Everywhere a Crackland
By Paulo Whitaker
Crack consumption is an epidemic in Brazil. In virtually every corner of the country there are users of the drug, so we decided to produce a photo essay to cover a wide geographic area. Seven photographers in seven cities during 24 hours. The story titled “24-7, Crack in Brazil” is about crack use in public view in 2014 World Cup host cities Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Manaus, Salvador da Bahia and Curitiba.
In most of the cities our research showed that users logically confine their consumption to areas with little police presence, such as alleys and deserted streets. In contrast, crack use is so widespread in Sao Paulo that users and dealers gather in the city center with no fear of the police.
Our first concern was safety. Addicts do not normally pose a danger but others involved, such as traffickers and police, will react if they sense our presence. I spent nearly a month in Sao Paulo revisiting the streets of a district known for a long time as “Cracolandia”, or “Crackland,” where I did a multimedia story in 2010. Early this year police routed the addicts and dealers from the two abandoned houses near the bus station where they used to hang out, but since then they have regrouped to other locations.
The city now has several mini Cracklands instead of just one. The difference now is that the police frequently patrol the largest of the new Cracklands, which is only six blocks from the original one. I managed to locate a resident of the neighborhood who agreed to allow me to use his apartment window to photograph from. The day I returned with my camera to take some test photos the police had decided to base a permanent patrol there, and the street was empty. I easily found the addicts’ new location just two blocks away, but I was faced with the task of finding a new place from where to work in safety.
In the first Crackland I worked from a hotel, but due to the owner’s involvement in the drug trade I had to keep the purpose of my stay a secret. In this new location I found another hotel where the owner was quick to accept the real purpose of my presence. He provided me with a room with the best view of the activity on the street. With a few meters of black cloth to drape over myself while shooting, I darkened the room to reduce reflections on the windows and to hide myself. With almost no streetlight I set my camera at ISO 12800, using anything from a 16mm lens to a 600mm. I was tense most of the time as my window faced a bar where traffickers were always hanging out, and anyone spotting me could put me in grave danger.
The most interesting scene I photographed was a young, well-dressed man arriving at around 2 am. Dealers approached him and sold him crack, which he smoked on the spot. I shot a photo of him taking off his watch and then joining a group of addicts sitting on the street.
A few days later I returned to the hotel to shoot some video for a multimedia piece, but when I arrived the owner called me aside to tell me that street merchants and staff at the bar knew that there were journalists in the area reporting on the users. He advised me to come back another week because if they saw me shooting I’d be in serious trouble.
Crack has a quick, devastating effect on people of all walks of life. It’s a trip that’s easy to go on, but very hard to get off of.
Here are comments from the other photographers who contributed to this project:
Edison Vara in Porto Alegre:
I began the search for crack users before dawn on March 19 with my son Diego, also a photojournalist. It didn’t take long to find a place with users, but it did take a while to get close enough to talk to two street dwellers with pipes in their hands. At first Rafael, a 24-year-old former metal worker who now lives on the street smoking crack, wanted money from us to buy the drug. We refused and when I asked him if he wanted something to eat he yelled, “No! We just want crack, and we only have one rock.” Rafael and his friend Thiago agreed to let us photograph them, so while Diego photographed I brought the car close and kept it running in case of any emergency.
Suddenly a boy who looked no more than 12 years old appeared with one arm in a cast. He began screaming, “You’re going to screw us, taking photos smoking crack!” We were sure he was sent by dealers who were observing us from a distance. Next to them was a homeless man lying on pieces of foam and covered with a blanket so he wouldn’t appear in our pictures. Only later did we discover that he was a dealer selling in the neighborhood. We managed good photos, but after 30 years as a photographer I have to admit that it was degrading to watch youths throwing away their lives.
We moved on to another neighborhood until we came across a man and a pregnant woman sleeping on the sidewalk. They discovered our presence and reacted quickly, and when friends of theirs began to appear we carefully “left” the area with no time for explanations.
Checking out another tip in the Humaita neighborhood, we noticed people coming and going in the entrance to an abandoned factory. We called one of them over to talk, and after explaining that we wanted to photograph for a news report three of them accepted to allow us in. It was very dark inside and only 100 meters from a favela with many dealers, we worked quickly and managed the photos. The feeling we shared was one of having completed the assignment, but with great sadness for seeing human beings in that situation.
Rodolfo Buhrer in Curitiba:
After a lot of searching in the crack area I found a woman named Carolina, willing to help us with the story. From one of her windows I had a privileged view of addicts smoking crack, as well as dealers and prostitutes roaming freely in the neighborhood. I arrived at her home in the early afternoon and photographed the first consumers in full daylight. I remained there shooting for the next six hours, until well into the night.
