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.