There are 3,000 shoe-shiners who go out into the streets of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, each day in search of clients. They are all ages and have become a unique phenomenon: what distinguishes this tribe is their use of ski masks to avoid being recognised by those around them.

The masks have their origins in the trade’s cut‑throat nature. In the 1980s, newcomers started to work on the patches of more established shoe-shiners in strategic corners of the city, angering them; so they wore masks, shone fast and ran away if noticed.

Later, in the 1990s, people started assuming these masked shoe-shiners were hiding their faces because they were criminals — using drugs or committing robberies. The stigma of being a shoe-shiner grew; now it is considered the worst job in Bolivia, so all of them hide their identity.

In their neighbourhoods, no one knows that they work as shoe-shiners, they keep their jobs secret at school and, in many cases, even their own families believe they do something different when they head down to the centre of La Paz from El Alto, a neighbouring city.

The mask is their strongest identity: what makes them invisible but at the same time unites them. This collective anonymity makes them tougher when facing the rest of society and is their resistance against the exclusion they suffer.

Shoe-shiners may be as young as five — including abandoned children — and there are those in their seventies too. Most are men, but there are also women. There are immigrants from the rural areas of Bolivia and high-school students working to help their poor families. Young mothers shine shoes to help their parents.

A shoe-shiner runs from El Alto to La Paz

Many do the work only temporarily, perhaps while studying or to complement their income. I have met a mechanic and a lawyer who were shoe-shiners in their younger years.

Their equipment consists of a brush, shoe polish (betún) and a wooden box, which acts both as a case and a rest for the customer’s foot. On the boxes they put photos of family or football players or of themselves working, along with stickers and decorations. Their hands get really dirty, so they go to a shelter to clean them and come home as if after a day in the office.

For three years, I have been collaborating with 60 shoe-shiners associated with the NGO Hormigón Armado, which works to protect the younger ones from exploitation, on the creation of a photo essay inspired by graphic novels. This shows the shoe-shiners as the superheroes they are: I can attest that there are shoes in Bolivia that dazzle thanks to their superpowers. (The shoe-shiners’ nickname is hormiga, or ant, so the NGO’s name means Armed Ant, suggesting their strength.)

We planned the scenes during a series of workshops, incorporating the local elements of El Alto, and then staged the shoots. Hormigón Armado will use the images I’ve shot as postcards, selling them to the tourists in La Paz, and will produce a photobook with the full series. The money from these sales will provide a more certain income for the shoe‑shiners’ families.

“The Shine Heroes” photobook is available at federicoestol.com/shineheroes

Shine Heroes will be at FORMAT21 from March 12 www.formatfestival.com

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