At one point when the addicts displayed great nervousness after consuming a considerable quantity of crack, they began to look repeatedly in my direction. Nervous myself, I began sweating and breathing harder.
Every time I saw someone lighting a pipe I would hold my breath and shoot. After the first few photos I felt both shocked and saddened by what I was seeing. The reaction that crack produces in consumers is extreme. They become restless, changing their clothes constantly, and always searching for another crack rock that may have fallen on the ground. It’s very sad to witness this. At the end of the night they just disappeared.
Bruno Kelly in Manaus:
Crack is not as widely used in Manaus as in other parts of the country, and that made it harder to find a public place of consumption. I learned from one source that addicts gather before dawn to smoke at a certain plaza in the city center, but when I arrived there I heard unfortunate news; A man had been found dead there earlier, so it was not going to be a normal night.
Instead of trying to photograph from afar, I decided to speak to an addict first, but he immediately recognized me as a journalist and took off. Almost immediately a young man who had the physical appearance of a minor appeared and he began to talk about himself. He was 23 years old, once imprisoned for stealing a mobile phone, and now a regular crack user because he found the effect stronger and more intense than other drugs he had tried.
A strange car passed by from time to time, and my greatest fear was of being caught by the police. I didn’t want to create problems for the addict, and I also had no idea what kind of attitude they would take with my presence. A short time later two skinny and badly-dressed women appeared at the plaza and began to smoke crack. The same car passed again and the women finished their rocks. It was just another dawn in the center of Manaus.
Ricardo Moraes in Rio:
Rio’s Cracklands are inside favelas, which makes photographing them much more difficult and dangerous. The one that harbors the most crack addicts is Jacarezinho, also one of the most violent. Crack is a new phenomenon here because until recently the criminal gangs prohibited it as a drug which becomes addictive too quickly, and doesn’t yield big profits. With the recent war on trafficking and the growth of paramilitary militias expelling gangs from the area, all this has changed and the communities have degenerated.
Instead of trying to photograph from a distance through a car window, I initially arranged to enter a favela with the permission of the local gang leader, but a few days before the assignment there was a battle for control of the market and my contact was lost. The only strategy left was to work from inside a taxi.
The day of the assignment I began before dawn to search for addicts in the streets of the city center, a little safer than a favela and far from the control of gangs. As I circulated with a driver we had a scare; A man who had been observing us driving around a square where there were crack users jumped out from behind a tree and tried to attack us with a stone. He was so drugged that he barely hit a tire with the stone, and we sped away.
We continued to search and found some addicts under a train bridge. It was only while editing the photos later that I spotted a few dealers pointing at us. I also discovered that they had disappeared from the following photos. We never new the risk we were in.
Late into the night we returned to the place where I had managed first contact with the gang leader, and that was where we met an addict who accepted being photographed. He was already high but I photographed him smoking crack behind the building where he lives. When he asked for money for more crack, I got up and left.
Lunae Parracho in Salvador da Bahia:
After several failed attempts to photograph crack addicts during the day, it was 8 pm and I only had four hours left. I called a “brother” who said he had a “brother” who knew a guy in the historic city center. We were led from one alley into another and into a bar where a gang was playing dominoes for money. The place was eerie, but strangely familiar. A Worker’s Party logo was painted on one wall, and on the other a scene of a tropical island with palm trees and boats on a beach.
The brothers talked it over with a local crack dealer as I got a drink and ate a boiled egg. What seemed like an hour passed until one of them came back to tell me that the photos were authorized as long as the dealer himself didn’t appear and the place wasn’t recognizable.
It was close to 10 pm and I grabbed my backpack and met the guys in the alley where the crackheads usually smoke. There were five there in the alley, the oldest of whom said that he’d been in the life of crack for more than 20 years, and that it’s a dead end. He said he’d tell me more after taking a “shot.”
A woman told me I could photograph all of them because everyone already knew they are crack heads, and that nothing matters anymore. I got close enough to use a 24mm lens and they smoked as if I wasn’t even there. The smell of the burning rock was strong and other users appeared and approached. Only then did I learn that after the “shot” comes paranoia, and the story changes. It was as if I was suddenly in another place, with different people.
Two of them came to my “brother” and asked him for money. The woman who spoke calmly before suddenly also wanted money and threatened to break our car. Others surrounded the dealer and demanded more rocks. He tried to show he was still in control, but then told us to move fast to the car, and he climbed in with us. We were forced to leave without finishing the assignment or interviews I had planned. But we were alive.
(View a large format gallery of the images here)