Chile protests – young guy standing in the middle of the street, covering his face in front of a small fire. The air is filled with tear gas and smoke.
All photos: Aurian Merlin Cerise.

Photos of a Youth Revolution That Succeeded

Photojournalist Aurian Merlin Cerise documented the Chilean student movement that elected Gabriel Boric, the country's youngest president ever.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Back in October 2019, Belgian photojournalist Aurian Merlin Cerise was visiting a friend in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when neighbouring Chile began sliding toward widespread social unrest. Within days, what began as a student-led protest against the rising costs of public transport in the capital of Santiago turned into a nationwide mass demonstration against inequality, corruption and the quality of life in the country.


A month on – and despite brutal attempts to quash the movement – the protesters had achieved more than what many had thought was possible. The government agreed to one of the protesters’ key demands: they’d organise a referendum to let voters chose whether to keep or discard the country’s constitution, written under Chile’s former far-right dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution created an electoral system biased in favour of incumbents, which disincentivized politicians from listening to voters and common people from running for office. It also enshrined radical neoliberal principles into law, making the provision of social rights – including to water, healthcare and education – the responsibility of private services rather than the state. These principles turned Chile into one of the wealthiest and most investment-friendly countries in South America, but they also created massive inequality and discontent.

A year after the protests, the 2019 movement for constitutional reform won the vote. Not only that – Chileans arguably elected the most progressive constitutional assembly in the history of the world, with half of its members being women and a third representatives from Indigenous communities. The assembly is still at work, and is set to centre average people’s needs and environmental protection among the country’s new fundamental principles.


In December 2021, Chile also elected its new leader. Gabriel Boric, 35, came up through student protest movements with a progressive agenda, campaigning on promises to institute high-quality, free education for all. He’s now the youngest president in the world.

Chile protests – protesters climbing up on a tower and waiving different flags.

The protesters waved a number of flags, including the rainbow coloured Aimara wiphala flag of the indigenous people in Bolivia and the yellow, red, black, green and white flag of the Mapuche indigenous people of Chile and Argentina.

But back in 2019, when photojournalist Merlin was about to head to Santiago, nobody knew these historic wins were right around the corner. The clashes between the protesters and the carabineros, the Chilean police, quickly became extremely violent. Over thirty people were killed and thousands more injured. People reported being raped by the police, blinded on purpose by rubber bullets, kidnapped and tortured. 

“Before long, I’d lost any notion of neutrality, even though I was documenting a reality without personally participating,” Merlin said. “Every town I passed through was turned inside out. The repression I saw was violent and unjust.” Eventually, a nation-wide curfew was set and a state of emergency declared to prevent people from gathering on the streets. “Only a few well-off neighbourhoods and rural communities were spared from the mayhem,” Merlin continued.

Eventually, the circumstances proved too dire for Merlin to remain removed from the scenes he was documenting. During one of the protests, while the police was charging at the crowd, he sustained a head injury, although he doesn’t know exactly who dealt the blow. The next day, Merlin decided to quit his job reporting for a news agency and help out people from the movement he’d previously met.


In time, the events in Chile became an inspiration for progressive movements worldwide, especially over these past two years marked by the pandemic. After all, the issues at play in the Chilean revolution go beyond the country’s own political problems. “Globalised neoliberalism and the inequalities it causes concern everyone,” Merlin said. “I might not be Chilean, but I was overcome by the sense of a shared fight against injustice. I felt I was exactly where I needed to be.”

Scroll down to see more of Merlin’s pictures of the time:

Chile protests – A group of young people wearing gas masks, sunglasses and goggles, walking in different directions.

protesters wore goggles and face coverings to protect themselves from tear gas and rubber bullets.

Chile protests – protester with a helmet, sunnies and a red bandana on their face, holding a sign while people are gathered behind them.

Protester holding a chilean flag which reads "Wake up, Chile. The dictatorship is called neoliberalism"

Chile protests – black and white photo of people running in different directions.

Protesters running towards the police barricade to take control of a monumental square formally known as Italy Square and later symbolically renamed Dignity Square by the movement

Chile protests – man in a white tank top and a bandana which covers his face, peaking over a building onto an empry street.

Someone looking over a wall onto a barricaded street.

Chile protests – people gathered around a bonfire.

During his trip, Merlin met and became close with a lot of people in the movement.

Chile protests – black and white photo of a protester with their face covered, throwing something up in the air.

Within days of them starting, the protests spread to all main cities in the country.

Chile protests – black and white photo of a shirtless man sitting on a chair with his laptop on his lap, showing off a tattoo reading "resistencia", resistance.

Merlin showing off his tattoos which he got from local artists he befriended.

Chile protests – black and white posters by indigenous women's collectives. Four show women's topless bodies, one reads "We are the indigenous women you couldn't colonise" and the other "We are the invisible resistance".

The protest saw a huge participation from indigenous groups that have been historically ignored and discriminated against by Chile's governments.

Chile protests – people wearing red suits, red helmets, sunglasses, gas masks and carrying white anti-riot shields with crosses, reading red cross.

Even the medical personnel – mostly composed of volunteers – helping injured protesters had to show up in protective gear for fear of the police.

Chile protests – black and white picture of two guys sitting on a bench in front of a police barricade.

The police sectioned off vast areas of the city to prevent protesters from freely moving through the streets.

Chile protests – two guys looking over a bridge full of graffiti.

Santiago's metro became one of the movement's main targets. Management would shut down all lines exactly at the time of the scheduled demonstrations, making life very difficult for protestors who needed the service to take to the streets.

Chile protests – black and white picture of protesters moving the bench they were sitting on as the police begins to charge at them

The police repression was so brutal it was condemned by international organisations including the UN.

Chile protests – black and white photo of posters depicting faces of men and women, mostly clergy, and their names.

Posters of dissidents who disappeared during the chilean dictatorship and never accounted for.

Chile protests – Protesters looking at a clash from a safe distance.

Besides those directly attacked during the clashes or their aftermath, many people were traumatised by the violence they saw happening in the streets.

Chile protests – protester standing on top of a bus stop and waving a chilean flag while a sea of people walk by.

The protests involved many different groups – student organisations, various political groups but also many unaffiliated young people.

Chile protests – Old man with long hair and a beard, holding a sign in one hand and a chain wrapped against his neck in the other.

A protester holding a sign protesting Chile's privatised pension system.

Chile protests – group of people digging up rocks and bricks from the ground to throw them at the police.

Some of the protesters threw rocks at the police in response to their violent repression.

Chile protests – photos of people standing around a square. The air is thick and smokey from tear gas and small fires.

People watching by as the protesters attacked the police's main precinct in Santiago on the 4th of January, 2020

Chile protests – A sign on the side of the motorway heading to Santiago.

Aurian Merlin Cerise decided to hitch-hike from Buenos Aires to Santiago to meet people on the road and get a sense of where he was heading.

Chile protests – A couple standing next to a tent at a gas station.

Some of the people Merlin met on his hitch-hiking trip