Prior to arriving I knew this would be a tough country to wander in with its well known crime and poverty but I honestly wasn't expecting it to be harder than traveling alone in India. Here, I met with numerous attempts to rob me, my bank account was hacked, and I was confronted by the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro. It left a bad taste in my mouth but ironically only left me wanting to experience more of this country and come to understand it. The learning curve is steep but it's a beautiful place unlike any other in the world and absolutely worth the trouble.
First, my trip was way too short. I was in South America a little less than a month. In Brazil, I was only able to explore the environs of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I discovered this just isn't enough time to to get the kinds of shots I came to get. A higher degree of intimacy is required. My trip was a bummer in that sense but a valuable learning experience nonetheless.
Uncharacteristically awful weather the first few days. I ventured up to Christ the Redeemer regardless and actually found this different view to be quite beautiful in its own way. I was the only one up there, willing to waste a few Real's to "see nothing."
The cable car up to the peak of Pao de Acucar in such weather proved an equally weird and different view of the usually blue skies and paradise views of sun drenched mountains and surf.
Brazil is a gigantic, unwieldy beast. The culture and language are virtually impenetrable to the uninitiated outsider. It's a place with as many romantic qualities as horrible—a tropical paradise but one laced with poverty stricken hillside shanty towns built so dense the sun can barely reach the barred windows below. As for the Brazilians I met, I encountered such warmth, kindness, and free spirited joie de vivre but also distrust, suspicion, and occasionally those seeking to enrich themselves at my expense. It takes time to get in sync with Brazil's rhythms but it is possible and I learned a lot about this from an interesting character I met in Rio by the name of Don Blanquito, "the bravest gringo in Rio," one of few non-Brazilians in the country's home grown funk music scene.
Through Don I realized the commitment it takes to fully wrap one's head around this place. To understand Brazil, one must become Brazilian. I didn't have that kind of time, I only had about a month so shooting here proved to be an enormous challenge.
The first few days were difficult. Without even having a camera out, everyone spots the gringo a mile away which makes it very difficult to photograph in the streets even with small, discrete equipment. This has nothing to do with the shade of your skin because the entire gamut of the human race is represented in Brazil but everyone knows you're not from around here.
Whenever I'm shooting a new place, I always try and go it alone at first just to see what I can get it. If it's impossible, I'll enlist the help of a local fixer or guide. This is always a mixed bag as these people give you access to places you would never be able to go alone but they almost always try and rip you off, take advantage of you, or just waste your time taking you to places you have no interest in. It's a difficulty I would choose to avoid if possible however it rarely is. After getting escorted out of the favela above Copacabana by the cops, I realized it wasn't much of a choice.
First of all Rio, is a stunningly beautiful city. It takes your breath away and if you happen to be on top of a high hill as the sun sets, you'll hear people clapping as the sky turns orange in that final moment of the sun's light.
It's unfortunately carved out of pristine Atlantic rain forest, though much of it survives today and parts of the city feel like they're built in the jungle. It's third world and modern, it has a vibe like New York meets Miami meets New Orleans but is still unlike any other city. For all it's luxury high rises and posh neighborhoods there are even more favelas, shantytowns illegally carved out of the hillsides. There are as many as 700 of these settlements in Rio and because of the World Cup and Olympics, some of them are being integrated into the city proper. One of these so called "pacified" favelas is Rocinha, the largest in Brazil and once the most dangerous slum in Latin America.
Rocinha is absolutely massive and denser than any slum like it that I saw in India or Southeast Asia. While it's rapidly changing, even gentrifying some would say, it's still a very dangerous place. I was able to find a guy who grew up there and for a very reasonable price, enthusiastically agreed to show me around.
The closer to the bottom of the hill, the safer and more expensive it is in Rocinha. The further up and more inconvenient, the cheaper and more dangerous. At the very top, it's still possible to hack out a small plot from the trees and build your own house. Ironically, at the bottom of the hill is Sao Conrado, one of Rio's most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods. Because of the proximity to quality services and infrastructure built for the rich people there, the quality of life at the base of the favela is rapidly increasing.
Because of the strong police presence in Rocinha the neighborhood has been deemed "pacified." While most of the people who live Rio's favelas are normal working people just trying to make ends meet, there is always an element of crime. A pacified favela is one where the influence of drug trafficking gangs has been largely minimized and been deemed safe for civilians. The situation between Brazil's gangs and the government remains for all intents and purposes, a state of undeclared civil war. The Federal Police's response to organized crime in these areas is ruthless and shootings are common.
Mototaxi's take people up and down the paved parts of the hills in Rocinha night and day. The further you go up, the steeper and more narrow the passageways become, eventually inaccessible to vehicles. Because of poor access, in the event of fires and other emergencies, there's often little that can by the authorities.
Imagine building a three-story house with no dump truck. I find the logistics and the odds stacked against settlements like these fascinating. People needs a place to call home and where there's a will there's a way. There's no stopping these things.
The favelas are their own world. Dark and intimidating in places but warm and inviting in others. They have their own culture and economy and I encountered pride in the fact that many here carved out their own life in their own way. Social inequality is an enormous problem in Brazil and lack of access to basic education and economic opportunity are the strongest correlations to the crime that too many have just accepted as a part of life here.
I met these cool young dudes on the way out of Rocinha and they showed me some incredible capoeira moves. Their enthusiasm, positive vibes, and outright friendliness towards an outsider was extremely refreshing.
From Rio I traveled to Sao Paulo, an even bigger megacity with a metro population over 20 million. I love big cities and was expecting to like SP but instead discovered a polluted, dangerous, endless sea of drab gray buildings.
Within the first 12 hours of arriving in Sao Paulo someone tried to grab my phone right out of my hands. Because of thieves, I had an even harder time shooting here than in Rio and was unable to find a solid contact who would take me to the parts of the city I knew would pay off. There's a tragically interesting area called Cracolandia that just saying the name, Paulistas would scoff. There was no way to gain access in such a short period of time and honestly, trying to shoot there would have been a bad idea, even with local protection. Brazil's stories are perhaps best left to Brazilians to tell. The culture and language barriers are massive for an outsider and without a command over them, probing deeper here is a dangerous prospect.
One thing that immediately struck me about this city is that it's covered in spray paint. There are many beautiful murals but also a lot of what looked like ugly, visual polluting tags that I learned are called pichacao.
These are encrypted letters only legible to other pichacao writers. Sometimes gang related but not always, the notorious Comando Verhelmo, who still operate openly in this city have been known to write them. More often than not, they're a form of political and social protest and pichacao crews will free climb the sides of tall building to write them. The higher one goes, the more prestige and I was shocked to see 30 story office towers completely covered in tags.
Brazil is a fascinating place but I left it feeling like I didn't get it photographically, also realizing what "getting it" would entail. I would need a lot more time and If I were to do another trip here it will be one focusing on Amazonas and Agri-Business there. I have the burning desire to see the extent of its environmental devastation. Maybe it's not as bad as I suspect but for some reason I doubt it.
There's a common thread emerging from this work I've been doing for the past year and a half now and that is the culture of extreme poverty and how it relates to the world's densest urban areas—Megacities, megaslums, and their impact on society and environment. This is what I realized I've been exploring. What will come of all this work down the road, I'm not sure just yet but I feel compelled to keep going with it.