw me with my camera and asked me for a picture. When I pointed my camera they started to make hand signs of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang. I was very shocked to realise that this was the role model these children had at home. It was like losing my innocence at this very first contact with gang culture.

The assignment that left the biggest mark on me has been documenting the surge of violence in El Salvador after a truce between street gangs broke down. It was the biggest challenge for me on both a professional and a personal level. I had never faced a situation like this before: more than 6,000 people killed in a single year. It was a very sad and emotionally demanding experience every day.

The numbers are overwhelming. But beyond the cold statistics, there are so many people affected: a daughter, a son, a father, a husband, a wife...

Taking pictures in this context is quite a challenge. Even more difficult is to understand and deal with the invisible borders and codes set by gang members, police and all sides in an underground conflict. Covering conflict elsewhere in the world is one thing, but to do so in the country where you grew up, witnessing the pain and destruction caused by violence, is another thing entirely.

Every assignment is important because it’s a chance to learn something, meet new people, and transmit that experience through photography.

As photojournalists we are the eyes of history, recording events around us. Put all these pictures together and you have a global document of human life. That’s important for generations to come, helping them to avoid the mistakes of the past and to inspire them for the future.

The biggest lesson I've learnt is that no matter what happens, life goes on. No matter how violent or tragic events are, people are always going to celebrate life by getting together to fight against adversity and to survive through a series of small, everyday actions.

I admire and respect my father, because he transmitted his enthusiasm and love for photography and his commitment to El Salvador and its people.

I also have great respect for my fellow photographer, filmmaker and friend Christian Poveda. I admired him very much, not least because he showed such kindness in sharing his experience with me, and many others. He was killed by gang members in September 2009.